“They have a definitive run-demeanor and are really doing a nice job in that aspect,” Coach Mike Tomlin observed of the 6-2 Pats.
The statistics support Tomlin’s observation, particularly when it comes to advancing the ball over the goal line.
New England has scored seven of its 16 touchdowns this season via the run (43.8 percent). That’s a slight increase over last season, when the ground game accounted for 25 of the Patriots’ 59 TDs (42.4 percent), but New England hasn’t been this close to 50-50 in terms of rushing and passing TDs since it scored 21 of each in 2008, when Matt Cassel replaced an injured Brady at quarterback for all but the season’s first few snaps.
“It’s definitely different,” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “In the past it’s been like the running game has been interjected, not like it’s been something you really had to focus on. When they establish the run they’re a much better team, they can use the play-action. We gotta stop that early and make them one-dimensional.”
The Steelers allowed a season-high 197 yards on the ground in last Sunday’s 21-18 loss at Oakland, with 93 of those coming on quarterback Terrelle Pryor’s first-snap touchdown run.
That was a step back for a Steelers’ run defense that had held the Jets to 83 yards on the ground on Oct. 13 and limited Baltimore to 82 on Oct. 20.
The Steelers opened the season by allowing four consecutive opponents to surpass 100 yards on the ground during their 0-4 September.
The dash by Pryor was the third run of longer than 50 yards the Steelers have surrendered this season (Chicago’s Matt Forte went 55 yards on Sept. 22 and Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson went 60 yards for a touchdown on Sept. 29).
“They run the ball very effectively,” defensive end
The Patriots still feature two-tight ends sets, but the two-tight end sets of late have differed in intent from those of recent vintage that featured Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
Those were designed to spread the field and create matchup issues for the defense. When the Patriots deploy two tight ends these days they do so the majority of the time in “a running formation,” Keisel said.
“A lot of teams do that out of that formation and they’re running the ball well,” Keisel added.
Gronkowski recently has returned from injury, as has wide receiver Danny Amendola. But New England still ran the ball 37 times and attempted to pass it 25 times (Brady was sacked on three occasions) in last Sunday’s 27-17 win over Miami.
And that was a game in which the Patriots had trailed 17-3 at halftime.
The running back triumvirate of Stevan Ridley, LeGarrette Blount, and Brandon Bolden wound up with 33 rushing attempts for 147 yards and two scores, which surpassed Brady’s totals of 22 passing attempts, 100 net passing yards and one touchdown.
“They take advantage of the backs,” Heyward said. “They all do the same thing: they’re down-hill runners. And with the injuries they’ve stayed out of the passing game and it’s forced them to run the ball. Having those guys like LeGarrette Blount has really balanced that offense out.
“We gotta stop the big plays. If we can limit big plays and stay true to our keys and execute we can be successful.”