Saturday, January 21, 2017

Patriots vs. Steelers Playoff Preview

The Patriots play in their sixth consecutive AFC Championship Game this Sunday, taking on the Pittsburgh Steelers with a Super Bowl bid on the line. Usually in this case I'd blog about the most recent game between the teams and whether enough had changed to produce a different outcome. But not this time.

Plenty has changed, that's for sure. Their most recent game was last October, and it was played in Pittsburgh (instead of Foxboro), contested without Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger (who is back for this game), featured a standout performance by tight end Rob Gronkowski (out for Sunday's game), and linebacker Jamie Collins led the team with eight tackles (he plays for Cleveland now).

But I won't be delving into all that because after considering all aspects of the game, I believe there is one factor that will decide which team goes on to Houston and which one goes home.

The Patriots Front-Seven Versus Steelers RB Le'Veon Bell

To turn a phrase, Bell is on fire of late. He broke the Steelers' playoff record for rushing yards the last two games in a row, and he hasn't averaged less than 4 yards a carry in any game since mid-November. Much has been made of his stop-and-go running style, and he uses it to set up blockers. But his ability in the passing game might be even more dangerous this Sunday.

Bell The Runner

The Patriots maintain excellent discipline along the line of scrimmage, and they are very big defensively inside with linemen Malcom Brown and Alan Branch, along with linebacker Dont'a Hightower. And if those players control their gaps, Bell won't do much damage up the middle.

However, he could gain yards down the sidelines if the Pats lose outside containment. That is where Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard come in. Both of them have to play with outside leverage, funneling Bell back inside where the rest of the defense can rally to make the tackle.

Long did this pretty well against Houston last week. But Sheard was flat out awful in that game, allowing multiple runs to get outside him for chunk yardage plays. He can't let that to happen again this week, even if it means he never gets any pressure on the QB.

If Bell gets outside, he has the speed and elusiveness to turn a four-yard gain into a 40-yard gain in the blink of an eye. And I'm sure the Patriots coaches have been hammering that into Shear's head all week long.

Bell The Receiver

Even if the Patriots stop Bell from running wild, he could really hurt them as a receiver. He caught 10 passes on 13 targets in last October's game, gaining 68 yards and converting a first down on 40% of those plays. In fact, he generated as many first downs receiving as he did rushing, even though he ran the ball more than twice as often as he caught it (21 to 10).

The Patriots simply had no answers for Bell when he came out of the backfield as a receiver. Their linebackers could not keep up, and that was with Collins in the fold. It could be even worse without him -- they simply do not have a linebacker with the speed to keep up with Bell play-after-play.

And that will likely be the crux of the game. The Patriots have a few options to consider. By now the gameplan is in place, but here is what you might see on Sunday.

They could employ their now-famous "Bullseye Defense," and hit Bell on every play, even when he doesn't have the ball, sacrificing QB pressure in the process. They used this to win their first Super Bowl, with Marshall Faulk being the target that day.

The coaches might call more blitzes, forcing Bell to stay in and block. But this only works if they correctly anticipate whether the play will be run or pass. If they blitz into a running play, one missed tackle can lead to a 25-yard run.

I think they are most likely to play a three-safety scheme. This would allow them to have Patrick Chung spy Bell and cover him if he comes out of the backfield. The downside is that either Duron Harmon or Devin McCourty would be responsible for the tight end, which is either a bad tight-end matchup (if it's Harmon) or would weaken their ability to stop the deep pass (if McCourty covers tight ends).

Referendum Game

No matter what scheme the Patriots use, this game will likely be a referendum on the Jamie Collins trade. Collins wasn't great in pass coverage, but his replacements are particularly poor at it. That hasn't hurt them to this point. But if Bell dominates in the passing game and the Patriots lose, many will question whether the Collins trade cost them a Super Bowl berth.

The NFL is a results business. If a decision works, it was the right one. If it doesn't, the decision-maker is judged incompetent.

So head coach Bill Belichick needs to pull out all the stops to win this one. Because if he doesn't, it will crack the facade of "In Bill We Trust" for many fans.

Enjoy the game and keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 15-2 & 1-0!

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