Failures Of The Secondary Exacerbated Issues In Run Defense

By Matthew Marczi

Barring a few incidents here and there, the New England Patriots spent much of this past Sunday having their way with the Pittsburgh Steelers on the ground to the tune of 197 rushing yards on 35 attempts, for 5.6 yards per clip.

The workload was democratic, with starting tailback Stevan Ridley accounting for 115 yards, Brandon Bolden pitching in 36, and LeGarrette Blount rounding things off with another 47 of his own.

Because of the success on the ground, the Patriots were able to open up their play-action passing game, the success of which only further exploited their ability to run on the Steelers by masking from Pittsburgh what type of play would be run from any given formation. And make no mistake, New England’s offense was intelligently designed to be able to do just that to defenses.

The Patriots ran out of myriad formations, and against the myriad formations the Steelers threw at them, whether in base, nickel, or dime. There is no question that the Patriots indeed had quite a lot to do with the hurting that took place this past Sunday.

But that doesn’t mean anybody in Pittsburgh is off the hook. In fact, while the secondary was responsible for giving up over 400 yards through the air—likely closer to 500 if you add in the yardage gained through justified pass interference calls—they were also quite busy exacerbating the issues in the running game.


Take this mid-first quarter carry. Note that the Steelers were in their dime package here, with Steve McLendon and Vince Williams on the sideline and Jason Worilds playing inside. With Troy Polamalu screaming toward the B Gap, Bolden took the ball outside. The problem was that Danny Amendola, a receiver most certainly not known for his blocking proficiency, got the better of Cortez Allen.

In fact, not sufficiently paying attention, Allen actually got blown about three feet off the line by Amendola before getting caught inside, unable to get to the back, streaking for an 11-yard gain off the left edge, thanks in part to a missed tackle by Ike Taylor.


Later, in the second quarter, we find a perfect example of the failure of the secondary exacerbating what is already an issue. On this running play, Cameron Heyward was unable to properly evade a cut block and Lawrence Timmons badly over-pursued the play. This afforded Ridley a gaping hole right up the middle of the field.

There was Ryan Clark, however, ready to limit the damage—only he was juked out of his cleats and badly missed the open-field tackle. LaMarr Woodley had to play chase and tackle Ridley at midfield seven yards later on a gain of 13 yards.


After Heyward got to Tom Brady for a sack, the Patriots were facing a third and goal situation from the 17-yard line. The Patriots then ran a draw play and nearly scored. This is because Allen failed to recognize the draw. After he observed Rob Gronkowski engaging Worilds in a run block, he should have had the presence of mind to look for a ball carrier.

Instead, he continued to stare down Gronkowski, and as a result, the pulling guard seemed to actually feel bad about throwing a block on the defensive back, who seemed completely oblivious to the fact that Brady was not, in fact, going to throw the ball at Gronkowski’s back.

With the Steelers running a stunt on the play that was to leave that particular area of the field vulnerable, Allen should have shown an even greater awareness in this situation. But it was left up to the safeties—and a trailing Woodley, again—to play goaltender and keep the Patriots out of the end zone.


Late in the game, with the score quickly becoming out of reach, the secondary continued to struggle in run support. Here on a 2nd and 3 play in the red zone, William Gay was unable to contain Ridley on the edge, who stiff-armed the cornerback and squeezed through the crack for a six-yard gain and a first and goal situation.

While the run defense as a whole was dreadful, there is some value in looking a bit deeper to see what went awry. In this instance, a significant factor was the failures of the secondary holding the runners to a minimum gain by missing tackles and assignments. The blame certainly does not fall squarely on McLendon and Heyward.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi
Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.
  • Kenneth Wilt

    Looking at those highlights, I see the same thing over and over….this team got dominated in the one on one battles over and over again. It is really frustrating to watch.

  • steeltown

    Pretty sad execution, all around

  • Kysteeler

    Looking at Profootballfocus, McLendon and Heyward aren’t doing that bad in the run game. It looks like the weak spots are Williams and Hood.

    The play of Ryan Clark has dropped off a lot in comparison to last season. Thomas (listed) as a CB is in the green against the run.

  • SteelersDepot

    Sorry, had the wrong gif up for the first play. It is now fixed.

  • mem359

    Just read an article on CBSSports that mentioned the Chiefs are ranked last in yards per rush against. There are ways to work around a poor run defense, but I guess it doesn’t help when there is also poor pass defense and few turnovers.

  • charles

    We need a new dline and lb coach. Take a look at what Harbaugh did in SF. Few personnel changes, but the defense played wearing the personality of their coach. Flawed to fierce in one off season

  • JohnnyV1

    There’s one thing that there is plenty of, and that’s blame to go around and be shared, for one of the most pathetic beatings I can remember since the first two weeks of the 1989 season. 1989 we got smoked by the Browns, then the Bengals. At least in that season, we went to the playoffs. Although mathematically possible, it’s not happening.

  • SumnerYoung

    Any data on Keisel?

  • John

    Common Themes for each GIF: Where are the linebackers? The tackling of Clark and the corners is really bad. We are not getting much push anywhere — and we do not seem to see where the ball is.

  • Nolrog

    Some of those holes were so big, I could have run thru them.

  • you people are so funny yep fire the coach who turned Mclendon from roster fodder to starting caliber NT/DE

  • charles

    Except 2 plays: Jones hit on Geno Smith with subsequent (on the goal line) interception by Timmons and Sylvester’s hit on Tucker on the onside kick and the Steelers are 0-8. Tough questions are better than sentimentality. Really Dr, did you think the D was prepared for Oakland? New England? Has our dline dominated anybody? Remember what Mike Tomlin said about run shoot? Well think of the 3-4 as the defensive analog. Time to move on…..

  • sean mcmartin

    You got it right charles..Who do you blame for this mess? The paid employees who have no structure or the management team for not implementing some.

  • Kysteeler

    He’s playing about the same as Heyward in the run. Overall he’s not in the red (green/white/red). Hood is near the bottom overall for 3-4 DEs

  • Aric Brown

    IMO people kid themselves by calling Mclendon starting caliber… he’s not who we thought he was

  • Aric Brown

    the hit on tucker was nullified by an illegal touch and an offsides call i think

  • What!

    If you don’t play your assignment, If you do your job and not the guy next to you. If Ryan Clark would square up and make tackles. If Troy played his assignment within the defense. If Lawrence Timmons would quit doing his + Vince Williams job. And if Ike payed attention.

    Then the defense would not be so bad. You can design the perfect defense and have the perfect call but if neither of your safties play their assignment and your linebackers are flowing into the wrong places and one player on your defensive line is setting the edge. Then tell me how is that mgmt fault?

  • What division are they in? Rams could not beat themselves, and AZ has no QB. Pretty easy

  • Chris Ranieri

    Cortez Allen on the third GIF…wtf?