Spotlighting the Patriots' run defense

October, 30, 2012
10/30/12
2:30
PM ET
Much of the talk surrounding the Patriots through one half of the regular season has centered around the offense and secondary, but there's another group worth mentioning and deserving of praise: the run defense.

In fact, it could be argued that the Patriots' run defense has been as good as any in football this season, as it's yielding just 3.5 yards per carry, the best figure in the NFL.

From a yards per game standpoint, the Patriots check in eighth at 88.6, an outstanding total that is nearly 30 yards per game better than the run defense allowed in 2011.

Beyond the yards allowed, the Patriots have minimized both big plays and touchdowns. They join the Texans as the only defenses to have not allowed a run of more than 20 yards this season, and the Patriots have given up just three rushing touchdowns through eight games. Couple those facts with an NFL-best seven forced fumbles and four fumbles recovered, and it's clear that this group has been a difference-maker for the Patriots in 2012.

Putting the numbers aside, here's one perspective on what's gone right based on film review.

DEFENSIVE LINE PLAY
The Patriots' defensive line starts with nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who is among the finest interior linemen in all of football. He continues to dominate at the point of attack, ably defeating single and double-team blocks, while showing an ability to move laterally to make plays. He's joined by Kyle Love, who has been a rock in the middle as well. Love has a similar build to Wilfork and aspects of his game are starting to shadow his mentor's. On the end, while Chandler Jones has made headlines for his work as a pass rusher, both he and Rob Ninkovich have excelled at setting the edge and decreasing running lanes for opposing backs. Ninkovich is particularly sturdy against the run, with good strength to take on tackles and tight ends.

LINEBACKER PLAY
We thought the starting trio of Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower had the makings of a powerful group during training camp, and despite Hightower's absence for nearly three games, they have not disappointed. All three classify as downhill players, which is to say that they have good instincts to seek out runs and attack rather than wait for the play to come to them. Spikes has really shown up as a thumper, driving several running backs backward with the ball in their hands. Mayo is the most versatile of the group, and most athletic too, with the ability to make plays from sideline to sideline. He trails only Chad Greenway of the Vikings for the NFL lead in tackles.

SECONDARY PLAY
While the safeties have made a contribution in the running game for the Patriots, it's been the work by the cornerbacks on the edge that seems to have really made a difference in 2012. Notably, Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington have shown a fervent willingness to step up into the play as run defenders and be forceful, reliable tacklers. That's one of the reasons that McCourty has smoothly transitioned to safety. The secondary isn't always thought of as it relates to run defense, but this group has lent a hand in keeping the Patriots' run D air tight throughout 2012.
Field Yates has previous experience interning with the New England Patriots on both their coaching and scouting staffs. A graduate of Wesleyan University (CT), he is a regular contributor to ESPN Boston's Patriots coverage and ESPN Insider.

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