Breaking down the schemes and matchups we’ll likely see in the AFC Championship Game

By Andy Benoit
January 20, 2017

Patriots’ O vs. Steelers’ D

This is the third time the Patriots have seen the Steelers since the start of last year, and each time it’s been a drastically different Steelers defense. In the first matchup (Week 1 of 2015) it was a slow, declining secondary playing behind mediocre edge rushers. In the second matchup, Week 7 of this year, it was a callow secondary behind a rotation of even more mediocre edge rushers. Now the youngsters have developed and it’ll be a faster, livelier secondary. And the edge rusher situation has been sorted out: second-year sparkplug Bud Dupree is getting better by the week and James Harrison continues to pummel Father Time.

But there’s been one constant throughout all three matchups: Pittsburgh’s inside linebackers Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons. The Steelers are a nickel-based zone defense. This means the Patriots can, if they want to, ensure matchups for wide receivers against these linebackers by aligning the receivers inside or running them on crossing patterns. This is the nexus of the Patriots’ offense, and it was the backbone of their game plan in Week 7.

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We think of the Patriots’ quick-strike throws here, but consider: this offense has thrown the ball 16-plus yards downfield 7.6 times a game since Week 8. That’s considerably higher than in recent history. Against the Texans, Tom Brady was 6 of 14 for 181 yards here. There’s no question the Patriots have evolved into much more of a balanced passing attack—one that goes north and south as much as it goes east and west. So when Brady goes after Pittsburgh’s inside linebackers (and he will) it’s on free safety Mike Mitchell to help.

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The question is whether the offensive line can afford Brady the necessary time. Ultimately, it did against a Houston pass rush that’s more punishing than Pittsburgh’s, even though that Houston rush contacted Brady on about one-fourth of his dropbacks. Aside from hitting Chris Hogan for 45 yards against what amounted to a Cover 0 blitz (a blitz the Steelers almost never do), Brady’s deep exploits came mostly against eight-man coverages. Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler has been willing to sit back in eight-man zones at times this year, but he may want to think twice about that this week. Just the existence of this conundrum is scary; if eight-man coverages don’t hinder Brady, there may be no way to stop this offense.

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Steelers’ O vs. Patriots’ D

This is the first time the Patriots have seen this Steelers offense. When they met in Week 7, Landry Jones was filling in for an injured Ben Roethlisberger, and Todd Haley’s attack had not yet become defined by Le’Veon Bell and the smashmouth formations (and blocking concepts) that afford him the time to slow dance. Haley has masterfully built a ground game that highlights Bell’s patience. Pittsburgh’s three main rushing concepts have been “counter,” where Bell can wait on his pull-blocker; inside zone, where Bell has two double-teams to work behind; and shotgun draws, which bring an inherent delay by looking like a pass play at the snap.

The Patriots have a different type of run defense than most. They’ll put five defenders up on the line of scrimmage, with the outside guys aggressively setting the edge and the inside linebackers shooting the gaps even more aggressively. It’s a scheme that takes chances in order to stuff runs. However, the Patriots typically do this against outside zone-running games (especially shotgun-based ones). It will be interesting to see if they apply these tactics against Pittsburgh’s inside smashmouth game. They might just do what they did last week against Houston and play a lot of 3-4 fronts.

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However the stack ’backers and edge defenders play, it’s imperative that New England’s interior defensive linemen win their fistfights. Alan Branch and Malcom Brown were excellent against Houston, and second-year man Trey Flowers is quietly becoming one of the league’s best technicians. Both must have a big night.

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As for the passing game, Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia have typically been comfortable shadowing Antonio Brown with Malcolm Butler. No corner can handle Brown one-on-one for 60 minutes, though Butler, with his agile yet assertive style, is better equipped than almost anyone to compete. The question is, How much help will the Patriots give Butler? The receivers around Brown aren’t as potent as what New England has seen before (no Martavis Bryant, no Markus Wheaton). And the Patriots also have versatile safeties who can lock down tight ends and probably even Bell on shallow routes. There might be enough available resources to put Butler and an extra defender on Brown. Contain Bell, take away Brown and they’ll win their seventh AFC title in 16 years.

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