After giving up a total of 459 yards rushing in the last two games and preparing for a game against the AFCs second leading rusher, the focus surrounding the Patriots is on the defense. A unit that played a bend but don't break style last season while mixing in the occasional big play, ranks 29th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed and dead last in yards allowed per rushing attempt.
What was thought to be an aberration last week against the Chiefs and Priest Holmes is now drawing worrisome questions from fans and coaches alike.
"Defensively we've got a lot of work to do in the running game," Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick said. "It's two weeks in a row that's not characteristic of the way we play run defense around here and it's certainly not what we're looking for."
And while it would be easy to focus on a single aspect as the reason that the New England run defense is suddenly so porous, more likely the problem lies with the players as a group. A few big runs or breakdowns might be traced back to specific problems, but the fact that they are consistently giving up large chunks of yardage on the ground points to a more large-scale issue.
"There were a combination of things," Belichick said in relation to LaDainian Tomlinson's 217 yards on Sunday. "There were times we got blocked. There were times we missed tackles and times that run fits could have been better. Any time you give up long runs in the running game a significant portion of that problem goes to the secondary because it doesn't matter if they run in there and they block everybody flat on their back. You still have the second line of defense and those plays shouldn't go for more than seven, eight, or ten yards."
In Sunday's 21-14 loss to the Chargers Tomlinson had scoring runs of 37 and 58 yards, plays that New England defense didn't give up very often in 2001.
"Any time you have long runs, that's a secondary problem," Belichick said. "But certainly there are problems up front with the defensive line. The linebackers that allowed some of those runs to get to the point that they did, it's team defense. When you play well against the running game, that's team defense. When you don't play well against the running game, that's team defense too."
So without a doubt the Patriots will work this week not only to prepare for a very good 3-1 Dolphins team, but will look to solve a new-found problem in stopping the run. It might not be a simple solution and according to Belichick it is one that can only start with the hard work of the players.
"I don't think anything is easy to correct," Belichick said. "I would think it is going to be corrected through hard work, repetition and execution. We're not going to get it done just by dreaming about it or hoping something is going to happen. We're going to get it done by taking care of it and addressing it and that's what we are going to have to do. Nobody has to solve our problems but us. There's nobody else out there that can help us. Either we find a way to get it done or we don't. That's what it's going to come down to. I don't think anything is easy in this league."
It might not be an easy problem to fix, but the Patriots defensive deficiencies against the run certainly need to be solved. This week brings Ricky Williams and his 5.6 yards per carry average and in a copy cat NFL where weaknesses are exploited, expect Miami to try to duplicate the success that the Chargers had last week. If the Patriots want to bounce back from their first loss of the season they must find a way to stop the run. They know it and so does the rest of the league.