Attack of the Killer B’s!
The Patriots beat the Steelers on the road in Week 7, 27-16. Many things have changed since then, but this is the first time the Patriots have seen this Steelers offense. Landry Jones was filling in for an injured Ben Roethlisberger in the first contest. Let’s start looking at the Captain of this ship; Big Ben. This Patriots defense has been fantastic holding opposing QB’s to a 52.2 passer rating in the last 3 games. It’s still impressive considering they’ve faced Bryce Petty, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Matt Moore, and Brock Osweiler.
That’s the knock though, that this defense hasn’t been tested by an elite QB. The edge is seemingly with Pittsburgh here, but they seem to be a totally different team on the road. Roethlisberger has a 78.4 passer rating away from Heinz Field. Three of the five Pittsburgh losses came on the road this season where Ben threw 9 TD’s to 9 INT’s compared to 22 TD’s and seven INT’s at home. If Flowers, Long, and Ninkovich can be disruptive and make Roethlisberger throw on the run I believe we may see some more Interceptions. The Steelers cannot afford too many mistakes; they need to start fast and finish drives this week. They were pitiful in the Red Zone last week.
The number 1 weapon in this offense has to be Le’Veon Bell. Bell has been outstanding this year since returning from suspension. He may be the best in the NFL right now and is certainly the best left in the Playoffs. If you’ve watched any analysis this week or any Steelers games you have most definitely heard the word: Patient. Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley has built a ground game that highlights Bell’s patience. Pittsburgh’s three main rushing concepts have been “Counter,” where Bell can wait on his pull-blocker; Inside Zone, where Bell has two double-teams to work behind; and Shotgun Draws, which bring an inherent delay by looking like a pass play at the snap. Bell is averaging 168.5 rushing yards this postseason.
The last time these two teams met, Bell only ran for 81 yards, but as mentioned that was without Roethlisberger. He has missed the last two days of practice due to personal reasons, but Mike Tomlin believes his running back will be good to go Sunday. The third-ranked Patriots run defense has not allowed a 90-yard rusher in 24 games, will that change this week? The Steelers, on the other hand, are 9-0 this season when Bell rushes for at least 90 yards. The Patriots play a different type of run defense than most. They’ll put five defenders up on the line of scrimmage, with the outside guys setting the edge aggressively and the inside linebackers will shoot the gaps. The scheme that takes a lot of chances to stuff runs. The Patriots typically do this against outside zone-running teams (especially shotgun-based ones). It will be interesting to see if they try to do that against Pittsburgh’s inside smash mouth run game. Alan Branch and Malcom Brown were excellent in the Divisional Round, and second-year man Trey Flowers is quietly becoming one of the league’s best. All three need to have a big night against an underrated Steelers Offensive Line.
I expect the Patriots to try and catch everything in front of them and let nothing big over the top. Belichick and Patricia have typically been comfortable shadowing Antonio Brown with Malcolm Butler. No corner can handle Brown one-on-one for 60 minutes, though. The question is, How much help will the Patriots give Butler? I’D HAVE TO EXPECT Logan Ryan to be in the mix here considering how well he’s been playing the last few weeks.
The receivers around Brown aren’t as potent as what the Patriots have faced in previous contest (no Martavis Bryant, no Markus Wheaton). This time around it’s unproven Eli Rogers and Sammie Coates. And the Patriots also have versatile safeties who can lock down tight ends and probably even Bell on shallow routes. This is very important if you watched any of the game last week. Jesse James caught several passes deep in the Chiefs Secondary with a lot of green in front of him. Had Ladarius Green (Concussion) been playing those would have been easy Touchdowns. That being said there might be enough available resources to put Butler and an extra defender on Brown at times.
Brown and Bell represent 51.8% of the Steelers yards from scrimmage in 2016, there just aren’t many other threats on the offense. Eli Rogers has 600 yards from scrimmage as the #2 receiver and no other player has more than 500 yards from scrimmage. If the Patriots can contain Bell, take away Brown; they should win their seventh AFC title in 16 years. This game will be hard fought and much closer than Steeler-Patriot playoff games of the past. This Steelers Defense is playing its best football at the right time. The way to beat any quarterback is with consistent pressure in his face. It just seems like that's the only way to throw Brady off his game.
The Patriots are just 2-4 (.333) in postseason games when Brady absorbs at least three sacks as opposed to 21-5 (.808) when he is sacked two or fewer times. The Houston rush contacted Brady on about one-fourth of his dropbacks last week; Scar’s O-Line HAS to do a better job this week. One advantage in the offensive line's favor: Brady has toyed with Pittsburgh's defense in the past, posting a higher TD-to-INT ratio (19:0) and passer rating (127.5) against Mike Tomlin than any other coach he has faced at least three times. Ryan Shazier has picked off a pass in each of the past four games. His ability to defend the pass could be a concern for Brady, who's become more dependent on short passes to his backs and slot receivers without Gronk. I still like the Patriots to take advantage mismatches like Dion Lewis and Chris Hogan being covered by LB’s. I also expect a lot more from LeGarrette Blount and the running game this week. I’ll take the Pats 33-24.