January 17, 2017
Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers is tackled by Devin McCourty #32, Duron Harmon #30 and Malcolm Butler #21 of the New England Patriots in the first half during the game at Heinz Field on October 23, 2016 in Pittsburgh.
There’s a lot of flash and pizazz to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ explosive offense, especially when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger lets it rip.
But the Patriots’ true concern this week as they prepare for Sunday’s AFC Championship Game? It’s the Steelers’ power.
The Pittsburgh offense truly runs through Le’Veon Bell, whose unparalleled rushing style creates problems for even the most disciplined of defenses. That’s why, despite having the day off yesterday, many Pats were fully immersed in their preparation with film study for Bell and the other problems the Steelers present.
In Bell’s nine games since Week 10, he has 1,129 rushing yards, 336 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. And during their eight-game winning streak since Week 11, he has averaged 27.5 carries and 4.3 catches per outing, so the Steelers are letting it ride with their most dominant weapon.
“He is good all of the time,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said.
Bell’s patience immediately stands out, as he’ll wait for the offensive line to set up their blocking matchups, sometimes even by stopping entirely before accelerating through the hole. And despite his unorthodox vertical, seemingly effortless running style, Bell can cut around a tackler or a blocker with speed and precision. He is also deceptively strong, and that combination of assets helps him turn a little into a lot, as plays commonly appear to be over when Bell disappears into a crowd before he emerges with a nice gain.
That’s the frustrating part for a defense, because they can play technically sound with their gap control and Bell can still slither through a crack.
“Really, very dynamic in his ability to make people miss in open space from a tackling standpoint, a very patient runner,” Pats defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. “It’s kind of a different style of running game where he kind of gets to the line of scrimmage and really just finds that hole or that seam, and he has this incredible burst to be able to get through.”
And then there’s the matter of the Steelers offensive line, which is led by a pair of Pro Bowlers in center Maurkice Pouncey and right guard David DeCastro. On many of Bell’s runs up the middle for 8-10 yards, he has two or three linemen right there alongside him at the end of the play.
The Steelers have a great blocking scheme, too. They’ll set up double teams to create a wall for Bell, and they’re also proficient at devising plans to get their offensive linemen into the second level. The Patriots are cognizant of that tactic, and the linebackers don’t want to be stuck in a compromising position that can allow a short gain to turn into something far greater.
Some of those second-level blocking assignments are straight up, but others involve pulling linemen. They typically like to pull from right to left, particularly with DeCastro, but they had several plays in Sunday’s divisional round win in Kansas City against the Chiefs when they pulled from left to right, including a 17-yard run when Pouncey was running almost stride for stride with Bell down the right sideline.
“I think the offensive line, these guys are big and long and strong, and they just cover you up,” Patricia said. “They really do a great job of getting into their blocks and making it very difficult for the defensive line to get off. And then with the speed of Bell and the burst of Bell through the line of scrimmage it’s very difficult to get a good hit on him.”
If the Pats don’t stop Bell, they don’t have a prayer, so that’s where it starts. To their credit, the defense held him to 81 yards over 21 carries in Week 7 when the Steelers relied on him with backup quarterback Landry Jones playing for Roethlisberger. The Pats also haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher since November 2015, and it’s only happened four times in 32 Belichick-coached playoff games.
Stopping Bell is about winning matchups, so it wouldn’t be a shock if rookie linebacker Elandon Roberts earned increased playing time because he has been one of their best run defenders. Front-seven anchors like linebacker Dont’a Hightower and linemen Alan Branch and Trey Flowers have been so good against the run that the Pats have the pieces fight back against Bell.
From there, it’s about matchups in the passing game. Cornerback Malcolm Butler should draw a heavy dose of wide receiver Antonio Brown, and safety Devin McCourty will provide help. The Patriots should feel good about that because Butler has been consistently good all season and McCourty has had a terrific two-month stretch, including last Saturday when he played one of the best games of his career in the divisional round win against the Texans.
Cornerback Logan Ryan would then take Eli Rogers or whoever draws the snaps as the second receiver, and safety Patrick Chung will have an important task against tight end Jesse James. Chung has only allowed tight ends to catch 13 passes on 27 targets for 146 yards and one touchdown this season.
The Patriots also have to be aware of some of Pittsburgh’s creativity through the air. The Steelers prey on teams that are consumed by Bell and Brown, so they’ll occasionally stack them out wide to stress the coverage.
But really, the Pats will start with Bell and trust their coverage assignments. That’s how to ensure the Killer B’s don’t ruin their Super Bowl LI party.