Against Steelers, Patriots’ defense needs to address the running game — with or without Le’Veon Bell

"Teams are going to keep running the ball or attempting to run the ball until we do something to stop it."

Brian Flores
Brian Flores watches his team warm up. –AP Photo/Charles Krupa

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — If there’s been a blueprint to having success against the Patriots defense this season, it’s started with running the football.

Seven times in 2018 New England has allowed an opponent to rush for 100 or more yards. On four of those occasions, it’s ended in a Patriots loss. It includes last week’s 34-33 loss at Miami in which New England gave up a season-high 189 yards to the Dolphins prior to their miraculous final play.

“The run game’s been something that we need to do a much better job of coaching, do a better job of playing,” Patriots linebacker coach Brian Flores said. “Teams are going to keep running the ball or attempting to run the ball until we do something to stop it. Obviously, that’s at the top of my priority list and our priority list as a defensive staff.”

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While it is an issue that will need to be corrected if the Patriots hope to go deep in the playoffs, they get a reprieve of sorts this week as they prepare for a trip to Pittsburgh.

This will be just the second time in five meetings since 2013 (regular season and playoffs) that New England won’t be facing running back Le’Veon Bell, who last month refused to sign a one-year, $14.4 million franchise tender making him ineligible to play this season.

Bell also missed the 2015 regular-season meeting with the Patriots while serving a two-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy (The Steelers lost 28-21).

Pittsburgh hasn’t beaten New England with Bell on the roster. But it came closest last season when Bell rushed 24 times for 117 yards and a touchdown in the Patriots’ 27-24 comeback win.

Asked if his team is missing Bell’s presence on offense this season, coach Mike Tomlin initially responded simply “No” on Wednesday.

On the specific topic of whether Bell’s decision to sit out has affected Pittsburgh’s locker room at all, Tomlin also downplayed the impact.

“It’s not something that this group of men have missed,” he said. “It’s a part of business, unfortunately, at this level. We all know and understand it. We’ve been focused on the people that have been here and working.”

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Pittsburgh started the season 1-2-1 before going on a six-game win streak that included four straight 100-yard rushing games by Bell’s replacement James Conner.

That production has tailed off during the Steelers’ current three-game losing streak, which has included losses to the Broncos, Chargers and Raiders.

Conner suffered an ankle injury against Los Angeles and sat out last week’s loss to Oakland. His status is to be determined this week, though Tomlin hasn’t ruled him out.

Pittsburgh is averaging 89 rushing yards per game, ranking 29th in the NFL. If Conner can’t go, the primary rushing duties will fall to rookie Jaylen Samuels and former Patriot Stevan Ridley. But both are averaging just 2.6 yards per carry and have only one rushing touchdown between them.

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New England’s defense is ranked 15th in the NFL, allowing 113 rushing yards. It also hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in 10 straight games.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Samuels, listed as a tight end coming out of college, presents a unique challenge whenever he’s on the field.

“He’s a guy they try to get the ball to and they put him in a lot of different spots,” Belichick said.

Numbers aside, Tomlin said he likes what he’s seen from Samuels lately.

“He’s just working in all areas to be the type of player that we need him to be, obviously, which is a complete one,” Tomlin said. “He’s got that type of focus and he’s a sharp, young man so it’s not unreasonable to expect improvement in all areas.”

Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy said this week is big for them no matter who is available for Pittsburgh.

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“We’re ready for the Steelers,” he said. “It’s going to be an amazing atmosphere there. It’s going to be a playoff atmosphere. They need a win. We need a win. So it’s going to be a highly competitive game.”

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