In this highly-anticipated AFC Championship match-up between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots, we will see two of the most high-powered offenses from this past season clash in a game which will determine who makes the journey to Super Bowl 51. Beyond that, there are several factors that will shape this game. Here are five keys for both the Patriots and Steelers on how to win this weekend.
- Bring aggressiveness at the line of scrimmage on defense – One notable reason for why the Patriots led the NFL in scoring defense this past season is their more conservative play-calling. Offenses would often see only three – or four – man rushes while the rest of their defense sit back in coverage. That led to better protection against the deep ball while also preventing big plays from occurring. But one of, if not, the best Steelers players on offense is running back LeVeon Bell. One of Bell’s keys to success is his patience at the line of scrimmage as he waits for blocks to form and running lanes to open. If the Patriots can be more aggressive than they usually are with how many players they have at the line of scrimmage, they will have a better chance of slowing Bell down.
- Attack the young secondary of the Steelers – The Steelers starting secondary consists of rookie cornerback Artie Burns, rookie safety Sean Davis, third-year cornerback Ross Cockrell, and veteran Mike Mitchell. Mitchell’s exceptional play this season is sometimes overlooked, but he has often had to step up for the Steelers due to the youth among the rest of their secondary. Don’t let it be mistaken, Davis, Burns, and Cockrell are all solid players considering the circumstances, but have proven at times to make rookie or “youth” mistakes. The Patriots currently have Z receiver Julian Edelman along with X receiver (and dangerous deep threat) Chris Hogan to go along with the young, emerging rookie Malcolm Mitchell. Compared to last season, the Patriots are in much better shape at wide receiver. Against a talented but sometimes mistake-prone secondary, the Patriots will need to exploit that potential advantage.
- Utilize double-teams often on Antonio Brown – Along with star running back Bell, the Steelers also have arguably the best wide receiver in football with Antonio Brown. Brown has had success against nearly every cornerback in the league and can be dominant in all phases of the pass game. In the regular season match-up against the Patriots, Brown was covered at times by Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan. But with Ryan possibly playing more in the slot (though he did have an exceptional game covering DeAndre Hopkins this past weekend), we could see Butler focusing a lot more of his efforts toward Brown. But even as good of a cornerback as Butler has become, he will likely need help against Brown. With Patrick Chung usually playing coverage more against tight ends, Butler will likely need help over the top from Devin McCourty or Duron Harmon (when the team plays in their 4-2-5 scheme). To have any chance of slowing down one of Big Ben’s best weapons, it’ll likely need to be a team effort rather than an individual one.
- Don’t give up on the run game if struggling – This past weekend against the Texans, the Patriots only ran the ball 21 times between their running backs (Dion Lewis with 13 carries and LeGarrette Blount with eight) for 72 yards and a touchdown (3.38 yards per carry). New England noticeably abandoned the run at times during the game when it was close and instead relied heavily on their passing attack. But as we saw against the Steelers during the regular season, the rushing attack makes the game much easier for the Patriots’ passing game. Blount ran for 127 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries (5.3 yards per) in their Week 7 match-up. Lewis had 283 yards on 64 carries (4.4 yards per attempt) during the regular season while Blount finished with a league-best 18 rushing touchdowns on 299 carries. While the Patriots have been known for years as a very dangerous passing team, their run game helped lead them to a lot of wins during the regular season. It’s evident that the run game is important for the Patriots, so they need to make sure to have faith in the run game and utilize it throughout the game to have a better chance of beating Pittsburgh.
- Focus on better play from interior offensive line – Against the Texans this past weekend, Tom Brady was sacked twice while being hit eight times overall during the game. That is not to mention the amount of times he was hurried into making throws and/or escaping the pocket. Most of that pressure from the Texans was up the middle by their interior defensive line and the ever-shifting Jadeveon Clowney. While Brady was not sacked at all by the Steelers in their regular season match-up, what the Texans did to to Brady is something Pittsburgh will likely try to mimic. While the entire offensive line of the Patriots has been a solid unit this season, it did expose a few chinks in the armor last week. If they can do a better job of not allowing as much pressure up the middle, Brady and the Patriots will have a much easier day this weekend against the very physical Steelers defense.
- Get more production from outside receivers – As mentioned above, Brown is the cornerstone of the Steelers wide receiver corps. Unfortunately, there has not been much production from anyone else at the position. That will need to change if the Steelers want to have a better chance of upsetting the Patriots. In fact, excluding Brown, the Steelers only had 37 yards on seven receptions from their other wide receivers against the Chiefs this past weekend. Also, no other wide receiver had at least 600 yards receiving and three touchdowns during the regular season. With much of the Patriots’ of attention focused on Brown, the other Steelers’ wide receivers could see a lot of cornerback Eric Rowe, who has been hot and cold this season. Whether it’s Sammie Coates, Eli Rogers, Demarcus Ayers, or Darrius Heyward-Bey, the Steelers are going to need someone to step up for them this weekend to be able to spread the ball around effectively.
- Continue to blitz often to get pressure on Brady – The Steelers are one of the more aggressive defenses in the league, led by defensive coordinator Keith Butler. That includes finishing in the top ten in sacks, pass break-ups, and turnover differential in the regular season. Led by an impressive front seven including James Harrison, Ryan Shazier, and Javon Hargrave, the Steelers are not lacking in the physicality department. Their patented aggressiveness will be important this weekend going up against a solid offensive line and one of the best quarterbacks in the league. The Texans were able to get frequent pressure on Brady by using heavy blitz packages and attacking their interior offensive line. It will be important for the Steelers to try and replicate that performance to keep Brady off-balance and force him out of the pocket and on the move, where he is less effective. While they may not necessarily have any “elite” players, they have the right personnel group to give Brady trouble throughout the game.
- Don’t stop feeding Bell throughout the game – While the Steelers did not shy away from giving Bell the ball this season (320 carries in 15 games including the playoffs, 21.33 carries per game), it will be even more important to keep Bell involved often throughout the game. In his two postseason games this year, he has 337 yards (5.71 yards per attempt) and two rushing touchdowns on 59 carries. With New England’s high-powered offense, the Steelers may struggle to keep up on the scoreboard. When most teams are playing from behind, they try to pass the ball more and rely less on the run game. It’ll be important for the Steelers to keep Bell involved and run the ball often to keep moving the chains and eating up the clock. His contributions against the Chiefs (30 carries for 170 yards) were the main source of offense for the Steelers and a big reason for getting down the field often against the tough Chiefs defense. Pittsburgh will need to continue that success against the Patriots and their league best scoring defense and top three run defense unit.
- Be more efficient in the red-zone – As we saw over this past weekend, the Steelers only source of points were from Chris Boswell’s six field goals. Pittsburgh visited the Chiefs red-zone four times but could not score touchdowns on any of those trips. Coupled with the Steelers 37.04% red-zone efficiency on the road during the regular season (fourth worst in the league, per teamrankings.com), Pittsburgh has struggled at times in the red-zone this season. If the Steelers want any chance of defeating the Patriots this weekend, they will need to score touchdowns, not just field goals. And with the Patriots ranked ninth in the league this past season in defensive red-zone efficiency at home (46.15%), the Steelers will be in for a challenge. That will only increase the importance of finishing drives in the end-zone for Pittsburgh.
- Take advantage of New England’s linebacker core – At the beginning of the season, the Patriots boasted one of the best linebacker duos in Dont’a Hightower and James Collins. But the team traded Collins away mid-season and the team struggled for some time trying to get consistent production next to Hightower. It took the combined efforts of rookie Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy, and Shea McClellin to provide a somewhat productive stable of linebackers opposite Hightower. But with Roberts being predominantly a run-stopping linebacker with Van Noy and McClellin offering little in pass rush or pass coverage, the Steelers would be wise to attack this weakness. Whether it’s just Jesse James or potentially Ladarius Green as well, the Steelers should target their tight end(s) (and Bell, who could also see linebacker coverage when lining up out of the backfield) early and often to try to exploit this flaw in the Patriots defense and move the ball down the field.