After a long and uneventful NFL regular season (and wild card weekend), the NFL playoffs have started to ramp up in terms of game intensity and quality of play. The showdown between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs provided us with some old school, physical play, with the eventual winners, the Steelers, prevailing on a key third down conversion late in the fourth quarter.
The New England Patriots played very sloppy football, and still found a way to cover the enormous spread, against a dreadful Houston Texans team.
With these two rivals facing each other for the first time in the playoffs since the 2004 AFC championship, a lop-sided affair that led to the Patriots third Super Bowl win in four years, it’s time to look at the key match ups, and break down the game plan for both teams to earn the right to represent the AFC in Super Bowl 51.
The Pittsburgh Steelers
After vying for a playoff spot the last couple weeks of the regular season, the Pittsburgh Steelers will be traveling to Gillette Stadium, a place they have dreaded since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady took over in New England. The Steelers are 1-4 in Gillette since 2002 in the regular season, with the only win coming against Matt Cassel during Brady’s missed season in 2008.
The biggest ‘X-factor’ in this game is quarterback Ben Roethsliberger. Now, I know, x-factors are not supposed to be players who play at a consistently high level. This year though, Big Ben has struggled massively away from Heinz Field. On the road in the regular season, Big Ben has completed 59% of his passes, averaged 238 yards/gm and has thrown 9 TDs and 8 INTs for a passer rating of 78.4, a sharp contrast from his 116.7 passer rating at home.
Against the Kansas City Chiefs, Big Ben posted another ugly stat-line, on the road, throwing for 224 yards, 0 TDs and 1 INT. It is a very odd disparity between home Ben and road Ben, but road Ben needs to find home Ben and bring him to Foxborough Sunday night, if the Steelers want a good shot at winning this game.
The Patriots will almost assuredly take running back Le’Veon Bell out of this game (more on that later), so Big Ben will need to make plays down the field to keep up with the Patriots offense. The Patriots defense has been playing very well, but the lack of depth at cornerback is suspect.
Malcolm Butler is a top five cornerback in the league, and Logan Ryan has played well recently, but cornerback Eric Rowe has been susceptible in the passing game. Not only Rowe, but safety Patrick Chung has been horrendous this year, ranking as the 87th best safety out of a qualified 92 players, per Pro Football Focus player grades.
On defense, the Steelers must force at least a turnover or two. Although they have been playing well as of late, Tom Brady’s success against the Steelers’ defense is ridiculous. He has thrown 24 TDs and 3 INTs, to go along with a 114.2 passer rating, in 9 career regular season match ups against the Black & Gold.
Most of those games were against former defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau, but even two games against current defensive coordinator Keith Butler, Brady has averaged 255 yards/gm, and thrown 6 TDs and 0 INTs, with a passer rating north of 120.
Brady will get his points against this defense, but if the defense can come up with a forced turnover or two, the Steelers offense will have extra opportunities to outscore the Patriots, which is their best shot at the upset.
The New England Patriots
Playing in their 7th straight conference championship game, an NFL record, the Patriots look to secure their 7th Super Bowl appearance since 2001. As stated before, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have had incredible success against the historic franchise.
The Patriots offense sputtered last week against a top defensive unit, so look for quarterback Tom Brady to get back on track after a dreadful game. The Patriots skill position players are mostly banged up, so Brady is going to have to put 110% in this game.
The running game is key for the Patriots offense in this game. In their regular season matchup earlier in the year, the former Steeler running back LeGarrette Blount had 24 carries for 127 yards, averaging 5.3 yards/carry, and adding two rushing touchdowns.
The production on the ground was fantastic, but it allowed the Patriots to perform a lot of play action in the game, constantly freezing the linebackers and safeties, and allowing Brady plenty of time to throw in the second half of the game.
The second key for the Patriots offense is their offensive line. As they learned the hard way during last year’s AFC championship game against the Denver Broncos, when Brady is getting hit on almost every pass play, the Patriots chances of winning diminish significantly. Against emerging pass rusher Bud Dupree, and 38 year old linebacker James Harrison, the tackles will have their work cut out for them.
On defense, the main focus for them should be to stop running back Le’Veon Bell. His patience, and ability to accelerate in a moment’s notice makes Bell an incredibly tough running back to defend. Lucky for the Patriots, their defensive tackles, Alan Branch and Malcolm Brown, both make their money by being able to swallow double teams, and wreak havoc in the backfield.
Branch and Brown both rank 9th and 17th in run defense, respectively, among a qualified 115 interior defensive linemen, which has led to the Patriots run defense to rank third in the league. The Pittsburgh offensive line is a tough challenge, so this should be a fun matchup to watch in the trenches.
Antonio Brown is the best wideout in the league, and has torched the Patriots in recent meetings. They have mostly placed Malcolm Butler on an island against him, and while Butler is a top cornerback in the league, it would not be wise to put anyone on an island against Brown.
The Patriots have often put cornerback Logan Ryan in man to man coverage against top wideouts, and put safety help over the top, so Ryan can play man under and eliminate the short routes, while the safety takes away the deep routes. Obviously, easier said than done, but it has been an effective strategy for the Patriots in the past.
As previously stated, Big Ben has not been good on the road, to put it mildly. If the Patriots defense wants to continue that trend, they must get pressure on the quarterback. Emerging defensive end Trey Flowers has been playing out of his mind in the second half of the season, so he is a key player in this game.
Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia has also been calling more aggressive game plans in the second half of the season, sending extra rushers from a ton of different positions. He must continue this to not allow Big Ben an extended amount of time in the pocket.
The Bottom Line
This should be a close matchup between two physical teams, and both of the quarterbacks will be the key to the game. For the Steelers, they need to effectively run the ball and stop the run on defense, so they can set up obvious passing downs, and try to get to quarterback Tom Brady.
On the other side, it is key for the Patriots to play turnover-free football, and not give the ‘Killer B’s’ extra possessions, especially in their own territory. On defense, Le’Veon Bell should be priority number one, and set up bracket coverage on wideout Antonio Brown.