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Patriots must stop Bell and the Steelers’ blitz to win AFC

New England won earlier game, but Pittsburgh has all its weapons now

I am frustrated with the oversimplification of football analysis. As a cornerback, I am familiar with being blamed by media and fans for a deep pass caught on my side despite not being responsible for the deep zone. So this season, I will be watching the coaches’ video and analyzing the impact of all 22 players on the field and the coaches’ game plan.

After the New England Patriots defeated the Houston Texans on Jan. 14, I am sure the Patriots were watching the Sunday evening game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Kansas City Chiefs. While I know the Patriots, as a whole team, felt they could beat either of their potential opponents in the AFC championship game on Jan. 22, my guess is the offense and defense were hoping for different outcomes.

On Jan. 14, the Pats offensive line was ravaged by Houston’s ferocious front. Quarterback Tom Brady was under pressure or hit more often than usual by the defense. And it showed in his two-interception performance. So, I cannot believe that the Pats would be eager to face the Chiefs’ pass rushers. As for the Patriots’ defense on Jan. 14, they punished the Texans’ underwhelming offense. If they were to play Kansas City in the next round, there would be a high probability that they could repeat that performance. But, if they were given the choice of opponents, it is unlikely that they would choose to face the Steelers.

Bell is key for Steelers

Well, the Steelers won. And if you’ve read my All 22 on the Steelers, you know how much I enjoy watching them frustrate defenses with their rather simple offense. Their play design is smart, but not complicated. It doesn’t need to be. Because they have Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell.

Most football fans know that Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s defenses always aim to take away what the opponent does best. They want to force the opponent to try to play left-handed. But what if the opponent is ambidextrous, to continue this metaphor? Who will the Patriots aim to shut down?

In my view, Bell, the running back, is the most important player on the Steelers’ offense. So, the Patriots will play cover 1 or cover 3 on early downs, to ensure that they have the Steelers outnumbered in the running game. Unfortunately for the Pats, the Steelers’ offensive line and Bell’s unbelievable patience as a runner, combined with his vision and acceleration, make him successful even when outnumbered. Bell’s running style causes defenders to lose discipline and get out of their gaps or lose containment. On so many of his long runs, you can find two defenders in the same gap because he stalled in front of it, then he burst to the vacated hole. He uses the defense’s zeal to stop him against them and preys on the one player who is undisciplined. Even on good defenses, chances are someone will make a mistake every three or four rushing attempts.

But the Patriots are a particularly smart and disciplined bunch. When they played the Steelers in week 7, they held Bell to 3.86 yards per carry, which is below the league average and a full yard below Bell’s average.

The Patriots won the game by 11 points but, don’t get too confident, Patriots fans. Landry Jones was the Steelers’ starting quarterback for that game. Roethlisberger was injured, so the Steelers’ passing attack was less than full strength. But even with a backup quarterback at the helm, the Patriots struggled to contain Brown, who had seven receptions for 106 yards.

How will Patriots cover Brown?

When facing a superstar receiver, the Patriots have historically defended them differently from many teams. Rather than have their best cornerback shadow the top receiver, they have counterintuitively had their second-best cornerback follow the top receiver and their best corner cover the offense’s No. 2 receiver. The Patriots believed that their best corner could handle the second receiver with no help, freeing up a safety to double the top receiver. For some reason, they went away from that tactic for parts of this season.

In the week 7 game against the Steelers, the Patriots’ best cornerback, Malcolm Butler, shadowed Brown. On third downs, they would double cover Brown. In week 6, the Patriots played Cincinnati, which has A.J. Green. Butler, normally a left corner, played on the right side of the field for most of the game and ended up covering Brandon LaFell most of the time. And just last week in the divisional playoff game against the Texans, the Patriots started the game with Butler on DeAndre Hopkins, the Texans’ top receiver. But the very next series, Butler was shadowing Will Fuller, the Texans No. 2 receiver. Throughout the game the Patriots switched it up some, but for the most part Butler went away from Hopkins.

I am not sure how the Patriots will defend Brown this weekend. My guess is that Butler will go away from Brown and they will double him most of the game, which will put a great deal of pressure on the safeties and linebackers who will be asked to cover Bell when he lines up outside like a receiver.

I know I said that the Patriots would rather face the Steelers than the Chiefs. But, that doesn’t mean that this will be a walk in the park. The Steelers’ defense is playing much better now than they were earlier in the season. And the Patriots had the services of a special someone who is now injured.

The Steelers are a team that blitzes to get pressure. The Patriots’ offensive outcome will be decided by how well they handle the blitz. Which would have been a lot easier if they could just throw it up to Rob Gronkowski. Since that is not an option, Brady will need to recognize the blitzes pre-snap and communicate the appropriate adjustments to the protection and the routes. Seems easy enough, right?

Brady is one of the best quarterbacks of all time. There is no blitz he hasn’t seen and hasn’t beaten. But he and his coaches need to use formations, shifts, and dummy cadences to get the defense to show their blitzes pre-snap. No offense consistently performs well against a well-disguised blitz. If Brady and the rest of the offense knows when the blitz is coming and where it’s coming from, they can adjust the protection accordingly. That matters because if you have the wrong protection, one of three things is likely to happen: Brady will get hit or sacked, Brady will have to throw the ball quickly to a route that is short of the first down, or they’ll keep in too many people to ensure that Brady isn’t hit or rushed, leaving just two or three receivers against seven or eight in coverage.

Situations like this is why getting home field advantage is so important. Because the ability to communicate verbally makes adjusting to the blitz much easier.

I guess I am supposed to pick a winner. I don’t know. The Patriots have a better defense, so I will go with them.

Domonique Foxworth is a senior writer at Andscape. He is a recovering pro athlete and superficial intellectual.