In case you haven’t heard, the New England Patriots run defense has been something of a mess over the last two weeks. The Patriots are allowing a staggering 7.64 yards per carry since Week 13, which is an undeniably horrible figure. At first glance, this drop in production appears to directly correlate with defensive tackle Danny Shelton hitting the inactive list.
Initially acquired in an off-season trade with the Cleveland Browns, Shelton was brought in to be a run-stuffing presence along the interior. While he hasn’t played up to his potential, the Patriots need him back in the defensive tackle rotation. The correlation between his absence and the Patriots inability to stop the run is no coincidence and no fluke. There’s enough of a sample to know that, one way or another, Shelton needs to be a significant part of this defensive line rotation.
Danny Shelton Needs To Play Again
As previously mentioned, the Patriots defense has struggled against the run in each of the past three weeks without Shelton. However, looking at stats at face value can often lead to misleading information. Shelton is an interior defender, so he’s only responsible for stopping runs up the middle. Fortunately, using SharpFootballStats.com, we’re able to see how the Patriots did on a week-by-week basis against interior running plays.
In this case, the advanced data only confirms that Shelton’s absence has had a drastic effect on New England’s overall effectiveness. As previously mentioned, Shelton missed each of the last three games. However, the first-year Patriot also played in fewer than 15% of snaps against the Green Bay Packers and New York Jets.
During those five games, the Patriots defense just couldn’t stop anything up the middle. The Patriots are allowing 6.19 yards per carry on running plays between the guard positions, which simply cannot happen. They’ve also allowed 10 carries of 10 or more yards between the guards, which shows New England is consistently losing at the point of attack. Opposing offenses know there’s a clear weakness here, as 54 of a possible 88 rushing attempts have gone behind either the left guard, center or right guard.
With Shelton, the Patriots interior run defense is a different beast. In games where Shelton plays at least 15% of snaps, New England’s defense allows just 4.03 yards on interior carries. This numbers falls closer to league average and shows just how much Shelton helps this defense. While he may not be the best defensive tackle in the world, the Patriots are in a situation where they need to have him on the field.
Breaking Down The Film
The numbers suggest that New England misses Shelton and the film backs that up. In Shelton’s absence, the Patriots have primarily utilized a defensive tackle rotation of Lawrence Guy, Malcom Brown, and Adam Butler. Guy is fantastic, but the other two need to do more.
Let’s start with Brown. Quite frankly, there’s no reason for him to be as bad as he’s been. The fourth-year defensive tackle constantly loses at the point of attack and simply cannot shed a block. His snap percentage hasn’t risen that dramatically, so this drop in play probably isn’t due to fatigue from increased usage.
Adam Butler is a good role player, but he’s not starting-caliber. Listed as 6’-4” and 300 pounds, Butler is a little too small to be an every-down defensive tackle. While it sounds absurd to call a 300-pound person “too small”, consider that he’s 20 pounds lighter than Malcom Brown and 45 pounds lighter than Danny Shelton. Butler is a good interior pass rusher, but his size makes him a liability against the run. Butler played in over 50% of snaps against the Steelers, Jets, and Packers, which is probably too many snaps for a player like Butler.
It’s also worth noting that the Patriots played a lot of dime against the Steelers. The Patriots put six defensive backs on the field on a regular basis, basically daring Pittsburgh to run the ball. This, naturally, leads to a higher rate of running success and puts more pressure on the defensive line to win their matchups. Some of the high rushing numbers against Pittsburgh can be attributed to the defensive personnel on the field.
However, that doesn’t explain away everything. The Patriots primarily played nickel against the Dolphins, Vikings, and Jets. In today’s NFL, nickel defense is basically base defense. New England needs to be able to stop the run out of this defensive grouping, but they simply can’t do that when Shelton’s not on the field.
Last Word on Danny Shelton
The New England Patriots defense struggles when Danny Shelton is not on the field. While the former Cleveland Browns defensive tackle has been something of a disappointment, but the Patriots clearly need him on the field. The big-bodied defensive tackle can clog up the interior rush lanes, and his replacements simply aren’t getting the job done.
Lawrence Guy is a godsend, but the rest of the defensive tackles leave a lot to be desired. Malcom Brown might be having the worst season of his career, as the former first-round pick consistently loses at the point of attack. Adam Butler is a nice interior pass rusher, but his smaller frame makes him a subpar run defender.
Danny Shelton won’t fix this team all by himself. The Patriots defense also struggles to defend outside rushing attempts (that’s a whole different story) and Shelton’s return won’t help that issue. However, interior runs are the most common type of running plays around the league, and the Patriots simply cannot stop them without Shelton.
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