The Patriots run defense has been a big part of the team's overall struggles in recent weeks, including losses in Miami and Pittsburgh, New England's first pair of consecutive defeats in December since 2002.
A little over a week ago the Dolphins rushed for 189 yards on just 21 carries for a 9.0-yard average. Sunday evening at Heinz Field, even with James Conner out of action, the Steelers ran it 25 times for 158 yards and a 6.3-yard average.
New England has now allowed opponents to average better than 4.2 yards per carry in six straight games and 11 of 14 games overall.
It's not surprising, then, that a number of questions in Bill Belichick's traditional day-after-game conference call Monday afternoon revolved around run defense.
One question wondered how much of the struggles against Pittsburgh's ground attack had to do with the extra defensive backs the Patriots had on the field (including dime packages with as many as seven defensive backs) and how much of it was issues with fundamentals.
"We always try to play with good fundamentals and technique, so that will never change," Belichick said. "What we do schematically will depend on the game plan and what our opponent does and what we're trying to stop and so forth. But fundamentally we always try to play with good fundamentals and techniques."
While rookie fifth-round pick Jaylon Samuels did the bulk of the damage for the Steelers with 19 carries for 142 yards (7.5 avg.), one of the more deflating runs came from former Patriots 1,200-yard rusher Stevan Ridley. Just after New England's circus work on special teams to down a punt at the Pittsburgh 1-yard line, Ridley immediately rushed for 12 yards to give the home team breathing room.
"There was a couple things that could have been better. We could have coached it better. We could have played it better. It wasn't a good play," Belichick said.
Belichick's conference call closed out with a question regarding the relevance of run defense in a modern NFL where teams are throwing the ball more than ever. Belichick neither agreed with nor countered the questioner's premise that run defense isn't as valuable today as it may have been a decade or two earlier, taking a game-plan approach to his response.
"I think the National Football League has always been a passing league," Belichick began. "But the running game is very important. Each week you try to defend whatever the offense for your opponents do, running game and passing game, situational football, third down, red area and everything else. What you do is a function of what they do. That's really more of a week to week thing for us. So whatever the league trends are or aren't, I don't really know that it matters. What matters is who you are playing and what you have to do in order to be competitive against that opponent. That's the way I look at it. It doesn't really matter what the whole league does. Whoever you play that week, that's what you better be ready to deal with."
Beyond the ongoing questions about the Patriots run defense, here are some of the other key takeaways from Belichick's day-after-game Monday conference call with the local media.
Brady falling down?: It's been an issue for Tom Brady for years, maybe dating all the way back to his torn ACL suffered in 2008. But the New England quarterback has seemingly been falling away from would-be oncoming contact – or perceived oncoming contact – on his throws more often in recent weeks. He did it on an errant potential touchdown pass to Chris Hogan on the goal line in Miami. He did it on the final, failed snap of the evening in the loss in Pittsburgh.
So it's no surprise that Belichick was asked about the issue with his veteran quarterback, even if the coach didn't seem to have much of an answer.
"I think you'd have to ask him about that specific play," Belichick deferred, the first question of his conference call asking about the final offensive play in Pittsburgh.
But does the coach have any input on such issues?
"Input?" Belichick responded answering the follow-up question. "I mean, look, the players just came in. I haven't had a chance to go talk to every single player about every single play that happened in the game. I hope you can understand that."
Snowballing penalties: The Patriots had a season-high 14 penalties in Pittsburgh for 106 lost yards. It was the second time in four weeks the team has had double-digit penalties and more than 100 yards lost to flags.
Do such bad days with flags come, in some way, due to the fact that penalties can be contagious?
"No," Belichick said.
Not even false start calls that might pile up for one player or the group?
"No, I don't think so," Belichick reiterated. "I think they try to focus on that play and execute it the best they can, regardless of what did or didn't happen in some other play or game or year or whatever else. We just try to focus on that play. I think that's what we try to do."
Better mental toughness?: The Patriots finished the 2018 road schedule with a 3-5 record away from Gillette Stadium, including losses over the last two weeks. New England has consecutive December losses for the first time in nearly two decades. A team that usually is hitting its straight this time of year in preparation for another possible Super Bowl run is fighting to right the ship and earn a first-round playoff bye. Heck, New England hasn't even clinched the AFC East title at this point with a pair of division games against the Bills and Jets yet to play at Gillette Stadium.
So, there are sure to be some questions about the mental toughness of this latest Belichick team. One of those asked the coach if that is an area that can be improved upon or is simply innate to a team in any given year.
"No, I think we all need to work on it all the time," Belichick said.
As such, a follow-up asked the coach to assess his team's mental toughness this season as it is in the midst of dealing with some of its greatest adversity.
"I think it's a tough group of players. Like anything, like every year, there's always room for improvement and that's the way it is every year," Belichick said. "We always try to perform at our best in every area, whether that's mental toughness, situation football, running game, passing game, kicking game, you name it. I mean, we always try to perform at our best, and being physically and mentally tough is a big part of this game, so we always try to do our best at that and there's always room for improvement."