What was destined to be a matchup of AFC powerhouses this past Sunday lacked the fireworks many fans were hoping for. With Ben Roethlisberger out with a torn MCL, the Steelers lacked their usual offensive explosiveness. While at times Landry Jones looked like the second coming of Big Ben, the defense ultimately delivered another strong performance. The not always pretty “bend but don’t break’ defense allowed only one Pittsburgh touchdown, thanks to strong work in the redzone. This somewhat boring but effective defensive strategy is ultimately the reason the player of the week is not from the defensive side.
There were some outstanding performers on defense, including Malcolm Butler. Faced with the near impossible task of guarding Antonio Brown, Butler only gave up one explosive play, and kept Brown in check for the rest of the game.
Another bright spot was Patrick Chung. Chung had a pass breakup in the end zone, along with a key tackle on Bell which could have gone for a long gain. While these performances were key to the Patriots victory, the most dominant player on the field Sunday was Legarrette Blount.
Blount’s first big play came with around 9 minutes left in the 3rd quarter. It was not his first major contribution of the game, as he had a touchdown earlier, but it was his first that had a large impact on the game. Pittsburgh had just put on a field goal and cut the lead to one point. The Patriots
offense which struggled on their first possession of the second half looked to change it up. This meant handing the ball off to the hard hitting Blount.
Blount lines up behind Brady in the backfield, after the snap Pittsburgh immediately breaks through the offensive line. With a player in the backfield before Blount had crossed the line of scrimmage, the play could easily have gone for no gain. Instead Blount cuts back behind the block of Shaq
Mason allowing him to get 7 yards up field before first contact. He then breaks an ankle tackle, proceeds to cut back to his right and lowers his shoulder for an 11 yard gain.
This decisive, and powerful running is critical to the Patriots offensive attack. Too often Blount gets tripped up behind the line of scrimmage for no gain. The decisiveness in picking the hole allowed Blount to get more positive gains, keeping the chains moving for the Patriots offense.
Blounts next big play came on the following play. With the ball around the Patriots 30 yard line, Blount again lines up behind Brady. Blount takes the handoff and starts with a stutter to his right. The Pittsburgh defense is now moving to the right allowing Blount to go back left where he is given a massive hole created by the great blocks of Rob Gronkowski and Nate Solder. Now Blount has clear room to pick up speed.
While often seen as receivers, both Edelman and Gronk can provide solid blocks to allow Blount to run for big gains.
Further down the field, Edelman blocks Artie Burns allowing Blount to get outside. Edelman then gets a block on the pursuing William Gay allowing Blount to turn the ball up field and into Patriots field goal range. This big run sets up a laser throw down the seam to Gronk for a touchdown. These two big runs helped to establish the Patriots offensive rhythm in the second half, a testament to Blount’s importance to an often pass heavy offense.
The next play highlights Blounts newfound elusiveness. On the Patriots first offensive drive of the fourth quarter after another Steelers field goal, the Patriots looked to seal the game. Brady takes the snap and turned to his right to draw over the defense, and then gives Blount the ball for a run to the left. Key to the play were the Patriots two offensive superstars. First, Gronkowski delivers a solid block to prevent penetration into the backfield. Then shifty receiver Julian Edelman seals the edge to allow Blount to take the ball outside.
The usually hit hungry back looked to avoid contact on this play faking outside before cutting up field avoiding the first tackle; he then welcomes contact and picks up a few more yards with two Steelers trying to take him down. What stands out about this play was Blount’s cuts giving him extra yards. He clearly plants his feet, and leans his body giving him the ability to change direction and weave through the secondary.
The final play to look at comes on Blount’s second touchdown of the game. With the play designed to go up the middle Blount quickly realized he would need to bounce the play out wide. The edge was again sealed by Edelman. Waiting for him was Steelers linebacker James Harrison. Blount realizes Harrison expects him to go outside. He responds with a cut back up field, causing Harrison to completely miss the tackle, allowing Blount to waltz into the endzone. This play again shows the agility that is often overlooked when it comes to Legarrette Blount.
At the end of the day the final stat line read 24 rushes for 127 yards and two touchdowns. He also averaged a season high 5.3 yards a carry. On the season Blount has set a career high in touchdowns with 8, good enough to tie for first place in rushing touchdowns on the year. He also has the 5th most rushing yards so far this season, and has three 100 yard games.
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There is one issue when it comes to Blount. Though 6 weeks he leads the NFL with the most runs for no gain often leading to 3rd and long situations. This week was a step in the right direction. Sharp cuts and hitting holes decisively will go a long way in eliminating those no-gainers.
Looking ahead to this week’s rematch against the Buffalo Bills, expect the Patriots and Blount to hit the ground running. The Bills rank 28th in the league in run defense and gave up up over 200 yards to Jay Ajayi this past weekend in Miami. As it is every week with the Patriots it is hard to predict who will have a large share of the snaps at running back.
Last game against the Bills, Blount had a season low 13 carries, Belichick will likely avoid this same mistake. If the Bills play nickel like the Steelers, expect the Patriots to keep the tight ends in to block for Blount. If they choose to stack the box to help the run defense, the Patriots will use Blount to compliment the Patriots explosive passing attack. Whatever may happen, Blount was pivotal to the Patriots victory over the Steelers, and will continue to be a key part of the Patriots offense heading into the playoffs.