FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The discussion of the Patriots’ defensive meltdown in Super Bowl LII usually starts and ends with the Malcolm Butler mystery.

The truth is, though, the Eagles’ offense began dominating the game because it was winning up front. By halftime, Philadelphia had amassed 107 yards on 13 rushing attempts. LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi had free runs into the secondary. The Pats were overmatched in the trenches, and this wasn’t the first time.

The 2017 Patriots were, statistically, the worst run defense in Bill Belichick’s tenure with the franchise. They allowed 4.7 yards per carry in the regular season, which was – by the nose of a football – a higher figure than the porous Patriots’ run defense of 2002.

So will the 2018 Patriots be markedly better in this category?

Dont’a Hightower’s return from a shoulder injury will help enormously.

Hightower’s leadership and thumping presence was sorely missed a year ago.

Also enormous: Danny Shelton, a throwback two-gapping nose tackle. Shelton, the No. 12 pick in the 2015 NFL draft, said he weighs 343 pounds. He needs to shed eight pounds to reach his goal weight.

“I mean, I hate it,” Shelton said, laughing, when asked about the conditioning program. “But it’s something you’ve got to do … It’s giving your all during practice, and then after practice giving your all with conditioning. So it’s really just continuing to have the mindset that you’re going to be consistent and dominating.”

Shelton has flashed that in the early portion of Patriots training camp, anchoring a unit that stuffed the offense on four straight goal-line repetitions Sunday.

Acquired in a trade this offseason, Shelton previously was the muscle in the middle for a Cleveland Browns team that didn’t do much right, but sure could shut down the ground game. The Browns allowed 3.4 yards per attempt in 2017, ranking second in the league.

With a healthy Hightower patrolling the second level and a boulder of a defensive tackle eating up blocks in the trenches, the Patriots should improve against the run. The addition of defensive end Adrian Clayborn and the potential development of second-year pros Deatrich Wise and Derek Rivers will factor into the equation, too.

“It all starts up front in the front seven,” Hightower said. “Obviously, the secondary is part of that, forcing certain situations and plays. But it really starts up front. We’re really trying to take pride in that, stopping the run. We want to have a good goal-line defense. In order for us to do that, we have to win up front.”

Rivers, who is seeking his first regular-season action in New England, spent the offseason trying to become an all-around defensive end.

“You’ve got to play the run to play here,” Rivers said.

Yes, it’s true that the run defense numbers looked ugly for the 2017 Patriots. It’s equally true that run defense statistics can get a little screwy.

Last season, seven of the bottom 10 run defenses (by yards allowed per carry) made the playoffs. Only three of the top 10 qualified.

Over the past five seasons, more teams with bottom-10 run defenses have qualified for the playoffs than teams with top-10 run defenses. And in the past three years, the majority of teams that allowed 4.7 yards per carry or worse – like the 2017 Patriots – actually finished with winning records.

The statistic is often dictated by circumstances. For instance, the Bills tacked on 47 yards on five rushing attempts in the fourth quarter of a lopsided loss to the Patriots in December. Similarly, Mark Ingram busted loose for a 28-yard gain on the final play of a Week 2 blowout, bumping New Orleans’ yards per carry from 3.3 to 4.7 on a single carry.

This is probably why Shelton and Hightower both mentioned “goal-line defense” when the general topic of run defense was broached.

As long as Hightower has been in New England, he’s preached one stat: Points.

By that figure, the Patriots were near the top of the league a year ago. They ranked fifth. They simply weren’t good enough when it counted most.

So they traded for Shelton, they signed Clayborn, and they quietly bolstered a front seven that let them down in Super Bowl LII.

It’s early in the process, but the expectation is that the Pats will be better – perhaps significantly – in the trenches.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.