Patriots-Steelers Takeaways, Metrics: What’s Wrong With Run Defense?


December 17, 2018

Julian Edelman was right. The New England Patriots’ offense shoulders the blame for Sunday’s loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

But it’s time we talk seriously about the Patriots’ porous run defense, which has reached epically, historically bad proportions. It reached the point Sunday when it felt like a regular Joe taken out of the stands in a Franco Harris jersey could have rushed for 5 yards a pop.

Things weren’t even this bad early in the season when the Patriots were intent on trotting out inexperienced defensive ends to set the edge.

Let’s get into it in this week’s takeaways:

LB Dont’a Hightower: three hurries
DE Adrian Clayborn: three hurries
DT Lawrence Guy: two QB hits
LB Kyle Van Noy: sack
CB Jonathan Jones: sack
DE Trey Flowers: QB hit

— It was a rare down game for Flowers as a pass rusher. Flowers averaged over three pressures per game over the first 14 weeks of the season.

— The Patriots continue to see results when they use Hightower more as a pass rusher. Even though the Patriots’ defense overall has been inconsistent, Hightower has been much better over the second half of the season.

— The Patriots had both of their sacks in the same defensive series.

CB Jason McCourty: five catches on seven targets, 98 yards, TD
CB JC Jackson: 4-9, 48 yards, PBU
CB Stephon Gilmore: 5-7, 25 yards, PBU
CB Jonathan Jones: 4-4, 21 yards
DE John Simon: 1-1, 20 yards
SS Patrick Chung: 2-3, 13 yards, TD
FS Devin McCourty: 1-1, 10 yards
FS Duron Harmon: two INTs

— McCourty struggled early, but he still played every defensive snap. He allowed 56 yards to James Washington, 41 yards to Antonio Brown and 1 yard to JuJu Smith-Schuster.

— Jackson mostly shadowed Smith-Schuster, who’s one of the most difficult matchups in the NFL. Jackson is a rising star based on his recent play. One of Harmon’s interceptions was on a play when Jackson was targeted.

— Gilmore mostly shadowed Brown. Harmon’s other interception came on a pass breakup by Gilmore.

DT Malcom Brown: two stops
DT Lawrence Guy: two stops
DE Trey Flowers: stop
LB Dont’a Hightower: stop
LB Elandon Roberts: stop
CB Stephon Gilmore: stop
FS Devin McCourty: stop
SS Patrick Chung: stop
LB Kyle Van Noy: stop, missed tackle

— Where to start? Maybe here?

— The Patriots let up 158 yards on 25 carries for 6.3 yards per carry, which actually was an improvement over recent weeks. There was no excuse to struggle so much on the ground, since Steelers starting running back James Conner was inactive with an ankle injury. Steelers rookie running back Jaylen Samuels had 19 carries for 142 yards. Samuels’ college career high was 74 rushing yards.

— The Patriots sold out to stop the pass, sticking in their dime defense through most of the game. The Patriots averaged 5.8 defensive backs on the field per play. The Patriots let up 106 yards on 11 carries to running backs in their dime defense. They allowed 20 yards on five carries in nickel and 32 yards on six carries in their regular defense. The Steelers had success on delayed handoffs. That gave their offensive line time to clear out space against the Patriots’ undersized defensive front which had safety Patrick Chung playing as a pseudo-linebacker.

— It seems unlikely the Patriots will keep up this defensive gameplan in the future. They’ll likely roll with more nickel personnel packages over dime. It’s also worth noting the Patriots could have and should have won this game despite their defensive attack if the offense had been more high-powered.

— Samuels had his most success running to the left edge, where he had seven carries for 60 yards. He also had three carries for 34 yards inside to the left. Stevan Ridley also had success inside left, where he ran 16 yards on three carries.

RT Marcus Cannon: sack, QB hit, four hurries
C David Andrews: QB hit, hurry
QB Tom Brady: QB hit
LG Joe Thuney: hurry
RG Shaq Mason: hurry

— Left tackle Trent Brown didn’t allow a single pressure. Tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen, running backs Rex Burkhead, Sony Michel and James White and fullback James Develin also didn’t let up any pressures.

— Cannon had a rough game he also committed two penalties. Credit to him for talking to reporters after the game.

— Andrews is the only offensive lineman who wasn’t penalized.


— Of Tom Brady’s 11 incompletions, three were dropped. White and wide receivers Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon dropped passes.

— Brady was 2-of-7 for 97 yards with a touchdown on deep passes.

— Brady was just 4-of-9 for 33 yards with a touchdown and sack when pressured.

RB Rex Burkhead: 3.5 yards after contact per carry
RB James White: 3 yards after contact per carry
RB Sony Michel: 2.92 yards after contact per carry, one forced missed tackle

— The Patriots actually had success on the ground. They carried the ball 19 times for 96 yards. If anything, the Patriots should have committed to the ground even more.

— The Patriots were having much more success opening holes in the ground game than they did the last two weeks.

— Michel looked more decisive in his decision-making Sunday than he did in Week 14 against the Miami Dolphins.

Thumbnail photo via Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports Images
New England Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson
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