For the fifth time in four seasons, the New England Patriots are set to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers. To say these teams are familiar with each other is an understatement, as these longtime AFC foes know each other about as well as two non-division teams possibly can. In a perfect world, everything would be clicking for New England as they enter this crucial Week 15 matchup. However, the New England Patriots run defense is now a massive question mark after two straight subpar showings.
New England has allowed a collective 8.2 yards per carry against the Minnesota Vikings and Miami Dolphins, which is obviously not a good thing. Minnesota inexplicably chose not to attack the Patriots on the ground, but Miami wisely attacked New England’s weakened rushing attack. The Patriots lost in Week 14, in large part due to their inability to stop Frank Gore and the Dolphins running attack. However, this inability to stop the run shouldn’t come bite the Patriots in Week 15.
New England Patriots Run Defense Won’t Be Exploited By Pittsburgh
Steelers running back James Conner suffered a serious ankle injury in Week 13 against the Los Angeles Chargers, forcing him out of last week’s 24-21 loss to the Oakland Raiders. While he hasn’t officially been ruled out for this week, it’s looking like Conner will miss his second consecutive game.
Conner has filled in seamlessly all season for Le’Veon Bell, providing Pittsburgh with a dangerous dual-threat out of the backfield. Accounting for Conner is no easy task, but his backups leave a lot to be desired. All that’s left for the Steelers is the underwhelming duo of Jaylen Samuels and old friend Stevan Ridley.
Samuels and Ridley combined for just 32 yards on 16 carries against the Raiders. Samuels’ inexperience was on full display, and Ridley is clearly not the same guy that once ran for over 1,200 yards. This was no one-week fluke for Ridley, as the former third-round pick has averaged just 3.0 yards per carry since 2015. This duo is simply isn’t capable of beating teams on the ground, no matter who wins the battle in the trenches.
This wasn’t a case of Pittsburgh running into a bad matchup, either. The Raiders defense is one of the worst in the league against the run, and Pittsburgh should have had the advantage. Per Football Outsiders, the Raiders have the 27th-ranked rush defense in the league. Basically, anyone and everyone has been able to run over the Raiders for the entirety of the season. Everyone, that is, except for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Pittsburgh’s Aerial Addiction
Even when the Steelers had Conner in the lineup, they didn’t like to use him as much as they could. Per teamrankings.com, the Steelers run the ball on a league-low 32.8% of plays. Conner was one of the more productive backs in the league, yet Pittsburgh still opted to air the ball out more than any other team in football. With Conner likely sidelined, it’s safe to assume the Steelers will air the ball out even more.
This plays to the Patriots strengths. The pass defense struggled last week in Miami, but by and large, this is a serviceable pass defense. Per Football Outsiders, New England’s defense ranks 19th in the league against the pass. This isn’t great, but it’s barely below the league average. Based on the last few weeks, the Patriots defense would much rather you try to beat them by throwing the ball than by running the ball.
Last Word on the New England Patriots Run Defense Against Pittsburgh
The New England Patriots run defense is a serious concern heading into the playoffs, and the Patriots will need to do something to address it. However, the Pittsburgh Steelers don’t profile as a team capable of exploiting New England’s biggest weakness.
For one, they probably won’t have lead running James Conner. Conner has been a godsend to their offense, providing quality production in both the run and the pass game. However, thanks a Week 13 ankle injury, it looks like he won’t play on Sunday.
In his place, Pittsburgh has the underwhelming duo of Jaylen Samuels and Stevan Ridley. While Samuels provides some value in the passing game, he’s underdeveloped as a runner and can only get what his offensive line gives him. Old friend Stevan Ridley is even worse, as the former Patriot averages just 3.0 yards per carry since 2015. Even in their weakened state, the Patriots run defense should be able to stop this ground attack.
Even if the Patriots can’t stop the run, they might not need to. The Steelers are the most pass-happy offense in football, even when they have Conner in the lineup. Their 32.8% run percentage is the lowest in the league, and that’s not likely to change with James Conner sidelined. Pittsburgh’s passing attack provides its’ own problems, but the Patriots are better suited to stop those than they are a strong ground attack.
Should the Patriots feel comfortable with this run defense heading into the playoffs? Probably not. New England definitely needs to self-scout and come up with a solution to these run woes. Adding Danny Shelton back into the defensive tackle rotation would go a long way in fixing this issue. However, they don’t need to fix it this week.
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