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New England Patriots

Dec 16, 2018; Pittsburgh, PA: Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jaylen Samuels rushes the ball against the New England Patriots during the first quarter at Heinz Field. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Jaylen Samuels rushes the ball against the New England Patriots during the first quarter at Heinz Field. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com

The Patriots’ run defense has become a significant problem in recent weeks. For a variety of reasons, teams are gashing them at will on the ground. And while it may not be the most important aspect of a football team, it’s certainly a sign of how much power you’re showing up front.

As bad as the Pats were against the run vs. the Dolphins two weeks ago, 90 of Miami’s 189 rushing yards came on two plays. It was arguably worse on Sunday against the Steelers, in which the running backs carried 23 times for 161 yards and consistently shredded the Patriots’ front-seven without mixing up the playbook very much.

When a defensive back has to make the tackle on 13 out of 23 carries, that’s not a good sign.

Also concerning was the way the Steelers carved up the Pats. They ran draws on 10 of their 23 running plays, and the “toss-counter” on another four. Rookie fifth-round pick Jaylen Samuels totaled 50 yards on his four toss-counter plays, taking the short pitch from Ben Roethlisberger and riding the misdirection around the edge or through giant holes. The Patriots almost never had an answer for it.

You knew this play could be a problem very early on, when Samuels took his second carry of the game – also the second straight toss-counter play – for 25 yards. Lawrence Guy and Trey Flowers both got turned aside, creating a clean opening for Samuels. Jason McCourty didn’t shed his blocker (receiver Eli Rogers) until after Samuels had gotten the first down. Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon are forced to work backwards and angle Samuels out of bounds to prevent a big touchdown.

The bad run defense was untimely, too. Former Patriot Stevan Ridley didn’t exactly have his “revenge game”, but he did make them pay on one relatively important carry. On the first snap after pinning the Steelers at the 1-yard line on a spectacular play by the Patriots’ punting unit, Ridley rumbled for 12 yards to give the Steelers breathing room.

This is just a lack of power and execution up front. Adam Butler is pushed aside rather easily, Malcom Brown is bottled up, Dont’a Hightower runs right into the fullback in the wrong gap, and Elandon Roberts runs into a double-team. It left Patrick Chung to make the tackle on a frustrating play in a game filled with them.

While they did a better job adjusting in this department, edge-setting was also an issue on the Patriots’ defensive line.

Steelers All-Pro right guard David DeCastro gave them trouble all afternoon with his pull blocks, which was exemplified on this 17-yard run by Samuels. Hightower can’t set the edge and isn’t that kind of player anyway, Kyle Van Noy runs into the line and can’t adjust side-to-side quickly enough, DeCastro easily blocks J.C. Jackson, and Samuels is off for 17 yards.

Apparently, not enough was made of the Steelers’ clear advantage on the offensive line against the Patriots’ defensive front. That was arguably the most-dominated matchup of the game for Pittsburgh.

At the end of the day, perhaps it’s more important that the Patriots can defend the pass rather than the run. The secondary had a very good game overall, led by a respectable performance by Stephon Gilmore against Antonio Brown and Jackson’s borderline dominant coverage against JuJu Smith-Schuster. But the pressure up front was intermittent, at best. The Athletic’s Jeff Howe had them for five QB hits and six total pressures, and they did record two sacks on consecutive plays. It didn’t feel nearly that productive.

But that run defense. Wow, has it gotten ugly there. It may not be the No. 1 concern or the biggest problem to fix, but it could certainly be an issue late in games if the Patriots find themselves trailing. Via NESN’s Zack Cox, they’ve allowed a whopping 7.64 yards on the ground in their last three games – the worst three-game stretch in franchise history and fourth-worst by any team in the Super Bowl era.

Perhaps getting Danny Shelton (inactive for the last three games) back in the lineup helps in that department. But it’s hard to believe that he would make that much of a difference. It’s not like the effort hasn’t been there. It could be that they’re just not good enough in this area.

Whatever the Patriots do with their personnel, preparation, and coaching, the execution needs to be better against the run. Pittsburgh was just the latest example of that.

Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at matthew.dolloff@bbgi.com.