Patriots' stingy defense braces for NFL rushing leader Jonathan Taylor

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When New England Patriots outside linebacker Matthew Judon was asked what defines the team's stingy defense in the midst of its seven-game winning streak, he highlighted its transformative nature.

"It's whatever we need to get the job done. Whether it's we have to stop the run because they're coming out in heavy [personnel] or they're coming out in empty and trying to throw the ball all over the field ... we can transform into that," Judon said. "I think that's kind of our style."

It's a defense tailor-made to coach Bill Belichick's preference to be game plan specific.

Over its past five games, New England has allowed 36 points (7.2 per game); but now comes the Jonathan Taylor challenge, as the 9-4 Patriots begin preparations for Saturday's AFC clash against the 7-6 Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium (8:15 p.m. ET, NFL Network).

The 5-foot-10, 226-pound Taylor is the NFL's leading rusher, with 241 carries for 1,348 yards and 16 touchdowns. The next closest rusher is Joe Mixon of the Cincinnati Bengals, with 245 carries for 1,036 yards and 12 TDs.

"Taylor is a hard guy to tackle. He's strong. Runs through a lot of arm tackles. He's very fast. Not many players defensively can catch him," Belichick said of the 2020 second-round draft pick from Wisconsin.

"He's really been effective when he's been able to get through the line of scrimmage and break a 60- or 70-yard run. It's hard for teams to count on that in the running game, but he's been able to deliver for them with his speed and running ability."

The Colts rank first in the NFL in rushing average (5.1 per rush), second in rushing yards per game (151.7) and third in scoring (28.5 points per game).

"It's an unbelievable running attack. I think it starts with the front," Patriots inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo said of Colts left tackle Eric Fisher, left guard Quenton Nelson, center Ryan Kelly, right guard Mark Glowinski and right tackle Braden Smith. "A lot of people say it starts with Taylor, but you look at those guys up front, they've done a great job opening holes for the backs."

As outside linebackers coach and playcaller Steve Belichick added, "A lot of things are clicking for this offense. ... If you put all your eggs into stopping [Taylor], that's going to open up problems in other places."

Meanwhile, the Patriots' defense -- outside of an uncharacteristic performance against the Tennessee Titans on Nov. 28, when it surrendered 270 rushing yards -- has been stout against the run during the winning streak.

Nose tackle Davon Godchaux, coming off a career-high 10-tackle performance in a Week 13 win against the Buffalo Bills, previously shared his motto of "Stop the run and have some fun." Godchaux said he learned it in college at LSU, and he has carried that mindset to New England in his first season with the team.

Fellow defensive lineman Deatrich Wise Jr. noted the Patriots are at their best when "reading keys and playing fundamentals," which allows them to build a wall at the line of scrimmage. That will be critical against Taylor, Nyheim Hines & Co. on Saturday night.

"Everybody has to understand the ball can go anywhere. It might be designed to go into a certain hole, but that doesn't really mean anything. Those guys will take it whenever there is an opening, wherever there is space," Belichick said Monday in his weekly interview on sports radio WEEI.

"Everyone has to be in their gap, their area of responsibility, or we're looking at giving up a big play. Literally, they can score from anywhere on the field, and that's always a very dangerous situation."

This season, opponents are averaging 4.4 yards per rush against the Patriots and 114.5 rushing yards per game -- which both rank 19th in the league, a number that doesn't necessarily reflect how tough they've been to run against, especially in short yardage situations.

In November, after a win against the Atlanta Falcons that included stops on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 to help put the game away, Belichick said: "It's a real mentality and source of pride for the defense that we're going to fight for every yard and every inch, and make you earn it."

It will be strength vs. strength when the Patriots collide with Taylor and the Colts.

Something has to give.