Here are five reasons the Steelers can beat the Patriots in the AFC title game
History hasn't been kind to the Steelers when they've faced Tom Brady and the Patriots
Since Brady took over early in the 2001 season, the Patriots are 9-3 in head-to-head meetings with the Steelers, including 2-0 in the playoffs. That first loss came two-plus years before Ben Roethlisberger was drafted; Brady and the Patriots beat Kordell Stewart's Steelers in the AFC title game 24-17 and a week later, they had their first Super Bowl title.
The two teams met again in 2004, Roethlisberger's rookie season. Pittsburgh manhandled New England in Week 8 -- the Steelers jumped out to a 21-3 first-quarter lead thanks to two Big Ben-to-Plaxico Burress touchdown passes and a Brady pick-six. Roethlisberger, who went 13-0 as a rookie, had 196 passing yards. Duce Staley, Jerome Bettis and Co. rushed for 221 yards and Pittsburgh dominated time of possession 42:58 to 17:02.
Three months later, the Steelers were back in the AFC Championship Game, and again they were facing the Patriots for the right to go to the Super Bowl. This time, New England was ready; it forced the game through Roethlisberger, who threw three interceptions, including a second-quarter pick-six that gave New England a 24-3 halftime lead.
From 2005 to 2016, the Steelers have beaten the Patriots twice -- in 2008, when Matt Cassel was the starter (Brady was lost in Week 1 to a knee injury) and again in 2011, when Big Ben threw the ball 50 times. Otherwise, it has been all Patriots, all the time, and it didn't matter where the game was played
Here are Brady's regular-season numbers against Pittsburgh:
- Home (4 games): 70.8 completion percentage, 1,413 yards, 15 touchdowns, zero interceptions, seven sacks, 132.7 passer rating;
- Road (5 games): 68.6 completion percentage, 1,413 yards, nine touchdowns, three interceptions, 10 sacks, 101.8 passer rating
There's more: Brady's passer rating is north of 100.0 in each of his past six games against Pittsburgh, and on three occasions, he has thrown four touchdowns (and in the three other games, he has thrown three, two and two).
So, yeah, things are looking bleak for the Steelers. But there's also reason for optimism; the conversation starts with Roethlsiberger, Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell, though if you're the Patriots, not necessarily in that order.
The Steelers are 7-0 in the postseason when Roethlisberger throws for fewer than 225 yards. They're 0-3 when he throws for more than 300 yards.
Yes, Big Ben has two Lombardi Trophies, is a five-time Pro Bowl selection and a future Hall of Famer, but the Patriots' game plan to slow one of the league's most explosive offenses will, in all likelhood, involve making Roethlisberger beat them with his arm. On the surface, it seems counter-intuitive ... until you consider this:
Roethlisberger is 13-6 in his postseason career, but the Steelers are 7-0 when he throws for fewer than 225 yards. They're 0-3 when he's forced to throw for more than 300 yards.
That coupled with the reality that Bell is the Steelers' most dangerous player and it seems reasonable that Belichick will make stopping Bell his Priority No. 1.
So how can the Steelers go into Gillette Stadium and pull off the near-impossible? Let's talk about that.
Find ways (conventional or otherwise) to get Bell the ball
Here's the thing: Can Bell be stopped for an entire game? Early in the season he wasn't as consistently dominant as he has been lately; Bell averaged 4.3 yards per carry in the first five games, including that loss to the Pats, but the man has been otherworldly in the past two months.
Since Week 11, which coincides with the Steelers' nine-game winning streak, Bell has averaged 27.5 attempts, 146.5 rushing yards (5.3 YPC), 32.4 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. Despite being the NFL's most versatile back, Bell has been primarily a rusher in recent weeks. But if the Patriots scheme to stop that, he can seamlessly morph into one of the best pass catchers on the field; Bell has had eight or more receptions in four games, three coming early in the season. This is the dilemma facing Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, who will undoubtedly take a page out of the Chiefs' playbook.
So what's the plan?
"I think defensively he really forces you to be disciplined," Belichick said Monday. "You jump out of there too quickly then you open up gaps and open up space. Le'Veon has a great burst through the hole. He doesn't really need long to get through there, runs with good pad level. He's hard to tackle so if you don't get a full body on him then he'll run right through those arm tackles. [He] really forces everybody to be sound in their gaps. Like I said, getting off and jumping around blocks or trying to get to the hole too quickly just opens up cut-back lanes or stays in the front somewhere and he does a great job of finding it. I mean, team defense is the only way to stop it. There's no one guy that can stop him. You're going to have to have everybody doing a good job in a number of different areas all the way across the front and then do a good job of tackling."
When the teams met in Week 7, dynamic linebacker Jamie Collins was still on the Patriots' roster. A week later, he was traded to the Browns, but New England's defense has actually improved in the two months since. The unit ranks 16th, according to Football Outsiders' metrics, but it's fourth against the run, behind only the Jets, Seahawks and Giants.
The Steelers didn't face the Seahawks this season (and Bell missed last season's matchup with a knee injury), but here's what he did against the Jets and Giants this season:
- Week 5, Jets: 20 rushes, 66 yards (3.3 YPC), nine receptions, 88 yards (9.8 YPR); Steelers won, 31-13
- Week 13, Giants: 29 rushes, 118 yards (4.1 YPC), six receptions, 64 yards (10.7 YPR); Steelers won, 24-14
Dallas, which ranked eighth against the run, held Bell to 57 yards on the ground in Week 10, but he hauled in nine passes for 77 yards and a score in a game the Steelers lost 35-30 in the final seconds.
Still, the point remains: A defense might be able to limit Bell in one phase of the game, but shutting him down completely is another matter.
Put another way: Belichick ain't letting Le'Veon Bell decide this thing. Then again, that might be out of Belichick's hands.
Good Ben has to show up for 60 minutes (or more)
We know the Patriots are stout against the run, but they're one of the league's worst pass defenses, ranking 23rd. Still, we're of the opinion that offensive coordinator Todd Haley's game plan should prominently feature Bell. Roethlisberger has carried this team countless times through his 13-year career, but there's no need for him to do it with Bell sharing the backfield.
Of course, that doesn't mean the Steelers should abandon the pass altogether. Partly because of Roethlisberger's aforementioned talents, but also because Antonio Brown can beat man coverage on every play should the Patriots decide to devote an extra man to the box to slow Bell.
And maybe that's the lesser-of-two-evils approach Belichick is willing to embrace; stop Bell and let cornerback Malcolm Butler do his best against Brown. Here's the thing: According to Football Outsiders, the Patriots are 20th in the league when it comes to stopping the opponent's No. 1 receiver. That's good news for Ben and Brown.
But there's more!
And there's more still!
The Patriots are 20th against pass-catching running backs.
You see where this is going.
Bell will get his touches. And when he doesn't, Roethlisberger has to avoid the dumb turnovers that sometimes plague him, particularly when he's not playing at Heinz Field.
- Heinz Field: 70.8 completion percentage, 20 touchdowns, five interceptions, 116.7 passer rating
- Away from Heinz Field: 60.0 completion percentage, nine TDs, nine INTs, 78.0 passer rating
It's easy to explain away some of the miscues as Roethlisberger relying too much on Brown, and more generally, his development as a complete NFL quarterback making throws a lesser passer wouldn't attempt. But the Steelers are also one game from the Super Bowl, which means that there will be no "I'll have to play better next week" mea culpas because, well, there won't be a next week if he comes out throwing mindless interceptions.
On that note ...
Somebody besides Brown needs to step up
Which means that the Steelers could need another playmaker to step up. Sammie Coates looked like the player earlier in the season, but two broken fingers and a hamstring injury have rendered him ineffective for months now. Darrius Heyward-Bey has returned from a midseason foot injury, but he hasn't been the deep threat he was previously. Rogers has had a solid season and has become a reliable target, but the Steelers really could use tight end Ladarius Green. He's a legit middle-of-the-field threat who missed the first half of the season with an ankle injury, started to find his niche over the next few weeks only to suffer a concussion in Week 15. He has been in the concussion protocol since then. Even if Green is active against the Patriots, he probably won't be a big part of the game plan, but that doesn't mean the Steelers can't use him to create matchup problems elsewhere on the field.
Even if Green can't go, second-year tight end Jesse James is coming off the best game of his career; he had five catches for 83 yards against the Chiefs.
"I thought Jesse James had a great game," Roethlisberger said this week, via Jim Wexell of ProFootballWeekly.com. "I thought Eli stepped up and did some things. We're using guys. Cobi [Hamilton] had his usual one catch, it's a big catch a game. Hey-Bey's in there. Sammie's really coming back to us. So, we've got a lot of guys that I think can make plays for us outside of the usual suspects, if you will. Even if it's one or two big plays a game, sometimes that can be enough if the play's made at the right time."
It sounds good when Roethlisberger says it, but the Steelers need to see those results on the field to have a chance Sunday.
Brown can't pull an Odell
Yes, we know. It sounds like we're feeding into the nonsense. In Week 17, Odell Beckham and a few of the Giants' wideouts made their way from Washington, D.C., fresh off beating the Redskins, to party with Justin Bieber in Miami. Word got out, and that became the story heading into the Giants' wild-card matchup with the Packers the next week.
New York lost handily, though all that most folks will remember is that Beckham had one of his worst games as a pro. This poor performance had nothing to do with his trip to South Beach. If we had to guess, he was bothered more by the sub-arctic temperatures at Lambeau Field. Whatever the reason, the whole episode was classified as a "huge distraction" and the Giants spent the ensuing days explaining why Beckham needs to grow up.
This brings us to Brown, who fired up Facebook Live in the moments following the Steelers' victory over the Chiefs, and just in time to broadcast coach Mike Tomlin's postgame talk with his team. Ironically, Brown wasn't even paying attention -- even if the world was -- and Tomlin's remarks have no doubt become bulletin-board material for a Patriots team that can find motivation just about anywhere.
Tomlin and Big Ben have proclaimed their disappointment and Brown has apologized, and God help us all if Brown plays as poorly as Beckham did against the Packers. But here's the thing: Brown's selfish moment shouldn't overshadow the fact that no one outworks him. Here's what NFL Network's Aditi Kinkhabwala wrote 12 months ago.
Brown's work ethic is legendary in these parts. He doesn't have the measurables of a prototypical top-flight receiver (though Steelers coach Mike Tomlin laughed, "Try telling him that"). He doesn't have one obvious otherworldly skill, like John Brown's speed or Odell Beckham Jr.'s hands. But he works. He'll run ladders for hours after practice has ended, he has more catches over the last two years (265) than anyone has EVER had in a two-year span and he still works on the jugs machine, catching balls, every week. He goes to a Gold's Gym at night, when most of his teammates are headed to bed, and James Harrison, the NFL's noted workout master, said if on a scale of 1-10, his own commitment is a 10+, "Antonio is right there with me."
Here's Haley during training camp in 2014: "[Brown] works as hard as anybody that I have seen. He is very driven to prove that he is among the elite guys at his position right now. I think from a big picture standpoint, he is one that they will talk about for a long time."
And here's left guard Ramon Foster in December 2014: "His work ethic is the best, bar none. If you see him practice, you can understand his production. He's the standard for the wide receiver position."
That work ethic hasn't changed. Brown, who usually plays big in big bames, will be motivated to prove his skeptics wrong. And before you dismiss Brown as a self-absorbed diva, remember, this was three weeks ago:
There's this too:
#Steelers WR Antonio Brown has 100 receiving yards in 4 straight playoff games.— Dom Rinelli (@drinelli) January 18, 2017
No player in NFL playoff history has had a five game streak
It might all hinge on the Steelers' defense
For all the words we've spent on Ben, Bell and Brown, it could very well be the Steelers' defense that decides this game. For the first month of the season, the D was inconsistent at best, problematic at worst. The unit rarely blitzed, which probably had something to do with three rookies seeing significant playing time.
In Weeks 1-8, the Steelers managed just eight sacks. In Weeks 9-16? They had 27 sacks, and have added six more in two postseason games. Pittsburgh has had limited success against Brady, whether they blitz him or not. But the last time they beat him, during the 2011 season, they not only came after him, they also switched from their typical zone-coverage scheme and opted for man-to-man.
But that was more than five years ago. Rosters have changed and Brady has gotten smarter. But Texans coach Bill O'Brien made an interesting point Saturday, after his defense got after Brady, who had his worst game of the season.
"I think the one thing about blueprint and stuff like that is each team is going to have to do their own thing," O'Brien told reporters. "What we did tonight, we've been doing it in different ways all year; we're a very active front. So whatever the next team is, Pittsburgh or Kansas City, they've got to do what they do. That's just how we do it."
Stated another way: At this point in the proceedings, a team can't change its identity. This is good news for the Steelers' defense, which has evolved into a legitimate pass-rushing group.
The leader: 38-year-old James Harrison. But here's a name to watch: Ryan Shazier. The 2014 first-round pick is the fastest linebacker in football and he's getting hot at exactly the right time.
All the arm-waving in the world won't will the Steelers to a win. Here's the bottom line: If Pittsburgh wants to get to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2010 season, it will need flawless performances on both sides of the ball. Anything less than that, and they'll join the rest of us on the couch for the final game of the 2016 season.
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