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Patriots ground game won’t run from challenge presented by Jets’ front seven

10.16.13 at 5:24 pm ET
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Stevan Ridley will lead the Patriots ground game against the Jets Sunday. (AP)

Stevan Ridley will lead the Patriots ground game against the Jets Sunday. (AP)

FOXBORO — Few teams have seen more of a dramatic statistical turnaround from one season to the next than the Jets and their run defense.

In 2012, New York was one of the worst teams in the league when it came to stopping the run — the Jets yielded an average of 133.6 rushing yards per game, 26th in the league. This year, through six games, that number has dropped to 75.7 rushing yards per game, second in the NFL. That includes holding the Patriots to a season-low 54 yards in their September meeting — the one game New England won this season while running for less than 100 yards as a team.

Defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson (6-foot-4, 315 pounds), nose tackle Damon “Snacks” Harrison (6-foot-4, 350 pounds) and rookie Sheldon Richardson (6-foot-2, 294 pounds) have helped create one of the more underrated defensive fronts in the league, and create a sizable challenge for the New England running game this week.

“I think we’ve got an outstanding group in the front seven,” said Jets coach Rex Ryan. “They’re young, and they’re kind of maturing together. It starts with Muhammad Wilkerson and then the nose tackles, obviously ‘Snacks’ – Damon Harrison – and Kenrick Ellis have done a good job for us, and Sheldon Richardson, so all the big guys up front have done a decent job in the run, and then I think we’ve got as good a middle linebacker as there is in the league in David Harris. I think he’s done an outstanding job for us.”

“They’re all pretty big, physical guys,” said quarterback Tom Brady on New York, which allows a league-low three yards per carry. “They have some really good players over there, especially in the front. [They have] good run technique, and certainly a lot of their scheme is built to stop the run.”

One of the keys to the Jets success against the run is their good numbers on first down. Through the first six games, New York is best in the league when it comes to first-down defense, allowing an average of 3.41 yards per play on first down. They’ve faced 158 first downs, and allowed 538 yards. (By way of comparison, Cleveland is second at 3.74 yards per play on first down. The league average is 5.48, and the Patriots are 27th overall, yielding an average of 6.12 yards on first down.)

Their successes on first down create a domino effect for the rest of the defense. A run of three yards or less on first down creates second-and-long situations, and that certainly isn’t a running play. With the defense aware that they’ve likely made you a one-dimensional team, they’re free to unleash blitz packages — a Ryan favorite.

“[That] leads to second-and-longs and third-and-longs, and then they get their blitz packages going,” Brady said. “You can’t really fall asleep at any point against this defense because they have a lot of negative plays in the run game.”

Success in the running game for the Patriots will likely hinge on limiting those negative plays, particularly early on. New England has run 430 offensive plays this year in six games — not counting kneeldowns, 33 have been for negative yardage. (That’s up from 26 negative plays from scrimmage through the first six games of the 2012 season.) Of the 83 plays on Sunday against the Saints, a season-high 10 went for negative yardage — five sacks of Brady as well as two negative runs by LeGarrette Blount, one negative run each from Brandon Bolden and Stevan Ridley, and a negative reception from Danny Amendola.

The Patriots could also use the aggressive nature of the Jets defensive front to their advantage by ratcheting up their play-action game. The quickest way to get a defense on its heels would be through multiple play fakes, something New England has used with success in the past. There’s also the possibility of utilizing screens, fakes and draw plays.

Ultimately, over the first six games of the year, while the numbers in the passing game have fluctuated wildly for New England, a fairly reliable barometer of their success can be seen in their ability to run the ball. Ridley, Blount, Bolden and Shane Vereen have all provided support over the course of the season as the Patriots have averaged 120.5 rushing yards per game, good for 11th in the league, and the Patriots are 4-0 when they top 100 yards on the ground. If they want to get to 6-1 on the season, chances are good they’ll have to get a steady and consistent performance out of their ground game on Sunday in New Jersey.

“They’re a really good first-down defense. They usually put a lot of people in second-and-long yardage. It’s one of the things we have to prevent. It’s one of the things that we have to make sure that doesn’t happen to us too often,” Blount said. “They’re doing something right — they’re ranked in the Top 5 in the league in rush defense. They’re dong something right. But we’re going to continue to look at film and hopefully find some things that they’re not doing as well and we can exploit them.”

Read More: Brandon Bolden, LeGarrette Blount, Rex Ryan, Shane Vereen
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