Brian Flores’ No. 1 priority ahead of Sunday’s showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers is repairing the New England Patriots’ suddenly suspect run defense.
Over the last two weeks, the Patriots rank dead last in the NFL by a wide margin with a yards-allowed-per-carry average of 8.4 — a full 2 yards per carry worse than the second-place team on that list (Jacksonville Jaguars, 6.4). They’ve given up a whopping six rushes of 15-plus yards (three by Dalvin Cook, two by Frank Gore, one by Brandon Bolden) after surrendering just 10 such plays over their first 11 games.
“The run game has been something we need to do a much better job in,” Flores, New England’s de facto defensive coordinator, said Tuesday in a conference call with reporters. “We’ve got to do a better job of playing. We’ve got to do a better job of getting off blocks. We’ve got to do a better job with our angles in the secondary.
“That’s something we’re going to spend a lot of time on — something we have spent a lot of time on — and teams are going to keep attempting to run the ball until we do something to stop it.”
The Minnesota Vikings averaged 7.3 yards per carry against the Patriots in Week 13 but ran it just 13 times. The Miami Dolphins placed a greater emphasis on the ground game this past Sunday and found even greater success, rushing 21 times for 189 yards and two touchdowns in a 34-33 win.
Miami’s 189 rushing yards — 90 of which came on a 36-yard run by Gore and a 54-yard touchdown by the seldom-used Bolden — were the most the Patriots had allowed in a game since 2014. The 9.0 yards per carry New England allowed represented not only its worst mar of the season, but also of the franchise’s entire post-merger history.
“Obviously, that’s at the top of my priority list and our priority list as a defensive staff,” Flores said. “We’ll practice to get it better, we’re on the players to get it better, and I think they’ve got the mindset that they know they’ve got to get it. We’ve got to get that part of our defense (fixed). It’s got to be much better than it’s been.”
Reinserting Danny Shelton into the lineup could help in this regard. Shelton, a healthy scratch for the last two games, has been a disappointment this season since coming over from the Cleveland Browns, but he’s a big body who would provide some depth behind Lawrence Guy and Malcom Brown, both of whom logged season highs in percentage of snaps played against the Dolphins.
In the 11 games Shelton has played this season, the Patriots have averaged 4.4 yards per carry.
Whatever the method, Patriots coach Bill Belichick is confident his defense will find its footing.
“Of course we feel like we can fix it,” Belichick said.
New England’s next opponent, Pittsburgh, has run the ball fewer times than all but four NFL teams this season. The Steelers also could be without their top two running backs with Le’Veon Bell voluntarily sitting out the season and breakout star James Conner recovering from an ankle injury that kept him out of Sunday’s loss to the Oakland Raiders.
If Conner can’t go, the Steelers will rely on rookie Jaylen Samuels and former Patriot Stevan Ridley to carry the load.
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Thumbnail photo via Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports Images