Source: Phil Perry Comcast Sports Network New England
As New England fans, I think sometimes we take for granted just how lucky we are to be able to watch Bill Belichick and Tom Brady go to work every week of the season.
Sure, almost every expert on the planet picked the Patriots to make it back to the AFC Championship game this year but just because they did doesn’t mean we should take that for granted.
With that being said, I do believe the Patriots should win on Sunday but Pittsburgh poses a very tough matchup for the Patriots and if New England wants to come out on top they are going to need key contributions from some important position groups.
The first positional group that is going to need to produce in order for New England to be playing on February 5th in Houston is the running backs. Back in week 7 when the Patriots went on the road and beat Pittsburgh 27-16, the RB’s carried a big load. Between the two of them, Legarrette Blount and James White combined for 166 yards and 3 touchdowns. Now, you throw Dion Lewis into that mix (who, oh by the way, just so happened to scorch Pittsburgh to the tune of 120 yards last season) and the Steelers have a problem on their hands.
Blount had great success running the ball back in week 7 and I do believe he should be able to have more success with that this week. The Steelers linebackers are definitely a stout group but aside from Shazier, coverage definitely isn’t their strong suit. Look for McDaniels to try and isolate both White and Lewis on those backers. If the Patriots can get favorable matchups there, look for them to attack it all game long. In my opinion the running backs as a group should accumulate over 200 yards. I seriously believe a lot of the offense will be run through them on Sunday.
The second positional group that I believe needs to be on their “A” game is the defensive line. Malcom Brown, Alan Branch, Vincent Valentine and even Trey Flowers/Jabaal Sheard when they are lined up in a 3 technique certainly have their work cut out for them trying to slow down Le’Veon Bell. Even though Bell is one of the best in the league, the Patriots rushing defense has been lights out for the entire second half of the season and a large part of that is thanks to the big guys up front. Listen to this:
-The Patriots have not given up a rushing touchdown in the last nine games. That’s incredible.
-The Patriots have also played 7 games against top 10 running backs this year (including Le’Veon Bell), and not one has reached 100 yards rushing AND they have only given up 1 TD to that elite group.
-The Patriots have not given up 90 yards rushing to a RB in 24 straight games.
I think the Steelers will be much more reliant on Bell this time around compared to how they were in week 7 because I feel like they have gotten much more aggressive running the football, and even though I do think he will eclipse 100 yards rushing, I believe the Patriots should be able to keep him in check for the most part.
In the playoffs, Bell has run wild against the Dolphins and the Chiefs but those run defenses aren’t like the Patriots’. Miami had the 30th ranked run defense giving up 140.4 yards per game, Kansas City had the 26th ranked run defense giving up 121.1 yards per game but New England has the 3rd ranked run defense only giving up 88.6 yards per game. If the Patriots want to win this game a HUGE chunk of it falls on the shoulders of the New England run defense.
Another positional group that is going to need to be crisper than they were last week is the interior offensive line. For one of the few times this season left guard Joe Thuney, center David Andrews and right guard Shaq Mason had a rough time in pass protection against the Texans. I understand they are a much better defense than what the Steelers have to offer but I think Pittsburgh might try to use some of the techniques that the Texans presented last week. For example, Houston used both Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney to stunt the A gap right over David Andrews. When Houston got pressure on Brady it typically came from through the interior offensive line. Obviously Nate Solder is going to have an incredibly tough task trying to slow down James Harrison so between Thuney, Andrews and Mason, those three need to be able to pass off defenders with much more ease than they did last week.
It’s definitely going to be a battle come Sunday night in Foxboro but what more can you ask for? Two of the NFL’s most storied franchises. Brady vs. Big Ben. 27 AFC Championship game appearances combined. 10 Super Bowl victories between the two. 16 Super Bowl appearances with another one on the line this weekend. Lets get it done.