As the NFL playoffs have gone on, past “In The Trenches” articles have predicted the success that the offensive line and Le’Veon Bell would have against opposing teams. In their first two playoff matchups, the Steelers faced bottom 10 run defenses. In contrast, the New England Patriots finished the regular season tied for 3rd overall in run defense (the highest ranked run defense since the Pittsburgh Steelers faced the Ravens, and their #1 ranked rush defense at the time).
So, let’s break down the matchups and see how the Steelers’ running game fares in the AFC Championship game against the Patriots.
First I want to emphasize just how important the running game is going to be on Sunday. It will keep the ball out of Tom Brady’s hand’s and limit one of the best secondaries in all of football from exploiting any mistakes the Steelers make in the passing game. Per Pro Football Focus’ (PFF) rankings it’s very rare to have a player ranked as “elite”, or have a cumulative score of 90 or above for a season.
To give you an idea, Antonio Brown and Bell both have 89’s. The Patriots have two in the same secondary; Malcolm Butler and Devin McCourty score a 90.2 and 90.3 respectively. Luckily that isn’t the case in the Patriots front seven.
The Steelers offensive line might be the best overall unit left in the playoffs. They rank from 82.3 (Alejandro Villanueva) to 88.8 (Ramon Foster) with the best run blocking grade belonging to David DeCastro at 84.8. If the Steelers come out in run-heavy formations with Chris Hubbard (56.4) as a tight end, Jesse James (71.5) and Roosevelt Nix (82.8) blowing open holes from the fullback position, the Patriots are going to try to make life tough at the line of scrimmage. Alan Branch and Malcom Brown the Patriots defensive tackles have run stopping metrics of 82.5 and 79.8, not dominant, but solid, plus they have a trump card that we’ll touch on later; coaching.
On the edge the Steelers must game plan to offset the Patriots depth. They rotate five players with decent run stopping grades: Trey Flowers (80.8), Jabaal Sheard (75.2), Chris Long (69.2), Shea McClellin (62.0) and Rob Ninkovich (69.5). The Steelers may have to use no-huddle to limit the amount of substituting the Patriots use because two 300 pound linemen blocking five edge defenders in a rotation can cause fatigue on the top athletes.
When the Steelers use multiple tight end formations the Patriots will most likely counter with Sheard on Villanueva, Brown on Foster, Branch on DeCastro, and Long on Gilbert.
At the second level McClellin, Kyle Van Noy and strong safety Patrick Chung are the linebackers with Dont’a Hightower seeing significant time all over the place. Van Noy has a run metric of 50.4 (low for a middle linebacker), Chung’s grade is (68.4) which is solid, especially considering he’s a free safety and Hightower who’s run defense metric is 75.4 will all have some form of defensive responsibility for Bell when he’s on the field. Hopefully the Steelers line can control the line of scrimmage, over power the Patriots at the point of attack and open holes for Bell, despite the myriad of run stopping specialist on the Patriots roster.
Also, Bill Belichick should be considered. Last week, the Steelers were blowing the Chiefs off the ball with double teams at the point of attack. They were literally pushing defensive linemen into linebackers as Bell ran by them. In the second half, the Chiefs made an adjustment. They took a linebacker out of the box and let Ramik Wilson roam to slow Bell down. Because Wilson had more space to move, and was quick to the point of attack, he wasn’t getting pushed back by blocked Chiefs and was avoiding Steelers blockers as well. While it wasn’t a fool-proof plan, it slowed Bell down “relatively” in the 2nd half. Wilson piled up 15 tackles, by far the most in last week’s game.
Rest assured Belichick realized this in his film breakdown and of course he has the personnel to implement something similar. He could use Patrick Chung, a strong safety that plays some linebacker, or Hightower, the best overall linebacker on the Patriots.
One way to mitigate the Patriots front seven depth is to spread them out with 11 personnel. While the Patriots are known for making great adjustments on the fly, when offenses are in passing formations the Patriots have their pass rushers on the field. That means generally means Flowers, Branch, Valentine and Ninkovich. In this formation, a strong side double team from DeCastro and Gilbert on Valentine seems like the matchup that the Steelers would try to exploit.
But to do so, Jesse James must effectively block Ninkovich. While Ninkovich hasn’t had the best season this year but he has knack for shedding blocks and making plays.
All in all, if the Steelers can come out and just push the Patriots around at the point of attack (like they’ve done to their opposition the last two weeks) they will have another successful day at the office. If the Steelers line, as good as it is, cannot dominate with pure power football they must mix up the play calling and personnel groupings to keep the Patriots guessing.
If they become predictable, they’ll run into trouble early and often.
Belichick is known for taking away a team’s number one weapon, but he won’t be able to do so if the Steelers make sure there are no Patriots near Bell to tackle him. Whether that happens due to good old smash mouth football, or by keeping the Patriots guessing they should stick with what works. if they can avoid being out-coached, an effective Steelers running game will have a major effect on who represents the AFC in the Super Bowl.