FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — Oft-injured Fred Taylor hopes to play Sunday night after missing five games with two painful toes.
The Patriots running back might be better off waiting a week instead of facing the NFL’s stingiest run defense.
Some of the league’s best rushers have tried to overpower and avoid the Pittsburgh Steelers experienced defenders only to look ordinary. Now New England’s mediocre running game gets its chance.
“I understand this team. I know them really well,” Taylor said. “It’s the same guys (with few exceptions). The personnel doesn’t change. … If the opportunity is there, I’d love it.”
He returned to practice on Wednesday and was there again Thursday, both with limited participation. The toe injuries on each foot have improved and the Patriots will announce his status for Sunday’s game on Friday. Taylor’s absence added to the ever-changing look of the Patriots ground attack.
They traded Laurence Maroney to Denver before the first game. They signed Danny Woodhead before the second and lost Kevin Faulk for the season to a knee injury in that game. Taylor suffered turf toe on his right foot on the last play of the first game and another one on his left foot in the third.
And 11-year veteran Sammy Morris, the Patriots leading rusher in 2008, has carried the ball just 11 times for 29 yards despite playing all eight games, primarily on special teams.
All that has left BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who had just 100 carries for 389 yards in his other two seasons, and the 5-foot-7 Woodhead as the leaders of the NFL’s 15th best rushing offense. The Patriots have averaged fewer than four yards per carry in four of their eight games.
Taylor, who has played a full 16-game schedule just twice in his other 12 seasons, might have done better.
“They’ve played well,” he said of Green-Ellis and Woodhead. “As you probably can tell, the trend of the running back position is just find anybody off the street and throw him in there. That’s kind of how the NFL feels about it, but it does take some talent to make that position go, and they both have talent.”
Pittsburgh’s defense has more. Much more.
It has given up just 58.3 yards rushing per game. That’s more than 20 yards better than the NFL’s second best run defense, the New York Giants at 80.9, and more than 50 yards better than the league average of 111.9. The Steelers have allowed just one 100-yard rusher in their last 42 games.
They permitted a season-low 30 yards rushing to the New Orleans Saints just two weeks ago. No team has run for more than 75 yards against them this season.
And there’s more.
The Steelers have held four of the NFL’s top 15 rushers to 54 yards or less – Chris Johnson with 34, Peyton Hillis with 41, Michael Turner with 42 and Cedric Benson with 54.
Last Sunday, Hillis rambled through the Patriots defense for 184 yards.
Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is a big reason for opponents’ feeble ground games.
“Dick does a great job,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “They’ve got a lot of outstanding players and you really have to be ready for all of them. They give you different formations, different looks, different combinations and run different games with them.”
New England has a strong offensive line, strengthened by the return a week ago of left guard Logan Mankins from a contract holdout. It faces a difficult challenge Sunday.
“Their run defense is as good as it gets,” left tackle Matt Light said. “They like to come up the middle. They like to get you off the edge every now and then. It’s a pretty good package. It’s the kind of guys they want. The personnel that they have fits their system pretty well.”
It’s been that way for a long time.
In LeBeau’s six full seasons after becoming coordinator in 2004, the Steelers defense against the run has ranked first and second once and third four times. Before he got there, they led the league in rushing defense in 2001 and 2002.
“It seems like no matter who they bring in, those guys play at an extremely high level,” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. “Joey Porter (1999-2006) and Jason Gildon (1994-2003) and then it transitions to James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley and they just keep recycling guys. And all those guys end up being incredible players.”
Taylor missed 10 games with an ankle injury last season, his first with the Patriots. This season he gained 98 yards on 25 carries before being sidelined when he suffered tendon and ligament damage in his second toe injury. At one point, he was afraid it might require surgery.
“The initial prognosis was bad, to the point of tears,” he said. “I’m just happy to be at the point that I am because the past six, seven weeks have been pretty frustrating.”
Sunday may be the same, even if he plays.
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