PITTSBURGH — It was only a 3-yard gain, but when Stevan Ridley lost a shoe on a run during the Steelers’ final scoring drive Sunday, Patriots defensive end Trey Flowers was so frustrated he picked up Ridley’s cleat and chucked it 40 yards down the field.
The rest of the Patriots defensive line will probably wish they could do the same to Sunday’s game tape when they’re forced to review how the Steelers ran the ball with ease for 158 yards on 25 carries. Smart money says Flowers’ reaction had something specifically to do with Ridley, who was yearning for revenge against his former team and seemed particularly talkative during the few moments he was on the field in Pittsburgh’s 17-10 win, but the difficulty against the run on a day when the defense, overall, played well had to have been frustrating, too.
It was rookie Jaylen Samuels, not Ridley, who did the bulk of the damage for the Steelers. Making his second career start in place of the injured James Connor, Samuels ran the ball 19 times for 142 yards, an average of 7.5 yards per carry. Pittsburgh’s rushing yards were the third-most the Patriots have given up this season but, coming a week after the Dolphins ran for 189, it seemed like more than a fluke.
“These guys are tough. They’ve got a great offense, they do a great job in every area. Everything is a challenge with them,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said when asked about his team’s run defense after the game.
Samuels, a converted receiver/offensive chess-piece at North Carolina State who said after the game he’d never had 19 carries in a game before, set the tone with a 25-yard scamper on the Steelers’ opening touchdown drive. He helped keep the chains moving so that Pittsburgh held the ball for 11 minutes 20 seconds in the first quarter. He was particularly effective on runs to the outside and benefitted from an offensive line that was dominant.
“It was just getting on the blocks, reading the blocks, setting them up as well, setting the defenders up as well,” Samuels said. “You know, that’s the main thing I’m trying to work on my game as a runner, transitioning to a true runner, just being able to set up the blocks. That’s kind of what I was doing, and I was making some pretty impressive runs.”
Patriots defensive end Deatrich Wise Jr. said Samuels was difficult to contain, but that the Patriots had discussed their run defense in practice all week and should have come up with a better result.
“He was doing his job, he bounced around,” Wise said. “We’ve just got to make sure we keep contain, fill our gaps, pretty much. Get off blocks. That’s how it is.”
The run defense’s struggles stood out clearly because the Patriots were defending the pass well, in part because they prioritized doing so. New England often used six defensive backs. As they did against the Dolphins, the Patriots dressed just three defensive tackles: Lawrence Guy, Malcom Brown and Adam Butler. As that group began peeling off their sweaty jerseys after the game, Danny Shelton was already in street clothes, heading to the bus.
Shelton, who has not had a great season but is best-suited to stop the run, was a healthy scratch for the third week in the row. The Patriots have given up 107.7 rushing yards per game when he plays and 147.3 when he doesn’t.
Asked if he felt the personnel on the field was trending too light and putting the defense in a difficult spot against the run, Wise said it wasn’t his call.
“That’s not a call for me, you’ve got to ask Coach about that,” Wise said. “But whatever he puts out we’ve got to be, we have to be responsible for what we put on film and what we put on the field.
“We’ve got to make sure we control the gaps, control the line of scrimmage, and get off blocks and make plays.”
That was the message between last week and this week, though, and the result didn’t change. The Patriots have two more chances to get it right before the playoffs. Personnel changes, not only a renewed focus during practice time, are available to them.