The New England Patriots had plenty of problems against the Pittsburgh Steelers yesterday, ranging from the offense failing to get into any sort of rhythm to the team shooting itself in the foot with penalties. One of the major issues during their 17-10 loss, however, was a familiar one that has plagued the Patriots during each of their last three games: the defense’s inability to stop the opposing running game.
On Sunday, Pittsburgh became the latest team to dominate New England on the ground. Despite missing James Connor — the team’s best running back and offensive leader in yards from scrimmage — due to injury, the Steelers attempted 25 rushes (two of which kneel-downs) and gained a combined 158 yards. This, in turn, allowed the home team to dictate the game’s tempo especially during its first two quarters.
On the day, New England surrendered 6.3 yards per rush, marking the third straight game that the opposing offense gained more than 6 yards on an average carry — which is obviously bad. In fact, it is historically bad: no team in Patriots franchise history ever allowed more yards per rushing attempt over a three-week stretch than what the club’s 2018 version is currently giving up (7.5 yards per attempt).
But how can the porous run defense be fixed with only two weeks left in the regular season? There is likely not one quick solution, but re-inserting defensive tackle Danny Shelton into the lineup might be a start. The offseason trade acquisition — New England sent a third round pick to the Cleveland Browns for Shelton and a fifth-round selection — was a regular member of the Patriots’ rotation at the position but was inactive over the last three games.
New England’s defensive game planning likely played a role in the decision to sit a healthy Shelton, a big-bodied defender whose strengths lie in the running game: the Patriots sold out to stop the pass against the Minnesota Vikings, Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers and went with lighter defensive fronts and nickel and dime packages — defensive groups that the three teams gladly attacked on the ground.
Yesterday, according to NESN’s Doug Kyed, the Steelers ran 11 times against the Patriots’ dime package and gained 106 yards in the process. Pittsburgh gained 20 yards on five attempts versus New England’s nickel defense, and 32 yards on six carries against base sets. Without Shelton and a viable rotation at the defensive tackle position, teams exposed the Patriots in the middle of the field.
Bringing the run-stuffer back could help, and also lift pressure off a group of defensive tackles that currently is not winning at the point of attack. Lawrence Guy is solid but had issues with consistency yesterday. Adam Butler is primarily an interior pass rusher and has deficiencies against the run. And Malcom Brown, a run-first player in the same basic mold of Shelton, has regressed noticeably over the course of the season.
The last three weeks, New England apparently felt that the trio would still be enough to slow offenses down — and the plan worked to a certain degree. Despite surrendering 95 yards on 13 carries to the Vikings, the Patriots defense played a very good overall game and held the unit to just 10 points. The Dolphins gained 189 yards on 21 runs but still needed a last-second Hail Mary play to come away victoriously.
The Steelers also “only” won by seven points: had the Patriots offense not played one of its worst games of the season, the plan might have worked yesterday as well at least when looking at it from a bottom line-perspective. Alas, it did not, and Pittsburgh was able to find favorable matchups against the light and undersized defensive front seven and safety Patrick Chung essentially serving as an extra linebacker.
The next two weeks — with games against the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets coming up — the Patriots will likely go back to more nickel and base looks on defense and as a result improve against the run again. But the underlying issues will still not go away with a different game plan: the defensive tackles are slow to create upfield push and disengage from blockers in one-on-one situations.
Maybe Shelton can serve as a quick fix over the next two+ games, and maybe this will help the other defensive tackles as well and have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the defense. But one thing is obvious: the Patriots will need to upgrade the interior of the defensive line next offseason. The questions is whether or not the current group of guys can do enough to break its historic streak of bad performances — and play winning football in the postseason.