How times have changed in just one year. Through seven weeks this season, New England hasn't allowed a single 100-yard rusher and has allowed only 633 total rushing yards, or 90 per game and 3.6 yards per carry. That defense has the Patriots on pace to allow 1,446 rushing yards, 752 less than last year and 47 less per game. Also, last year's defense allowed 62 runs of 10 yards or more and this year's has allowed just 16 through seven weeks, which puts them on pace to allow just 36 total.
"I think overall, we're playing better fundamentally across the board," coach Bill Belichick said a day after his team kept the clamps on Ricky Williams. "Our secondary is playing better in run force. Our defensive line and linebackers are playing better. No one player stops the run. It's good team defense."
There are certainly several new faces on the defense, but most of those are on the back end in the secondary. Other than rookie defensive linemen Ty Warren and Dan Klecko, the front seven remains the same, personnel-wise, as last year. But Sunday in Miami, the starting secondary featured Rodney Harrison and Eugene Wilson at safety and Tyrone Poole and Asante Samuel at cornerback, none of which were with the team last year when the secondary was a liability against the run and allowed several big plays on the ground.
The defense seemed to have the answer for Ricky Williams and the scheme presented Miami's offensive line with some difficult blocking assignments. The Patriots ran some five-man lines to make it difficult on the Dolphins' interior offensive linemen and then used the linebackers and ends to keep outside contain.
Williams had 290 rushing yards in the two meetings against the Patriots last year. Sunday, he needed overtime to reach 94. Through three-plus quarters, Williams had 16 carries for 57 yards, including an 18-yard run. Miami mounted a 17-play fourth quarter march and had two overtime possessions that helped Williams garner another 11 carries for 37 yards, but overall, 11 of his attempts netted one yard or less.
The Patriots showed some five-man fronts where they lined up head up on the guards and the center and loaded up with eight men in the box consistently. The five-man lines made it difficult on the Dolphin's interior offensive line while the linebackers and ends kept outside contain.
The Patriots made sure Williams didn't bounce to the edges of the defense and beat the run force on the outside. They forced him back into traffic where the linemen could clean him up. Warren led the linemen with seven tackles, but Bobby Hamilton and Richard Seymour combined for nine more. Safety Rodney Harrison was a force with 12 tackles, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and some big hits. The Patriots' defensive backs did such a solid job that New England was able to keep loading up against the run.
"Any time you give up long runs, that's the responsibility of the secondary," Belichick said. "Blame who you want in the first few yards, but the secondary is responsible for preventing long runs."
Belichick believes his defense is quicker and is simply playing better. "We haven't changed our philosophy," he said. "We're playing with better technique and with more consistency. We have better speed and that has helped us get to the outside quicker and that saves you a lot of yards."