New England’s surprise victory over the Arizona Cardinals was on the back of one of their best defensive performances of the season to this point. New England held Arizona to their lowest point total and second-lowest yardage total of the season.
Arizona was given excellent starting field position on their first drive of the game, which resulted in a touchdown. On their next drive, they marched 68 yards and were successful on a field goal attempt. From that point on, New England held Arizona to just 7 points and less than 200 yards on seven drives.
The best part of the defensive performance was how New England held the Arizona running game in check. Other than a 15 yard scramble by the explosive Kyler Murray, Arizona ran the ball 33 times for 123 yards (3.73 yards per carry). The Patriots defensive line was ultimately the key to victory, as they won the battle with Arizona’s offensive line and didn’t allow an explosive run all game.
New England’s interior defensive line rotation of Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, Akeem Spence and Deatrich Wise Jr. all had strong performances, controlling the line of scrimmage for the majority of the game.
Arizona is one of the most frequent zone running scheme teams in the NFL, and they rely heavily on inside zone as a base. Part of defending inside zone is how the defensive line handles “combination” blocks. Combo blocks involve two offensive lineman initially double teaming a defensive lineman, only for one of the offensive lineman to eventually fall off the block to attack the linebacker.
You’ll notice on this rep that the two defensive lineman, Lawrence Guy and Akeem Spence, aren’t really getting pushed off the line of scrimmage despite taking on two players.
The Patriots linebackers were able to play most of the game without offensive lineman in their lap, due to the way that the defensive line handled these blocks. Linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley was able to get involved on all three of these tackles, being unblocked on each play because the defensive lineman took on two opponents.
When New England’s defensive lineman were getting “base” blocked, they handled the offensive lineman with physicality. On multiple occasions, Patriots defensive lineman were able to play two different gaps because they shed the block of Cardinals left tackle D.J. Humphries after getting the running back to decide on which gap to run through.
Even when Arizona had some success blocking on certain inside running plays, New England was able to squeeze the running lane and create piles. Once again, it was Lawrence Guy and Deatrich Wise Jr. handling their blocks and suffocating the run.
On one particularly impressive rep, Adam Butler was able to use a back-door swim move on the offensive guard, chasing down the zone run from the backside of the play.
Run defense is a team effort, and the New England linebacker core played one of their better games of the season as well. Players like Ja’Whaun Bentley and Terez Hall made positive impacts against the run.
On top of that, New England often used the disciplined John Simon as the player responsible for Kyler Murray on “read” type plays. Simon was clearly coached to play extra wide, encouraging Murray to give the ball to the running backs.
On the following play, you’ll see how New England influenced Murray with Simon and speedy linebacker/safety hybrid Adrian Phillips to the backside. Phillips does a great job of waiting to see the handoff before shooting an open gap to make the tackle.
Arizona ran one of New England’s favorite running plays against them, the “pin and pull” toss. New England linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley avoided getting pinned by ripping over the top of the block, allowing him to scrape towards the play.
Rookie safety Kyle Dugger ran a perfect “banana” path while tracking the running back’s back hip. The end result was the two young defenders guiding the run out of bounds.
Dugger wasn’t the only defensive back making an impact against the run, as all-pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore got in on the fun. Gilmore was matched up with star wide receiver Deandre Hopkins for most of the game, and twice Arizona decided to use Hopkins on a crack block.
When a wide receiver performs a crack block, cornerbacks are taught to replace the block, meaning set the edge and now become the contain player. On the first one, Gilmore was in position and forced Kyler Murray out of bounds.
On the second one, Gilmore was aggressive and forced the play back to the inside, where a swarm of pursuing Patriots tracked down Cardinals running back Kenyan Drake. That play would prove to be a massive one, as it came on a 3rd and 2 late in the game and forced Arizona to kick the field goal.
As you know, Arizona would miss that ensuing field goal attempt. New England capitalized on the field position by getting into their own field goal range, hitting the game-winner as time expired for the win.
That sequence doesn’t happen without a contribution from Gilmore and the rest of the Patriots run defense, which is something that can’t always be said about other star cornerbacks.
When New England’s defensive line controls a game as well as they did against Arizona, there isn’t a team in the NFL that they can’t defeat. If the Patriots are going to make a serious run to get into playoff contention, the defensive line and run defense will need to continue being a stout unit.