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New England Patriots Final Grades: Run Defense

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This is the final installment in my series of four posts grading the New England Patriots pass offense, run offense, pass defense, and now the run defense. The Patriots received an “A” for both parts of the offense, a “C-” for pass defense, and they will be receiving high marks for run defense in a season in which they were one of the top ten teams in every major rushing category on defense.

New England Patriots Run Defense A-

I almost bumped the grade up higher here, but I decided to stick with a still great “A-” as the final score for the Patriots run defense. I know my grades run high and maybe I should have knocked down the rushing offense a little bit, but there is no way that the Pats run defense deserves anything lower than a “B+” this year.

The Patriots held opponents to just 3.9 yards per carry, which was the sixth-best total in the NFL. Brandon Spikes. Jerod Mayo, Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, and, last but certainly not least, Vince Wilfork were some of the elite run-stopping forces at their respective positions. Dont’a Hightower, some members of the secondary, Kyle Love, and Jermaine Cunningham also provided some solid play against the run.

Although Spikes just missed my Pro Bowl/All-Pro cut due to some lapses in pass protection  (Spikes made my second team, though), Mayo was a clear selection for my first team. He not only exhibited his usual solid leadership on defense, but he was also a monster against the run and improved in coverage. Mayo is also one of the best 4-3 OLBs in the game at delayed blitzes, and we saw that first-hand with his play in the final few weeks of the season. The Miami Dolphins were clueless against Hightower and Mayo on such plays.

But let’s get back to run defense. Mayo is terrific against the run, but Spikes is even better as one of the most intimidating linebackers in the game. He was finally healthy for almost of all of the season, and he was able to consistently wreak havoc on opposing running back’s and interior offensive lines. He finished the year with 91 tackles and an incredible four fumbles forced.

Mayo’s numbers were just off the charts, as he also recorded four fumbles forced in addition to a ridiculous sum of 147 tackles. People used to overrate him due to the high tackle numbers, but he has actually become underrated now. He still carries the “overrated” tag, but what people haven’t noticed is that he has made huge improvements this season. You also don’t get to 147 tackles by sucking either, and Mayo has the best range of any OLB in this league (maybe even overall at the linebacker position). The man is a  monster.

The Patriots led the league this season with 21 recovered fumbles, and that credit mainly goes to Spikes, Vince Wilfork, Mayo, and Rob Ninkovich.

After a slow start to the season, some were wondering if Vince Wilfork was declining. He laughed at those people with a ridiculous second-half of the season, and he put on a clinic at the DT position during the final five weeks or so of the regular season. He’s still clearly one of the best defensive tackles in the game, and he is probably the best run-stopping DT.

Jones was one of the best rookies in a star-studded 2012 draft class, and his reputation isn’t earned as a pass rusher. Although he is certainly solid in that regard and has plenty of potential, he and Ninkovich earn their reputations as solid DEs in this league due to their incredible efforts in run defense. They consistently make big plays, force fumbles, and plug up rushing lanes.

The Patriots shut down some top running backs this season in Marshawn Lynch, the Buffalo Bills backs the first time out, Arian Foster, Chris Johnson, Willis McGahee, Steven Jackson, and Reggie Bush. The only times they played poorly against the run were in the game right after the bye week against the Bills (far too many missed tackles in the secondary), when they got stomped by Ray Rice early in the season, and in the all-around dreadful defensive performance against the San Francisco 49ers.

But that means the Patriots played well against the run in their other 13 games, and they held an entire team to under 100 yards rushing five times this season. Yeah, this run defense is pretty darn good.

You can follow Joe Soriano on Twitter @SorianoJoe.

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