New England Patriots Bye Week Review: Four Things We’ve Learned Through Week Four

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Sep 20, 2015; Orchard Park, NY, USA; Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy (25) runs with the ball and is tackled bt New England Patriots nose tackle Alan Branch (97) and defensive end Jabaal Sheard (93) during the second half at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Patriots beat the Bills 40-32. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

The offseason loss of veteran Vince Wilfork was presumed to be a major loss for the Patriots on the defensive line. After all, Sealver Siliga and Alan Branch are role players, Dominique Easley failed to impress before shutting it down in 2014, and Malcom Brown is still a rookie. Linebacker Jerod Mayo was presumed to be a key player in a run stuffing role at middle linebacker alongside Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower.

Brown has struggled–as expected–as a rookie while Dominique Easley flashed pass rush potential in week one before a hip injury slowed him. Siliga has been the best run defender up front while the veteran Alan Branch has played well in limited snaps. Collins and Hightower have been their usual solid helpers in the running game, but Mayo has spent much of the first three games standing on the sidelines other than in goal line situations.

Of course, the running game has hardly been a consideration of the New England defense. All three games have seen the Patriots leap out to early leads behind the precision passing attack of Tom Brady.

Sep 27, 2015; Foxborough, MA, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars running back T.J. Yeldon (24) carries the ball as New England Patriots outside linebacker Jamie Collins (91) defends in the second quarter at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

In week one, they led Pittsburgh 21-3 in the third quarter and made the Steelers one dimensional. In addition, they caught the Steelers without Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell.

Against Buffalo, the Patriots gladly let Buffalo run the ball and take time off the clock as they leaped out to a 37-13 lead after three quarters and were in the prevent defense all of the fourth quarter.

Against Jacksonville, New England came out with Siliga and Branch inside and focused on taking away the running game and forcing young quarterback Blake Bortles to try and match Brady throw for throw. The final score was 51-17 and the Jaguars managed just 57 yards on the ground on 20 attempts.

The Patriots run defense has been strong when they decide to try and stop it. Jabaal Sheard has been strong as a run-stopper, but Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich–usually so strong setting the edge–have struggled so far in 2015. No doubt that was a point of emphasis going into the Jacksonville game and both were much improved in their technique.

The Patriots will face a big test in week five against Dallas’ powerful offensive line and have the Jets’ strong running game, Lamar Miller, Alfred Morris, DeMarco Murray, Arian Foster, and another dose of LeSean McCoy on their schedule. It will be interesting to seen how the Patriots align their run defense over the course of the season.

So far in the bye week the Patriots have traded for middle linebacker Jonathan Bostic from the Bears, added massive defensive tackle Akiem Hicks from New Orleans via trade, and promoted defensive tackle Khyri Thornton from the practice squad. The Patriots clearly are looking to add bulk and run-stopping ability to the front seven and it will be interesting to see if these moves are geared primarily for the Cowboys game or a trend for the rest of 2015.