FOXBOROUGH — When Vince Wilfork left the Patriots after the team’s Super Bowl win over the Seahawks, it was natural to wonder who was going to fill the rather large void created by one of the team’s best inside run stuffers and most popular players.
The concerns grew larger after DeAngelo Williams — a Steelers backup — rushed for 127 yards on 21 carries in New England’s season-opening victory over Pittsburgh.
After five games, the Patriots were 22d against the run, giving up 114.2 yards per game. The team’s 5-0 record helped mask the numbers and the concerns.
But over the last three games the Patriots have shown marked improvement against the run. In successive wins over the Jets, Dolphins, and Redskins, the Patriots have given up a combined 141 yards — a paltry 2.4 yards per carry.
The turnaround coincided with the arrival of Jets back Chris Ivory, who came to Gillette Stadium off back-to-back performances of 166 yards against the Dolphins and 146 against the Redskins.
Ivory was bottled up all afternoon, managing just 41 yards on 17 carries (2.4 per carry ).
Next came Miami’s Lamar Miller, who came to Foxborough also on the heels of two straight dominant performances: A 113-yard effort against the Titans and a 175-yard pounding of the Texans.
Again, the Patriots were up to the challenge, holding Miller to 15 yards on nine totes.
In their latest win, the Patriots held Washington’s Matt Jones and Alfred Morris to a combined 37 yards on 15 carries.
To nobody’s surprise, it has taken multiple bodies to replace the 6-foot-2-inch, 325-pound Wilfork.
The inside rotation of veterans Alan Branch, Sealver Siliga, and Akiem Hicks and young players Dominique Easley and Malcom Brown — the team’s top picks the last two years — have helped clog the lanes and prevent running backs from getting to the next level.
On the outside, ends Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, and Jabaal Sheard have helped set the edge.
Bolstering the effort has been exceptionally physical and rangy linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower. The heat seekers, both of whom have missed one game, are still first and third, respectively, in tackles. Collins has 51, including three forced fumbles, and Hightower has 41.
Asked about the in-season improvement Wednesday, Bill Belichick said it takes everyone to stop the run.
“It’s team defense,’’ said the coach. “It’s not like one guy can stop a running game, so it’s team defense, technique, each person taking care of their responsibility. Guys on the outside not letting the ball get on the outside and guys on the inside getting good reads, playing with good technique, controlling their blockers, tackling — all of the above.’’
The offense has done its part, too. By getting ahead early, oftentimes teams are forced to abandon the run and rely heavily on the passing game to make up ground. A fact not lost on defensive coordinator Matt Patricia.
“I think every game is different; every situation is different in the game. There might be games where there are more opportunities for an opponent to run the ball and games where there is less of an opportunity for opponents to run the ball,’’ he said. “The run game is something we certainly try to spend a lot of time on, we’ve tried to improve since the beginning of the season and we’re working on it every single day.’’
Among the most visible players when it comes to defending the run has been Branch — and not just because he’s 6-6, 350 pounds. Branch, who shows off great dance moves during pregame warmups, has shown great power moves during the game.
Branch said while he has noticed the difference in the rush defense, he couldn’t really put his finger on a reason for the turnaround.
“I feel the difference on the field but I don’t think we’ve done anything too drastic that would make it too big of a change,’’ Branch said. “It just came together, I guess.’’
When Branch was asked if it was just a matter of creating space for Collins and Hightower to find the ball, he chuckled.
“You’re talking about strategy. I just hit the dude in front of me. You’re getting too deep into it,’’ he said. “They tell me to hit the guy in front of me, I hit him. I don’t know anything about strategy. They just tell me what to do and I do it.’’
He has been doing what he’s been told well. As are his inside cohorts.
“[Alan’s] made steady improvement in everything — his technique, his conditioning, his overall consistency,’’ said Belichick, who has developed good depth on the inside, allowing him to keep bodies fresh. “Those guys have all played not the same amount but approximately the same number of plays — Malcom, Alan, Akiem, and Sealver. And [Dominique] Easley has really been part of that inside rotation, too. Although he’s a little different type, he brings a little different dimension to that. But those four big guys, they’ve all played as I said approximately the same amount of plays and roles. So I don’t think it’s one guy playing a lot and another guy not playing much, so they’ve all contributed there. So Alan has been a part of that, not more, not less, but a good contributing part of that four-man group.’’
Giants coach Tom Coughlin has noticed the difference in New England’s run defense. Coughlin said he has “been trying like heck’’ to get his running game jump-started.
“Defensively, they’ve shored themselves up, there’s no doubt,’’ Coughlin said. “What are they, third in the league against the run? There’s a combination of reasons for that, they’re better and they certainly have some personnel that are very physical up front. And they have size, they have some size inside that you’ve got to deal with. You got to move people in this business if you’re going to be creative in terms of being able to run the ball.’’
You’ve got to be creative to stop it, too. Unless you just hit the guy in front of you.
Jim McBride can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globejimcbride.