PITTSBURGH -- No matter your statistical preference, the New England Patriots are among the NFL's elite at stopping the run.
Yardage by game, the Patriots rank third at 88.6.
Yardage per carry, the Patriots rank eighth at 3.9.
For a team that's leaned on its running game the way the Steelers have in wins over Miami and Kansas City -- neither higher than 24th in either category -- the sledding could be difficult Sunday night.
"They're just good technically more than anything," said Steelers left guard Ramon Foster. "Their linebacking corps gives really good support. What they do is they box your offense in. They play the one-on-ones and let their linebackers roam. They're pretty good at it."
The Patriots like to line defensive tackles Malcom Brown and Andre Branch over the interior along with either an end, Trey Flowers, or another tackle, Vincent Valentine. It takes away the "double double-teams" for which last week's TV analyst, Cris Collinsworth, praised the Steelers last Sunday.
But the Patriots will instead occupy the three interior Steelers linemen with one-on-one looks.
"The key is to get those guys out of the solid look and be able to run the ball regardless," Foster said. "That's the biggest component of this game. They play more solid than anybody I think I've seen all year so they try to work the one-on-one blocks more than anything. Our biggest job this week will be winning our one-on-one battles."
The Steelers' front has opened holes for Le'Veon Bell to rush for 337 yards on 59 carries, a whopping average of 5.7 yards per carry.
Bill Belichick is famous for taking away the opposition's key player. Can we assume that will be Bell?
"It's hard to say until you get in a game with them," Foster said. "But, yeah, the general thing they're going to do is try to take the run. You take the run on early downs and then drop so many guys in coverage it's ridiculous. You look at their pass rush a lot of times and it's three guys and everybody else is in their zone."
Bell had some success in the last game against the Patriots. He rushed for 81 yards on 21 carries to meet the Patriots' 3.9 average allowed per carry. And he did it with Landry Jones at quarterback and Marcus Gilbert out with an injury.
Gilbert, the right tackle, is coming off another blanking of a pass-rushing superstar in Justin Houston, and has the respect of his quarterback.
"When you see him out at practice, he kind of looks like RoboCop," Ben Roethlisberger said of Gilbert. "He’s got a hand bandaged up, his elbows, knees, ankles, I mean, he’s a banged-up guy. But he’s playing through it all, and he fights through it all. His heart and determination, I think, speaks volumes for what that whole group does. He wants to be out there, but he wants to be out there with the rest of the guys. It’s almost like if one of them is not out there, they’re like the outcast for the week. They get made fun of, or whatever. But he’s one piece of that cog, that puzzle that’s up front, that’s special. That whole group up front is truly the reason we have the success that we do."
BELL EXCUSED, GREEN SICK
Bell missed his second practice of the week with a coach's excuse. It had nothing to do with the virus that knocked five people out of Wednesday's practice and knocked tight end Ladarius Green out Thursday.
The five players returned Thursday, but missing along with Bell and Green was James Harrison (shoulder, tricep), who's expected back Friday.
Limited on Thursday was inside linebacker Vince Williams (shoulder).
The Patriots had some degree of practice participation from all of their players.
A MATH PROBLEM
If the Patriots focus on stopping Bell, and shade a safety over top of Antonio Brown, the Steelers will need someone else to step forward.
Like Eli Rogers.
The first-year slot receiver has 54 catches for 640 yards and three touchdowns in this extended season. And he's still seeing that missed touchdown catch last Sunday in Kansas City.
"Yeah, that was tough," Rogers said. "But I take a lot of positives from it. Although I didn't make the catch, just understanding and being able to learn from that, be stronger when I turn around, just go up with both hands. I have to find a way to make that play, to finish that play."
Rogers said he's envisioned Sunday's game against the Patriots "a million different ways, but you can never actually know which way it's going to manifest. I just practice hard, and with hard work and practice it becomes a math problem."
A math problem?
"Yes. One plus one equals two. Hard work plus practice plus attention to detail equals success. That's why I just practice hard and work hard in practice."null