W2W4: New England Patriots (5-1) Rushing Offense vs Pittsburgh Steelers (4-2) Rushing Defense

New England Patriots

Oct 16, 2016; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount (29) is tackled by Cincinnati Bengals safety Shawn Williams (36) during the fourth quarter at Gillette Stadium. The New England Patriots won 35-17. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots are readying for a matchup with one of the best teams in the AFC on Sunday when they travel to Heinz Field to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers. While the game may have lost some luster with Ben Roethlisberger missing the game following surgery on his knee for a torn meniscus.

But even without Big Ben behind center, the Steelers are still a dangerous team with an explosive offense and one of the best wide receivers in the league in Antonio Brown and one of the top running backs in the NFL in Le’Veon Bell.

This is second matchup we will examine here at MusketFire.com this week as part of the W2W4 (What to Watch for) weekly feature. For your convenience, we will break the feature up into multiple parts throughout the weekend. This article will feature the New England rushing offense.

So without further delay, let’s get to the match-ups for the Patriots’ rushing offense against Steelers’ rushing defense, the keys to to the game, and a look at both teams as the New England Patriots travel to Heinz Field to take on the AFC North leading Pittsburgh Steelers.

New England Patriots Rushing Offense vs Pittsburgh Steelers Rushing Defense

New England Patriots

Oct 16, 2016; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots offensive lineman Shaq Mason (69) blocks for running back James White (28) during the fourth quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

For the Patriots’ offensive line , the best injury news coming out of Pittsburgh is that Steelers’ defensive end Cameron Heyward is out this week with a hamstring injury. He is easily the best front seven defender on the roster in Pittsburgh.

Heyward is a workhorse in the trenches who is excellent against the run and can generate pressure inside.

Beyond Heyward the defensive line is made up of lunch-pail guys who are big, strong, and know their assignments. They may not make many big plays, but they eat space, keep offensive linemen from getting to the second level of the defense, and route running backs into the arms of waiting linebackers.

Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave, and Ricardo Mathews are not household names in the NFL, but they do their job and make space for Pittsburgh’s linebackers to make plays in the running game.

Linebackers Vince Williams, Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier, Jarvis Jones, and Anthony Chickillo are all active in the running game and have done well to slow opposing offenses on the ground.

The Steelers have had just two games where they struggled to stop the run in 2016 and have lost both games. However, do not expect New England to turn into a ground-and-pound offense to try and beat the Steelers. In both cases the Eagles and Dolphins jumped out to big leads and then ground out a lot of yards in the second half to control the clock.

New England has definitely de-emphasized the running game with the return of quarterback Tom Brady. After rushing for 106, 161, 185 and 90 yards with Brady, the Patriots have garnered just 98 and 79 yards on the ground in the last three games.

However, after scoring just 81 points in their first four games of the season the Patriots have put up 68 points in the past two games.

LeGarrette Blount is still the top back when the Patriots need to run the ball. He has 439 yards and six touchdowns in six games but his yards per rushing attempt have been falling. He is averaging just 3.7 yards per rush (all stats via Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted). After a rough couple of games he bounced back with 50 yards rushing on just 13 carries. He did find the end zone when needed at the goal line and ran hard in his limited opportunities.

Behind Blount, the Patriots have James White taking a larger role both receiving and running the ball. White came out of Wisconsin with the reputation of a top route runner out of the backfield and also strong enough to run between the tackles.

In his first two seasons in New England, it seemed unlikely he would fulfill that promise.

Last year he stepped in during the second half of the season and established himself as a viable receiving option after Dion Lewis was injured. This year White is starting to get some rushing opportunities to go with his receiving role and has 24 attempts for 92 yards.

He had just 12 carries in the first four games but had five and then seven attempts the past two games.

As well as the New England run blocking was early in the season, the focus has been on the passing game. A sign of that has been the lack of playing time for fullback James Develin. Develin had played just eight snaps on offense against Cincinnati after being on the field for 22 snaps the week prior against Cleveland.

Last week the Patriots got Marcus Cannon back at right tackle and kept their usual alignment of blockers with Cannon and Solder at tackle, Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason at guard, and David Andrews at center for the entire game.

This unit has been solid, if unspectacular this season, although they did well opening holes for Blount in the first three weeks of the season.

The offensive line will have to play with good technique and be strong at the point of attack to make space for the running backs this week. PIttsburgh is better at stopping the run than they looked last week in Miami and will present a tough test for the Patriots when they need to run the ball to keep the safeties near the line of scrimmage or run play-action.

The Patriots probably will not need to run the ball to win in Pittsburgh with the Steelers missing Ben Roethlisberger and that is a good thing. The Steelers’ defense should have the advantage when the Patriots run the ball on Sunday.

ADVANTAGE: PITTSBURGH STEELERS

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