The New England Patriots second half surge has been fueled by their ability to stop the run. In their last six games, the Patriots have allowed 60 rushing yards per game. This Saturday in their Divisional playoff match-up with the Denver Broncos, the now-healthy run defense will face its stiffest challenge yet. The Broncos had the 2nd best rushing offense in the NFL, averaging 158.7 yards per game.
Denvers massive offensive line (their starters average almost 300 pounds each) provides lanes for running backs Mike Anderson (1,014 yards) and Tatum Bell (921 yards) to pound through. In the middle of their line is center Tom Nalen, a Foxborough native and Boston College product. Nalen is a five-time Pro Bowler who is tough and athletic, and has started every game for the Broncos over the last two years.
Lining up over Nalen in the Patriots 3-4 defense is second-year nose tackle Vince Wilfork. The Patriots 6'2", 344-pound first round draft pick in 2004 was supposed to replace big Ted Washington in the middle of the defense, but he started just six games in his rookie season. With Richard Seymour and Tedy Bruschi missing from the lineup, Wilfork struggled throughout the first half of this season, often getting pushed aside. Opposing running backs cruised through the holes left by Wilfork and the rest of the defensive line.
That all changed during the Kansas City game (a 26-16 loss in Week 12). Although Larry Johnson racked up 119 yards rushing, he needed 31 carries. The 3.8-yard average the Patriots held him to was his worst since taking over as the featured back for the injured Priest Holmes. Since that game, only the Dolphins Ricky Williams (against many of the Patriots back-ups in Week 17) has rushed for more than 30 yards against New England.
Wilfork has been winning the battle and gaining pressure up the middle, effectively shutting down the gaps on running plays. This has led to offensive linemen sliding in his direction, opening up rushing lanes for Willie McGinest and Rosevelt Colvin (9.5 sacks between them in the last 4 games).
Nalen has struggled in the past against 3-4 defenses that feature a big nose tackle, such as San Diegos Jamal Williams and Oaklands Ted Washington. Nalen, listed at 286 pounds, gives away 60 pounds or more to these bigger nose tackles. Wilforks sheer size -- and improved technique -- could give Nalen trouble. Teams running the 3-4 ended up with more sacks against the Broncos this year as well. In their 6 games versus the 3-4 Plummer was sacked 10 times. He was sacked just 12 times in Denvers other 10 games.
The battle in the trenches between Wilfork and Nalen could be where the game is won or lost on Saturday.
Darren is a regular contributor to Patriots Insider. You can find him in the forums under the name: DestinationSuperBowl. You can also find archives of his columns on the Insiders by searching for "Darren Kelly"