“Yeah, they’re really good. They’re a tremendous offense,” New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick told reporters during his conference call on Monday. “Kansas City was able to make some plays in the red-area, but I mean they could’ve easily been up in the 40s last night. They do a lot of things well; can run it, can throw it. [Antonio] Brown’s the main guy, but all of the receivers, tight ends, backs, I mean they’re all a problem. [Ben] Roethlisberger is really good, can make all of the throws. It looks like his mobility is good. They’re doing a great job. They’re a good offense.”
That leaves Belichick, whose defensive philosophy hinges on taking away the single best thing an opposing offense does, in a pickle. Does he try to stop Bell, and risk opening up a passing game that led the league with the most touchdown passes of 20 or more yards (13), or does he take away the passing game and let Bell, who averaged 4.9 yards per carry this season, and close to three yards per carry after contact (2.8), run amok?
If history is any guide, look for the Patriots to stop the pass and take their chances with Bell on the ground.
When Belichick was the defensive coordinator for the New York Giants in 1990, he told his players “We’re going to let Thurman Thomas get 100 yards,” in Super Bowl XXV. The strategy worked. Thomas had 135 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries, but Jim Kelly and the Buffalo Bills’ passing game was limited to 212 yards and zero touchdowns. The Giants went on to win 20-19.
During Super Bowl XXXVI, Belichick, as coach of the Patriots, took away the run and forced the St. Louis Rams to beat them through the air, picking off two of Kurt Warner’s passes and adding three sacks in the Patriots’ 20-17 win.
It sounds counter intuitive for a team like New England, which hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher since November 2015, to not focus on the run yet the strategy isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. Bell ran for 170 yards — 106 yards in the first half — against the Chiefs in Sunday’s divisional game but couldn’t make it into the end zone. However, to beat Roethlisberger, the best passer this Patriots team has faced in months, it will have to keep the Steelers’ offense from making big plays. And that means shutting down Brown.
When these two teams met in 2015 during the season opener Brown was covered the entire game by Patriots corner Malcolm Butler. This year, however, New England prefers to cover the opponent’s No. 1 receiver with help from safety Logan Ryan, leaving Butler to shut down the team’s No. 2 option, similar to what the Patriots did against DeAndre Hopkins and the Houston Texans in Sunday’s divisional game.
In that game, Hopkins had just one of his nine targets with Butler in primary coverage, leaving Ryan along with Eric Rowe, Patrick Chung, Dont’a Hightower and Devin McCourty to limit Hopkins to five catches on eight targets for 61 yards and two interceptions. Butler’s assignment, Will Fuller, made two catches on five targets for 14 yards with one pass tipped.
If the Patriots can neutralize Brown like they did Hopkins, the Steelers passing game is in trouble. Roethlisberger has a 115.6 passer rating on throws to Brown this season, including the playoffs, but just a 88.4 rating on passes to the other receivers on the roster. Bell is a threat to catch passes out of the backfield, but he averages just 1.42 yards per route run after catching a pass from Roethlisberger, tying him for seventh-most among 17 running backs targeted on at least half their team’s pass attempts to a member of the backfield.
After Brown and perhaps Bell, the Steelers don’t have many reliable pass-catching options. Eli Rogers caught 48 of 66 passes during the regular season for 594 yards and three touchdowns. Tight end Jesse James caught 39 of 60 targets for 338 yards and three touchdowns. In the playoffs, Brown has as many targets (20) as Rogers and James combined (16).
And when the Steelers have trouble passing, they lose. During the regular season, Pittsburgh averaged 7.2 net yards per attempt in wins and 5.4 in losses, which is roughly the difference between the performances of the Dallas Cowboys and Cleveland Browns in 2016. The Patriots won’t have to turn the Steelers into the Browns to beat them. Something closer to any of the other AFC teams they’ve vanquished this season will do just fine.