New England Patriots running back and former Pitt star Dion Lewis returned to Heinz Field for just the third time in his professional career — and his first time as a starter — on Sunday afternoon to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers, and his contributions proved to be vital to his team’s 27-24 win.
For the Patriots, the plan going into the highly anticipated matchup was supposed to be to strike a greater balance between the passing game and the running game, according to ESPN’s Mike Reiss. That came about after the Patriots ran the ball just 10 times and attempted 43 passes in a 27-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins that saw Tom Brady picked off twice by Xavien Howard.
"We haven’t had any games this year where we've been that out of balance. That's never our intention," Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said, per Reiss. "You never try to go into a game and be that imbalanced and think you're going to do well against a good team."
That sentiment seemed to point to an opportunity for Lewis, who led the Patriots’ committee of running backs in rushing yards with 607 yards heading into the game. However, while the New England coaches called a more balanced game than they did last week, the final stats were still skewed in favor of the passing game to almost no one’s surprise.
When all was said and done, the Patriots had attempted 35 passes and run the ball 19 times, and Brady had thrown for 298 yards, one touchdown and one interception. While that was only a slight improvement over last week’s ratio of runs to passes for the Patriots, Lewis saw his carries nearly triple, and given that opening to make an impact, he took full advantage.
Lewis led the team in rushing, as he has every week since Week 5, amassing 67 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries for an average of 5.2 yards per rush. On their own, those numbers don’t jump off the page, but the former Pitt standout still managed to have an immense impact on the game by coming through in the clutch.
Down 24-19 to the Steelers with less than a minute to go in the game, the Patriots were set up with a 1st-and-goal situation eight yards out of the end zone. Brady handed off to Lewis, who burst up the middle of the field. Pittsburgh’s Artie Burns got ahold of him, but Lewis was able to skip over the goal line for a touchdown, giving his team a lead it would not surrender.
With the win, the Patriots improved to 11-3 on the season and brought the Steelers down to their level, saddling them with the same record with just two games to go before the playoffs. The Patriots are now the top team in the AFC, and Lewis played a key role in achieving that.