FOXBOROUGH — Through the first two games of the season, the Patriots ranked last in the league in yards allowed per rushing attempt, with the Steelers and Bills combining to get 5.7 yards per carry.
A small group comprising some of the team’s largest players felt most responsible for the porous run defense.
“That’s embarrassing as a defensive lineman,” said tackle Alan Branch. “You’re on the defensive line and the first two teams, they had over 300 yards rushing in two games?
“We had many meetings, talking to each other, talking with the coaches, just ironing things out and making sure everybody knows their role, what they’re supposed to do on every play. Hopefully everything will work out for us.”
After the Steelers ran for 134 yards in the season opener and the Bills rushed for 160 the next week, the Patriots improved in the third game against Jacksonville, holding the Jaguars to 57 yards on 20 carries, for a 2.9-yard average. The Patriots are still 23d in the NFL in rushing defense, but steps were taken before the bye week to make that number better.
They’ll have an opportunity to make even more strides against the run Sunday, when they travel to Dallas to face the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. The Cowboys might not have DeMarco Murray anymore, but Joseph Randle has gained 229 yards for the 16th-best rushing offense in the NFL.
“Just because they don’t have DeMarco Murray doesn’t mean they don’t have any guys back there that can run,” said Branch. “Randle is a really good back, he’s got a very balanced skill set, a power runner who’s patient and finds holes.
“Every team is different, so you can’t really carry one week over. It’s a completely different team, completely different scheme, players, everything. You’ve got to start fresh every week, like the first game of the season.”
Branch is part of a defensive tackle rotation that fluctuates depending on availability. He has started the past two games next to Sealver Siliga. Dominique Easley and rookie Malcom Brown started the opener, then Easley missed the Bills game with a hip injury. Chris Jones has been on the physically unable to perform list, and the Patriots recently promoted Khyri Thornton from the practice squad.
The defensive ends who rush the quarterback — guys such as Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones — might be more well-known to Patriots fans. The interior linemen do the dirty work; they might not record a bunch of tackles, and rarely get any sacks, but if they’re doing their job, then running backs aren’t rushing all over the field.
Depth on the defensive interior always helps. Siliga has played 44 percent of the snaps through three games, Branch 26 percent. Brown, the first-round pick out of Texas, has played 34 percent of the defensive snaps, while Easley has logged a total of 39 in the two games he’s played.
“It helps big time, it helps keep our legs fresh, helps with injuries, decreasing the likelihood of getting injured,” said Siliga, who is in his second full season with the Patriots after stints with the 49ers, Broncos, and Seahawks. “I enjoy it a lot, especially because we can stay fresher, guys don’t really get tired. A lot of the pressure isn’t on one person, it’s more on the unit now.”
Added Branch: “I love our depth. Just having all these different guys, everyone has different talents. I’m not Easley. Easley is explosive and quick. I’m just big and powerful. I think we keep all the offensive linemen on their toes because they’re not getting the same type of person going against them every time.”
Like Siliga, Branch joined the Patriots in the middle of the season. He was signed last October and played in eight regular-season games, then all three playoff games. He spent his first four years with the Cardinals, then spent two in Seattle and one in Buffalo.
Now he’s with the Patriots, doing what he does.
“My role is whatever the coaches want me to do,” said Branch. “I definitely think I’m a run stopper. That’s my best quality, I guess. I try to go in there, plug some holes, keep the guys off my linebackers, and if I get the opportunity, go ahead and try to get some pressure on the quarterback.”
Branch recorded his first sack with the Patriots when he dropped Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor.
“For the most part, I’m in there for first and second [downs], and I try to keep my linebackers’ feet clean so they can get some tackles,” he said. “I may not be in the paper, but it’s their job to say my name if they get a lot of tackles.”
Branch and the other defensive tackles must be doing something right, then, because linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins lead the Patriots in tackles.
“I think you can definitely see some progress with the guys inside, our defensive tackles, and trying to play the techniques better,” said defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. “Those guys are working really hard to do that and to be able to play the fundamentals the way we want them to.”
Sunday brings another challenge. A week off gave the Patriots an opportunity to get healthy and spend a little extra time thinking about the Cowboys, who once again will be without starting quarterback Tony Romo (broken collarbone).
It’s a team effort, but should the Cowboys choose to run the ball, Branch, Siliga, and the defensive tackles will be ready and waiting.
“Just do our job,” Siliga said, when asked how the defensive tackles can become more well-known and create a bigger profile.
What is your job, Siliga was asked.
“Whatever they ask us,” he said.
What do they usually ask?