"Oct 9, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell (26) runs the ball against the New York Jets during the second half of their game at Heinz Field. The Steelers won, 31-13. Mandatory Credit: Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports"
The New England Patriots are winding down the first half of their season with two road games before heading into their week nine bye. On Sunday, they face the 4-2 Pittsburgh Steelers who are sitting alone in first place in the AFC North. Next week, they face Rex Ryan and the Buffalo Bills who are nipping at the heels of the Patriots in the AFC East.
The Patriots will be fortunate that Steelers leading rusher–D’Angelo Williams–is out on Sunday with a knee injury. However, he is only the leading rusher due to primary back Le’Veon Bell having had to sit out three games with a suspension. Bell has piled up 263 yards in three games (an 87.7 yards per game average) and is hitting his stride (all stats from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted).
New England has had its share of tough running backs on the schedule already having faced David Johnson, Lamar Miller, LeSean McCoy, and the Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill duo last week. THey have held their own holding opposing rushers to just a 3.7 yards per carry average.
This is fourth matchup we will examine here at MusketFire.com this week as part of the W2W4 (What to Watch for) weekly feature. For your convenience, we have broken the feature up into multiple parts throughout the weekend. This article will feature the New England rushing defense.
So without further delay, let’s get to the match-ups for the Patriots’ rushing defense against Steelers’ rushing offense, the keys to to the game, and a look at both teams as the New England Patriots travel to Heinz Field to take on the AFC North leading Pittsburgh Steelers.
New England Patriots Rushing Defense vs Pittsburgh Steelers Rushing Offense
The New England Patriots come into week seven with one of the top rushing defenses in the NFL. The Patriots rank ninth in the league allowing just 552 yards over six games. They held the Cleveland Browns and their then number one ranked rushing offense to just 27 yards.
They held the Miami Dolphins to just 70 yards rushing during week two and even David Johnson and the Cardinals had just 92 yards rushing. The teams which ran on the Patriots were the Bills in their 16-0 win in Foxboro and the Bengals last week.
With Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins both healthy and on the field at linebacker the Patriots have the ability to keep an extra safety or cornerback on the field and still be able to prevent opposing offenses from running on them in the nickel defense. Add in rookie Elandon Roberts who is fast and stronger than he appears at only 230 pounds and the Patriots’ linebackers have the ability to stop any opposing running game.
On the defensive line, the Patriots have had some issues with controlling the edge as defensive ends Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long often got caught upfield or pushed inside and failed to set the edge. With the return of Rob Ninkovich to the defensive end position after his four game suspension the Patriots got back their best run defender on the outside.
Add in the strong run defense of defensive tackles Malcom Brown–who is blossoming into a well-rounded defender in his second season–and veteran Alan Branch. Branch is strong at the point of attack and knows how to force his way into running lanes. Rookies Vincent Valentine and Woodrow Hamilton are raw, but are so strong at the point of attack that they have been effective in their limited snaps.
This week the Patriots will face a Steelers offense without their star quarterback and a running back in Le’Veon Bell who is averaging 5.5 yards per carry and 87.7 yards per game. Bell has contributed both running the ball and as a receiver this year. Just 24 years old, Bell has been able to be one of the best players at his position when healthy or not suspended.
Bell has been explosive for the Steelers. Bill Belichick put it best when he said earlier this week, “He’s a tremendous player, great hands, catches the ball, very quick, makes people miss, strong, breaks tackles, excellent balance, tough, doesn’t run out of bounds, fights for extra yardage, a great player… They have a lot of depth at running back and it doesn’t matter who’s in there — they’re a problem. But Bell’s as good as anybody we’ll play.”
In addition, the Steelers’ offensive line gets a boost with center Maurkice Pouncey back at center. With veterans David DeCastro and Ramon Foster the interior of the line is solidified. Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva is solid in the running game but fill-in right tackle Chris Hubbard has been a weak spot in blocking since filling in for tackles Marcus Gilbert and Ryan Harris.
Stopping Bell is a challenge that will require the entire defense to slow him down. From the defensive line maintaining gap integrity to the linebackers filling their lanes. The defensive ends have to maintain the edge and funnel Bell back inside.
Strong safety Patrick Chung will have to be playing a key role in the running game for the defense to slow down the Steelers’ running game. Chung will need to be playing as essentially a third linebacker and working in tandem with Collins and Hightower to be disciplined and prevent cutback lanes.
Of course, the player best at stopping opposing running games is Tom Brady.
Yes, Brady and the offense have the ability to get New England ahead of their opponents and put pressure on them to throw the ball and try to catch-up in a hurry. Getting the opponent off their plan to run the ball and control the clock helps the defense more than any other part of the game plan.
It is not easy to eliminate Le’Veon Bell and the Steelers’ rushing attack, but an entire team effort will make it possible for New England to slow him down.