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» 2016 Slot vs. Wide: Defense

Our final part in looking at slot vs. wide targets focuses entirely on defenses. Which first-round rookie corners had tough times in 2016? Who was the weak link in Denver's No-Fly Zone? Also: the Falcons have a secondary to watch out for in 2017.

20 Jan 2017

AFC Championship Preview 2017

by Scott Kacsmar

The path to get here was difficult, but this is what we expected the 2016 AFC to come down to all along. In our projections for Football Outsiders Almanac 2016, we had New England and Pittsburgh as the top teams in the AFC, refusing to bat an eye at season-opening suspensions for superstars Tom Brady and Le'Veon Bell. Nor were we concerned that Sebastian Vollmer (surgery) and Martavis Bryant (also suspended) were expected to miss the entire season, or that neither Dion Lewis nor Bud Dupree would make their season debuts until Week 11 due to injuries. We may have gulped a bit when the Patriots traded Jamie Collins on Halloween, and again when the Steelers had to place Cameron Heyward, quite arguably their best defender, on injured reserve two weeks later.

We weren't correct about the New England at Pittsburgh game in Week 7 being the AFC's (Regular Season) Game of the Year, because Landry Jones was at quarterback for an injured Ben Roethlisberger in a 27-16 loss. Roethlisberger's torn meniscus threatened to sink the Steelers' season after a four-game losing streak, but it did not. Neither has another season-ending injury to Rob Gronkowski for the Patriots. In Week 10, the Steelers lost to the Cowboys and the Patriots lost to the Seahawks in two epic games, but neither team has lost since, setting up the long-awaited playoff rematch in this season's AFC Championship Game.

It is hard to believe, but the last time the Steelers met the Patriots in the playoffs, Roethlisberger was just a rookie, and I was a college freshman who had never heard of VLOOKUP. This is the seventh postseason since then where both teams qualified for the playoffs, but a single outcome prevented the rematch from happening five times, including Pittsburgh's blown lead in Denver last year that otherwise would have made this last year's AFC Championship Game. So this has been a long time coming.

While we will make several references to the Week 7 meeting between these teams, Bill Belichick said it best at his Wednesday presser when asked about how relevant that contest was to this week's game.

The single biggest difference from Week 7 is obviously the addition of Roethlisberger at quarterback over Jones. The other big change also benefits Pittsburgh with Gronkowski out. Pittsburgh will also have Eli Rogers, who did not play that day, and its full offensive line with Marcus Gilbert back at right tackle. Sean Davis has taken over for Robert Golden at safety and Dupree has become a factor in recent weeks.

The Patriots have also seen some changes, particularly during this winning streak. Rookie wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell has shown some playmaking ability, though his playing status is uncertain, and the team acquired Michael Floyd from Arizona. Lewis could be a big factor in this game, and sixth-round rookie Elandon Roberts has essentially replaced Collins in the linebacker corps.

However, the biggest change may be the venue, where the Steelers will have to deal with some bleak history for road teams in New England. Since 2001, including the playoffs, the Patriots at home are:

  • 103-1 (.990) when leading by at least eight points at any time in the game.
  • 51-2 (.962) when defending a one-score lead in the fourth quarter.
  • 87-3 (.967) when winning the turnover margin.
  • 88-4 (.957) when scoring at least 25 points.
  • 117-17 (.873) in games started and played into the second half by Tom Brady.

Don't lose the turnover battle. Don't fall behind. Don't get into a shootout. Simple, right? Even for how sloppy the Patriots looked against Houston last week, they still won by 18 points. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh mustered all 18 of its points in Kansas City on field goals. That won't fly this week, and the Patriots did allow the fewest points per drive (1.42) in the NFL this season.

That last stat is the other striking similarity in this matchup. Sure, neither the Steelers nor Patriots have lost since Week 10. They ranked seventh and 11th, respectively, in weighted defensive DVOA at the end of the season. That's up to fourth and seventh if we include the postseason. The big question is: who the heck have these defenses beaten in that time?

We know the Patriots faced the easiest schedule in the NFL this season, but the defense especially had a soft ride to this title game. Four of New England's last seven games have been against the three worst offenses in the NFL by DVOA (Texans, Rams, and the Jets twice). The Broncos, ranked 28th, were also part of that run.

The highest-rated quarterback the Patriots faced this season was Andy Dalton, who finished 13th in DVOA. Out of the 108 teams to reach the Conference Championship Game since 1990, the 2016 Patriots faced the sixth-easiest slate of quarterbacks based on average DVOA, and were the only defense to face quarterbacks with negative total DYAR. The 2016 Patriots and the 2002 Buccaneers are the only teams to not face a single quarterback who finished in the top 12 in DVOA that regular season. We can argue that Russell Wilson, albeit in a down year with some injuries, was the best real-life quarterback the Patriots have faced, and he led Seattle to 31 points in a road win in Week 10. This defense, which also has had the best starting field position thanks to some stellar special teams and the fewest giveaways (11) in the league, has simply not been challenged this season. The Patriots even drew the worst offense to make the playoffs (Houston) last week.

As for Pittsburgh, we can say a lot of the same things. Sure, the Steelers have played three of the top five quarterbacks in DVOA, but those games against Brady and Dallas' Dak Prescott did not go well -- and Pittsburgh was at home for both. Out of the 28 combined wins by Pittsburgh and New England this season, the highest-rated quarterback either team beat was Kirk Cousins (fifth), who lost to Pittsburgh back in Week 1. Also, similar to how the Patriots got Landry Jones in the only game Roethlisberger missed due to injury this year, the Steelers got Scott Tolzien on Thanksgiving in the only game Andrew Luck missed. During this nine-game winning streak, the Steelers have beaten offenses ranked 10th (Bills), 11th (Bengals), 12th (Colts), 13th (Chiefs), and 14th (Dolphins) in DVOA, but without players such as Luck and A.J. Green active, is that really that impressive?

No matter which team wins, it will have to take down an excellent quarterback and offense in the Super Bowl in two weeks. As for Sunday evening, this is the toughest test either defense has faced yet this season.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link.

Game charting data appears courtesy Sports Info Solutions, unless noted. Please remember that all stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted.

This week, we're breaking out separate charts for offensive and defensive DVOA each week. The defensive charts are "reversed" so that better games are still higher on the chart even though they have negative DVOA. The games with white dots on the charts were started by backup quarterbacks.

Pittsburgh at New England



Patriots on Offense
NE OFF PIT DEF
DVOA 21.1% (2) -4.7% (11)
WEI DVOA 22.5% (3) -14.6% (4)
PASS 50.5% (2) 1.9% (12)
RUSH -3.4% (17) -14.4% (11)
RED ZONE 23.0% (8) -25.9% (4)


Steelers on Offense
PIT OFF NE DEF
DVOA 11.1% (8) -1.5% (16)
WEI DVOA 12.6% (8) -9.5% (7)
PASS 26.9% (8) 13.9% (23)
RUSH 1.6% (8) -23.7% (4)
RED ZONE 23.5% (7) -6.5% (12)


Special Teams
NE PIT
DVOA 2.7% (7) 0.0% (16)
NE kickoff +11.8 (2) -1.4 (18)
PIT kickoff -2.8 (22) -2.2 (20)
NE punts +12.2 (3) -1.3 (16)
PIT punts -7.7 (29) -4.3 (22)
FG/XP +0.1 (17) +9.0 (3)

All readers can click here for in-game discussion on our message boards. If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.

WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL

I am not sure why Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin was mad that the Patriots had an extra day and a half to prepare for this game. Doesn't New England just dust off the 2002 season opener game plan for every Pittsburgh matchup anyway? Hasn't Tomlin just followed Dick LeBeau's "3-4 for Dummies" script for his defense? I wish this was more of a joke, but too many of the Steelers-Patriots matchups have looked all too familiar over the years. Brady and Belichick are 9-2 against the Steelers, and since Tomlin became Pittsburgh's head coach in 2007, Brady is 5-1 with 19 touchdowns to zero interceptions.

New England's lack of an emotional attachment to establishing the run helps to expose the weaknesses in Pittsburgh's scheme. The pass rush from the outside linebackers is rarely able to get to Brady, and he releases the ball quickly in a spread attack that takes advantage of the cushions provided by Pittsburgh's usually beleaguered secondary. While working on FOA 2016, I spent time in July watching these matchups over, recalling the way the Steelers would also suffer mental lapses in leaving receivers, including Gronkowski, wide open at times, or just falling victim to the same short pass over and over. Pittsburgh is starting two rookies in the secondary in Artie Burns and Sean Davis, and the youngsters cannot get caught peeking in the backfield this week. New England almost always has one well-timed bomb ready for the Steelers, or two if you recall Deion Branch's performance in the aforementioned 2004 AFC Championship Game.

That is not to say that Tomlin has failed to learn anything over the years. Pittsburgh went blitz-crazy in New England in 2007, sending at least five pass-rushers after Brady on more than 70 percent of the plays, but Brady shredded them for 399 yards and four touchdowns -- one of his best games in his best season. Pittsburgh has backed off more in the other matchups, and in Week 7 this season, the Steelers blitzed just one time in the whole game. Brady still managed to find Gronkowski for 37 yards, New England's biggest gain in the game.

However, Pittsburgh has brought more pressure on defense this season since the New England loss. There was a time early in the season when Pittsburgh's only sack came after Andy Dalton held the ball for seven seconds. Since Week 8, Pittsburgh has seen its overall pressure rate nearly double, while becoming one of the more blitz-happy teams with the fourth-highest pressure rate with five-man rushes, according to data from SIS charting.

Pittsburgh Defense: Increased Pressure Since Patriots Loss
Split Pres% Rk Blitz% Rk Pres%, Rush 5 Rk
Weeks 1-7 16.7% 22 22.0% 20 14.3% 30
Weeks 8-19 30.1% 11 33.1% 6 43.1% 4

Just as New England will likely not attack Roethlisberger, the Steelers should cool off on the blitzes this week, though pressure is still critical to beat Brady. He was off last week against Houston, throwing two interceptions and completing less than 50 percent of his passes, after the Texans hit him often. While James Harrison has had another awesome postseason at age 38, he has one career sack in seven games against Brady. The Steelers might need to get creative and try to pressure Brady from the interior instead of the edges. Credit to Twitter user @mchorowitz (and Jeff Howe at the Boston Herald) for inquiring about Brady's recent tendency to throw deep when flustered. Since 2015, Brady's average pass has traveled 10.5 yards down the field while pressured, just a tick away from Tyrod Taylor's league-leading average under pressure. In previous seasons, Brady was closer to the league average, while his counterpart Roethlisberger was actually the league's mad bomber while pressured from 2011 to 2014. Pittsburgh's four hits and zero sacks in Week 7 won't be nearly enough on Sunday to disrupt Brady.

Brady typically averages around 8.0 air yards per throw against Pittsburgh, which is about the league average in this era. In 2016, the Steelers have faced an average throw of just under 7.0 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, and Brady's 6.8 air yards per attempt was his shortest game yet against Tomlin's Steelers. The Patriots dropped a couple of passes, and Chris Hogan lost an early fumble that seemed to knock him off his game that day. Hogan can be a solid deep threat, and the Steelers were only 18th against deep passes (thrown further than 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage) this season.

Pittsburgh cannot afford to give up big pass plays to an offense that failed to make any with players not named Gronkowski in Week 7. The 2011 matchup, won 25-17 by the Steelers in Pittsburgh, was easily Tomlin's best approach for New England. The defense got physical and pressed the receivers more, as Brady's longest completion was 23 yards to none other than Gronkowski. Are you starting to see a pattern here? Meanwhile, Roethlisberger controlled the clock with short passes of his own and the Steelers had more than 39 minutes in time of possession. Brady's QBR in the 2011 game was 64.9, by far his lowest against Tomlin's Steelers. It has been 89.2 or higher in his other five games against Tomlin's defenses, and it was 93.0 in Week 7.

If there is hope here for Tomlin's defense, it is that this is the first time Brady will face him without an all-world talent such as Randy Moss or Gronkowski in his arsenal. Martellus Bennett is a very good tight end, who might be called on to perform like Gronkowski this week, but he also has been banged up and has eight games this season where he failed to crack 25 receiving yards. Julian Edelman could exploit a defense that ranks 32nd against No. 1 wideouts. Edelman has nine straight games with at least 73 receiving yards after hitting that mark once in the season's first eight games. The Steelers bottled him up pretty well in Week 7, holding him to 60 yards on nine grabs.

Early downs should be interesting in this matchup. Pittsburgh was No. 1 in DVOA on first down this season, but the New England offense was No. 2. If the Steelers can force Brady into third-and-long situations, then they will have to defend them much better than they have this season. The Patriots rank second on third-and-long, while the Pittsburgh defense is just 26th in DVOA.

New England's offense ranked No. 1 in DVOA (45.7 percent) from the shotgun this season, though only used it 53.3 percent of the time, 27th in 2016. In Week 7, the Patriots were in shotgun on 51.8 percent of plays, including both of Brady's touchdown passes. The Patriots average 2.0 more yards per play in shotgun compared to non-shotgun plays, the largest differential in the league, so one could argue that this is a good week to go shotgun and spread out the Steelers. Of course, the Patriots can be very unpredictable in their approach.

For all the attention on Brady against the pass defense, this could be a big opportunity for LeGarrette Blount, who had a season-high 127 rushing yards and two touchdowns against the Steelers in Week 7. That was the worst DVOA for Pittsburgh's run defense (28.6 percent) all season. At the time, the loss of Cameron Heyward was thought to be the main reason for that poor performance, and the Steelers have gotten better without their stout lineman since. Some believe the lack of Blount touches against Houston was due to an illness. On the other hand, Dion Lewis and James White are not bad alternatives, and could take advantage of the Steelers in the receiving game. White had a receiving touchdown in Week 7, and Lewis had three scores in three ways (run, catch, and kick return) a week ago against Houston.

WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL

It is getting hard to find new things to say about the Killer Bs. At least they will all be on the field together against the Patriots for the first time since 2013, which was back when Le'Veon Bell was a rookie rather than the most exciting back in the NFL to watch. The bottom line is that Bell has to be great again, Roethlisberger has to play better, and Antonio Brown can probably get consistently open against any cornerback the Patriots put on him.

So what does New England focus on this week? Belichick is famous for being able to take away what an offense does best. That just might be the run for Pittsburgh right now, but when it comes to throwing the ball, we know Brown carries this receiving corps. Including the playoffs, Brown has 876 more receiving yards than Pittsburgh's next closest receiver (Eli Rogers at 640 yards). Brown will likely match up again with Malcolm Butler, who finished 20th in coverage success rate this season according to SIS charting (subscription required). In Week 7, Brown caught 5-of-9 targets for 94 yards against Butler, who allowed a 51-yard gain but also had an interception in the end zone. Brown also had 133 yards and a touchdown in the 2015 season opener in New England with Roethlisberger at quarterback.

In the regular season, the Patriots ranked 20th in DVOA against No. 1 wide receivers, so this is not likely a game where Brown will be shut down. It is going to be important for Pittsburgh to find contributions from other receivers. Rogers has really earned a lot of Roethlisberger's trust out of the slot, but tight end Ladarius Green would be a nice boost if he is able to return from a concussion. Jesse James did very well in Green's place last week, but the Steelers lack that reliable tight end target this season since Heath Miller retired. The Patriots only rank 20th against receiving backs, but Bell has just seven catches for 18 yards in his last three games. This might be a matchup where the Steelers should use Bell more as a wideout, with DeAngelo Williams in the backfield. Williams was excellent in Bell's place in Week 1 last year in New England with 127 rushing yards. However, Pittsburgh has not shown any interest in this in recent weeks. In Kansas City, Bell played all but three snaps, which was the total number of snaps for Williams.

Bell has received at least 20 carries in each game he has played during Pittsburgh's winning streak. It is hard to believe he was held to 3.52 yards per carry and 58 rushing yards per game from Week 5 to Week 10 (including 21 carries for 81 yards against the Patriots), but Pittsburgh's offensive line has really stepped up as the team has transitioned to a run-heavy approach down the stretch. Perhaps this has hurt the effectiveness of the passing game to a degree, but it is hard to argue with the results Bell has provided. Since Week 11, Bell has averaged 5.33 yards per carry and 146.5 rushing yards per game. Only Buffalo, the No. 1 rush offense in DVOA, was able to post such rushing numbers against the Patriots this year, but Pittsburgh should be very committed to doing so.

On paper, this seems like a juicy matchup for Roethlisberger, going against the No. 4 run defense, but No. 23 pass defense. We mentioned the lack of quality quarterbacks the Patriots have faced this year, but Roethlisberger is not coming into this game at his sharpest. This is why Belichick should focus on run-blitzing the Steelers to turn those slow-developing runs by Bell into big stuffs. Surprisingly, Pittsburgh had the fourth-lowest stuffed run rate this year despite all of the times that Bell literally stopped cold in the backfield before picking his spot for another good gain. The Patriots were only 21st at stuffing runs, but did finish first in open-field yards.

Pittsburgh's offense has almost gotten predictable. On the season, no team used play-action passing less often than Pittsburgh (14 percent), which uses it primarily for the big plays. When Roethlisberger used play-action, he averaged 13.5 air yards per attempt (second highest in 2016). With Roethlisberger still barely using play-action this postseason, New England really should consider loading up against the run to deal with Bell.

"Force Roethlisberger to beat you" might sound crazy, but this is what happens when a great offensive line is paving the way for a determined Bell. Also, credit to ESPN Pittsburgh's David Todd for pointing out that Roethlisberger has not thrown for 300 yards in his last eight games, a streak he last matched in 2007. Roethlisberger has still been given very good protection, and he must take advantage of that against a New England pass rush that was 25th in pressure rate this season, according to SIS charting (subscription required). Kansas City ranked 26th, and the Chiefs were really unable to penetrate Pittsburgh's line too. Interestingly enough, the Patriots (25.5 percent) and Chiefs (19.9 percent) led all defenses in percentage of passes where they rushed fewer than four defenders, so they may have voluntarily sacrificed some pressure for more coverage this season. Still, a clean pocket for Roethlisberger is not good for New England, and the Steelers kept Landry Jones very clean in the Week 7 matchup. Pittsburgh just hopes that Roethlisberger provides the needed boost over Jones, who had the Steelers in a competitive game, but faltered down the stretch.

The red zone will get plenty of focus this week after Pittsburgh failed to score a touchdown in Kansas City. The Steelers had three plays inside the 5-yard line, but they were all Roethlisberger passes, including a tipped interception. We may see more of that this week too. While the Pittsburgh offense is No. 2 in red zone rushing, the Patriots are also No. 2 against the run on defense. In fact, New England last allowed a rushing touchdown in Week 8, but that stat is a little misleading. The Patriots have faced just four rushes from inside the 5-yard line in that time, the second fewest in the NFL, and backs like rookie C.J. Prosise and Benny Cunningham aren't exactly Le'Veon Bell. However, the Patriots only rank 24th against red zone passes, so Roethlisberger may need to find his groove again.

In fact, he better, because the recent red zone results have been terrible. Since Pittsburgh's winning streak started in Week 11, Roethlisberger's red zone stats pale in comparison to those of the other three remaining quarterbacks:

Red Zone Passing Stats Since Week 11
Player Team Comp. Att. Pct. Yards YPA TD INT Sk PR
Ben Roethlisberger PIT 11 32 34.4% 58 1.81 2 3 2 25.0
Tom Brady NE 31 47 66.0% 208 4.43 14 1 0 106.2
Aaron Rodgers GB 31 50 62.0% 225 4.50 15 0 2 112.1
Matt Ryan ATL 30 45 66.7% 190 4.22 13 0 4 114.8

Yikes. Roethlisberger's numbers really pale in comparison to every NFL quarterback's in that time, but especially to those of these three. Roethlisberger was a liability in his last playoff start against the Patriots because he was a clueless rookie in over his head. This time, he is a 13-year veteran with one of the best supporting casts he has ever had on offense, and one of his best chances yet to get a road win over Brady and Belichick. While Bell is going to get his touches, this game is still largely on Roethlisberger to play well and expose a New England defense that has not played a Hall of Fame passer this season.

In his 20th playoff start, Roethlisberger needs to remind us why he is in fact one of those future Hall of Fame quarterbacks.

SPECIAL TEAMS

New England had a huge special teams advantage over Houston last week, and it mostly showed in a 98-yard kick return touchdown by Dion Lewis, though he did also fumble deep in his own end. Lewis has six kick returns since 2012 to his name, so this is not really something he is adept at doing. Both teams like to use big-name players as returners, but neither has been that dangerous on returns this season. Pittsburgh just did very well against the No. 2 return unit in the league in Kansas City last week. The Steelers bottled up All-Pro returner Tyreek Hill very well, holding him to 72 yards on four kick returns. Pittsburgh only punted once last week, which was important since Jordan Berry has not been strong in that area this season.

Both kickers are trustworthy. Chris Boswell just set a playoff record with six field goals in a game last week, though Pittsburgh better hope he isn't that busy on Sunday again. Stephen Gostkowski had an infamous miss of an extra point in last year's AFC Championship Game loss in Denver. He has missed three more extra points this season, as well as two field goals from 30-to-39 yards away. The weather should be great on Sunday night, with temperatures in the 30s and no precipitation.

OUTLOOK

The Patriots were 7.5-point favorites in Pittsburgh against Landry Jones earlier this season, and covered 27-16. With all of the changes for Sunday's matchup, the Patriots are still a reasonable 6-point favorite at home. If Brady has his usual Pittsburgh performance, then that should be enough for a win. If Brady has his usual AFC Championship Game performance -- in this round, he has thrown 12 touchdowns to 12 interceptions with just 6.55 yards per pass attempt -- then the Steelers have a great opportunity for an upset. As much as the offensive production and the four quarterbacks are being highlighted this week, this is a game that is likely to be decided by pass protection, run blocking, and ball security rather than in an aerial shootout.

Since 2001, the Patriots are 12-0 in the playoffs against new opponents, but only 11-9 in rematches from the regular season. No matter how much time Tomlin received to prepare for this game, you just get the feeling that he is not ready to outcoach Belichick on this stage. This is the right situation if it was to happen, but between New England's long-running mastery of the weaknesses of this defense and the road sloppiness of Pittsburgh's offense, the Patriots are the safe pick at home to become the first team in NFL history to play in nine Super Bowls.


STATS EXPLAINED

DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.

Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.

SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.

Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list red zone DVOA and WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).

Each team also gets two charts showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to offensive and defensive DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games.

Posted by: Scott Kacsmar on 20 Jan 2017

41 comments, Last at 23 Jan 2017, 8:21am by dryheat

Comments

1
by rjsen :: Fri, 01/20/2017 - 6:11pm

Something seems to be wrong with the Pittsburgh Offensive DVOA chart.

2
by PaddyPat :: Fri, 01/20/2017 - 7:13pm

Is NE weighted defensive DVOA, rank 7th, 9.5 an accurate number, or is that supposed to be -9.5? Did defenses really collapse that badly in the second half of the season that a positive 9.5 would weighted 7th?

3
by Aaron Schatz :: Fri, 01/20/2017 - 8:55pm

Sorry, both of these issues have now been fixed.

4
by RickD :: Fri, 01/20/2017 - 9:20pm

" Elandon Roberts has essentially replaced Collins in the linebacker corps."

Well, he did, then he didn't, then he did again. It would be most accurate to say that Hightower is the only constant in the LB corps, with Van Noy, Roberts, and McClellin rotating in and out depending on the opponent. Roberts is considered the weakest in pass coverage - I really would not want to see him trying to cover Bell out of the backfield.

Next point:
"Antonio Brown can probably get consistently open against any cornerback the Patriots put on him."
In their last matchup, Butler played him in man coverage much of the game, with mixed results. I would not expect to see him in single coverage much of the time. If the Steelers had other deep threats, the Pats might be forced to use single coverage on AB. But I expect either Ryan or Butler to get safety help in coverage. That's how the Pats used Revis two seasons ago: they put him in iso on the other teams #2 receiver while Butler (or, more likely, Browner) got safety help with the #1 receiver.

Unless Bell or Brown gets 200+ yards, the Steelers really need a non-B to step up and contribute.

I mean, unless they get a lot of sacks and turnovers and the Pats' offense falls apart. But I wouldn't expect that to happen.

5
by MC2 :: Fri, 01/20/2017 - 9:36pm

Sometimes, home field advantage can be overrated. But given the Patriots historical dominance in Foxboro, and especially the Steelers Jekyll-and-Hyde offense this season, this seems like the textbook example of a game where HFA will be huge.

Patriots 27, Steelers 21

6
by Mash Wilson :: Fri, 01/20/2017 - 9:39pm

See, this shit in posts 3-6 is what happens when you align yourselves with ESPN. (edit: Nevermind, Aaron removed the posts in question. Heh.)

I literally can find no one, and I've pinged at least a hundred such people this week, who isn't a rabid Steelers fan (and not the endlessly pessimistic sort that, for whatever bizarre reason, the Steelers have many of) and thinks the Steelers are going to win Sunday. The unanimity is almost ominous...

16
by justanothersteve :: Sat, 01/21/2017 - 8:35pm

I'm a Packers fan. (It's well-documented in my years of comments here.) I consider the Pats the favorites, but only because it's in Foxboro. I'm more concerned about my team's chances against Pittsburgh on a neutral field than I am the Pats. I don't think it will come down to that, since I'm shocked the Packers have made it this far and the Falcons are the well-deserved favorites. But on a neutral field I'd pick the Steelers.

Don't get me wrong. I still think the Patriots are a very good team. But their record has been enhanced by playing a lot of teams when missing their best players. Garoppolo is also their best backup since Bledsoe left, so they don't lose much at QB during those first two games (and even Brissett looks to be better than a lot of teams' - e.g., Cowboys, Raiders - backup QB).

17
by Rich A :: Sat, 01/21/2017 - 11:02pm

What do you think about the assertion that the Pittsburgh Steelers have basically played the same QB talent since they got the Browns, etc, and then in the playoffs they got Andy "7 min 4th quarter comeback drives" Reid and Alex (ALEX) Smith?

I'm not really quite sure what to think either.

And when it comes to Brissett vs Cook, I think some of that is on the coaching. No way Belichick and McDaniels draw up QB option plays for Brady. The offense was completely different. If this game comes down to coaching, which it probably will, my money is on the Pats.

And the Cowboys backup QB: Brissett or Romo? Or are you talking 3rd stringers?

18
by t.d. :: Sun, 01/22/2017 - 4:28am

Not who you asked, but I'm sure he's referring to last year's backup qbs for the Cows. Also, it's true that the Steelers haven't played any great quarterbacks in their winning streak, though they've been substantially better than the guys the Pats have faced. The Pats have performed better than the Steelers against the lineups they've faced, but neither team has really been tested, defensively, in a while (Pittsburgh faced Dallas, and the Pats played Seattle, and both teams were pushed around, but the Steelers had a bunch more games against the Eli/Flacco/Dalton types- solid NFL starters, but probably not top 10). I'm a big believer that coaching really matters (only recent time the Steelers beat the Pats was when they went against tendencies and played tons of man coverage), and I have a hard time seeing Tomlin outcoaching Belicheck, but stranger things have happened

19
by dryheat :: Sun, 01/22/2017 - 8:47am

Honestly, I think that entire line of thinking is incredibly overblown. How many quarterbacks are there in the NFL that you can point at and say Now beating THAT guy is an accomplishment! Six? Seven? One of whom is your own?

The thing that is great about Earl Thomas's tweet is that the Patriots fattened up on the NFC West. Is having the Rams and 49ers somehow tougher than the Bills and Jets?

Miami went 9-5 vs. the rest of the NFL. Those are good wins. Beating Arizona, Denver, and Pittsburgh on the road, even without Roethlisberger, are good wins. Baltimore and Cincinnati are good wins.

Anyway, that's been gnawing at me for a little bit. I respect and fear Pittsburgh a bit (but I fear everybody good enough to make it to a one-and-done tournament. Even Houston.), but I think the 6 point spread is probably on point. Maybe 34-28.

20
by Damon :: Sun, 01/22/2017 - 9:19am

"I'm a big believer that coaching really matters (only recent time the Steelers beat the Pats was when they went against tendencies and played tons of man coverage), and I have a hard time seeing Tomlin outcoaching Belicheck, but stranger things have happened"

Coaching is important.....to a point, but no matter what your game plan is if the team can't execute it, you lose.

And I just get tired of constant media kissing of Belichick's rear end all the time and acting as if when the Patriots lose it's the players fault and when they win it's all about his genius and outcoaching the other teams' HC, whereas with other coaches like Tomlin (the late Dennis Green used to get this label from the Minnesota media too and who can forget the junk Tony Dungy got from an idiot kicker after the 2002 playoff loss at the Jets or the Bucs playoff failures), they can win games at a high rate, but rarely get credit for being merely a good coach and giving their team winning game plans on a consistent basis (which he has in his 10 seasons, particularly these last 3 years) like Belichick does.

Last time I checked, Belichick is the same guy who couldn't come up with a good enough gameplan to combat how teams attacked his offense in 2009 (something he openly complained about on his 'A Football Life' documentary) which led to an embarassing loss to Baltimore by 19 at home or 2010 when his team lost at home the Rex Ryan/Mark Sanchez Jets in the playoffs and got outplayed back to back years by Baltimore at home in the 2011/2012 AFC title games, 2 losses in 3 years at Denver in AFC title games when his teams turned in mediocre efforts that made both games feel like they were in October, not January and coached a terrible game in Super Bowl 42, but nothing is ever said about it.

From the inability to figure out how to combat the Giants blitz package to not adjusting the passing game to get Moss the ball more in the 2nd/3rd quarters like they did on their touchdown drive in the fourth quarter when he caught 3 of his 5 passes (And Kacsmar don't bring up Corey Webster falling down either, Moss beat him for an easy TD two plays earlier on first down by Brady just missed him) to not attempting a field goal on 4th and 13, the pathetic sub 1 minute drill at end when they had timeouts but opted to look deep instead, it was just all bad.

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by Anon Ymous :: Sun, 01/22/2017 - 11:21am

This post engages in a great deal of hyperbole. Belichick gets extra credit because he is the best coach in the league by a wide margin. It is no different than QBs who get what might appear to be disproportionate credit for greatness than others get for very goodness. People need something to talk about and there is some truth to the idea that improvement over very goodness offers logarithmic value.

Belichick is the same guy who couldn't come up with a good enough gameplan to combat how teams attacked his offense in 2009 (something he openly complained about on his 'A Football Life' documentary)

Even in the documentary, this was quite clearly a personnel issue, as was the lack of buy in that led to the Baltimore playoff loss. Bill deserves blame for putting together that team, but he clearly learned his lesson since then. This is one of the primary strengths that you choose to overlook - it isn't about Bill being perfect, it's about him repeating errors as seldom as possible.

2 losses in 3 years at Denver in AFC title games when his teams turned in mediocre efforts

Once again you conflate personnel issues with coaching issues. It would behoove you to learn more about the injury issues of those 2013/2015 teams as your ignorance is leading to faulty conclusions.

That said, I was disappointed to see NE eschew the FG attempt on 4th and 6 last year. It felt like a panic move at the time and seemed even more detrimental in retrospect.

From the inability to figure out how to combat the Giants blitz package to not adjusting the passing game to get Moss the ball more in the 2nd/3rd quarters like they did on their touchdown drive in the fourth quarter

Once again you conflate personnel issues for coaching mistakes. NE lost their only blocking TE and their RG very early in the game, which severely limited their ability to respond to NY's pressure. Their receiving back (and best blocking back) also got hurt early and was a shell of himself after that. Beyond that, the 4th quarter TD had nothing to do with coaching, it was that the Giants' DL was exhausted. Beyond *that* it wasn't really blitzing that gave NE trouble, the Giants just won most 1:1 matchups.

Not that there weren't questionable decisions. 4th and 13 is still complained about by Pats fans (though Brady still blames himself for not getting the TD there, he made a bad read) and there are stories out there about Bill pushing the team even harder than usual that week which, combined with a terrible hotel experience and the bogus Spygate story, left the team lethargic on game day.

Not that I disagree about hyperbole in the other direction, or that Bill doesn't get outcoached at times (2010 against NY was a great example), but your reasoning in this comment is not well founded.

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by Damon :: Sun, 01/22/2017 - 12:26pm

Every team has key injuries though, just look at the Steelers injury issues going into the 2011, 2014 and 2015 playoffs, yet that doesn't stop people from criticizing Mike Tomlin or even Mike McCarthy, who has also dealt with key injuries at playoff time each year and yet the Packers have gotten to two of the last three NFC title games.

Belichick's greatest strength has been the weekly game planning regardless of who plays, see the Houston game with Brissett this year, so with that in mind why is he above reproach when they lose and he controls every aspect of the football opperations in NE?

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by dmstorm22 :: Sun, 01/22/2017 - 12:44pm

Every team has injury issues. Can't just chock all issues with the Pats playoff losses to injuries - or if you do expect all teams to do the same as well.

Take the 2013 AFC Title Game loss to Denver. Sure, the Patriots were banged up - as were the Broncos, who played that game without 5 of their opening day defensive starters (Miller, Harris, Vickerson, Woodyard, and a 5th I'm forgetting). The Pats scored 3 points through three quarters against that defense (the same that Seattle would fillet two weeks later).

The Pats put in a bad performance in 2013. Their injury situation, to me at least, was well overblown last year - didn't hear the same explanations against KC?

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by Anon Ymous :: Sun, 01/22/2017 - 1:36pm

Nothing I wrote diminishes or fails to recognize injuries faced by other teams. The 2013 and 2015 team had injuries far beyond normal and beyond what Denver suffered, though part of the latter was because the team was thin at WR to start with.

You can choose to disregard the injury issues last year, but that doesn't change the fact of their existence. You keep bringing up KC, but that ignores that NE's injuries were well documented all season, the practice issues I informed you of a few days ago, the fact that the team was so desperate down the stretch that they let the top seed slip away because they didn't have the bodies to play straight up and the fact that the injuries had an obvious impact on the Denver game itself. No one mentioned injuries after the KC game because a) they were hopeful that the rest did guys well and b) we didn't have the next week that confirmed the KC game was an anomaly.

I'm not sure why people get so uptight when injuries are mentioned, I'm not commenting on "worthiness" or some other subjective nonsense like that, I'm speaking of simple reality.

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by Will Allen :: Sun, 01/22/2017 - 2:09pm

Well, of course, but then the reality also was that Seahawk injuries on defense coincided with increased Patriot offensive efficiency in that Super Bowl.

The best argument for Belichick being a superior coach was how he was better organized than Carroll in the last two minutes of that game, which meant the clock worked in the Patriots' favor. Absent the Seahawk injuries,however, it may not have come into play.

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by Anon Ymous :: Sun, 01/22/2017 - 6:08pm

I don't dispute the notion that the result of the SB49 could have been different if Seattle were healthier, but the way you phrase the argument is not correct. In 4 first half drives, NE scored a TD twice, moved into the 10 yard line another and had one end on 3rd and short. Clearly they had proven capable of moving the ball whether Avril was on the field or not. A 8tdqz better argument would be wrap in all the guys they had playing hurt, which I wouldn't contest in the least.

People seem to think I'm making excuses, but I'm not. I'm just stating facts.

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by ramirez :: Sun, 01/22/2017 - 2:22pm

Anon Ymous, you're wasting your time. I'm pretty sure this guy Damon is one of the trolls who hangs out at Kacsmar's blog site. You'd have an easier time arguing with a brick wall. He's not going to listen to anything you say.

31
by dmstorm22 :: Sun, 01/22/2017 - 2:29pm

There are legitimate arguments that the Broncos were equally injured in 2013, definitely so at top positions, with losing Miller, Clady and Harris.

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by ramirez :: Sun, 01/22/2017 - 2:51pm

Right, but even if you want to argue that the Broncos defense was banged up, it raises the question: Why didn't the Patriots offense take better advantage of those injuries? It's because the Patriots receivers were decimated by injuries and guys leaving the team. The 2012 Patriots had the number one offense in football. Their top 5 receivers by yards were Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and Danny Woodhead. None of those guys played for NE in the 2013 AFC championship.

Here are the receivers Brady had to work with against Denver that day:

Edelman
Shane Vereen
Austin Collie
Aaron Dobson
Hoomawananui
Matthew Mulligan
Matthew Slater
Danny Amendola, who did not record a catch and got just 1 target

That look like a healthy receiver corps to you?

That's why the Denver defense performed well, despite the injuries. The Patriots offense that day was a shell of the team it had been the year before, or would become again in 2014.

And here's the group of receivers that Peyton got to play with that day:
Julius Thomas, Demariyus Thomas, Decker, Welker, Montee Ball, Knowshon Moreno, Jacob Tamme, Andre Caldwell.

One of the key differences between Peyton and Brady throughout their careers is that Manning has always played with loaded receiving corps, and Brady has far more often had to deal with injuries and defections that forced him to play with backups. I've always thought there was no better illustration of this fact than the 2013 AFC championship.

Injuries are not an excuse for defeat. But there's no sane way to deny that the 2013 Patriots offense, by the end of the season, was decimated by injuries.

33
by Will Allen :: Sun, 01/22/2017 - 3:17pm

Brady never has had an objectively bad offensive line in front of him for an entire season, as Manning did several times.

I'm agnostic in these debates between first ballot HOFers, and one of the reasons I am is because you can't decisively decide all the contextual issues

34
by dmstorm22 :: Sun, 01/22/2017 - 3:35pm

Out of those five you listed from 2012, only one missed the 2013 AFC Championship Game due to injury (Gronk).

Lloyd, Welker and Woodhead all left for different teams, and Hernandez left for obvious reasons.

That doesn't look like a great receiving core, but it was fairly 'healthy'. Other than Gronk, those were the guys the 2013 Patriots had.

Maybe, given the state of their passing offense, they should have run the ball more in the 2013 Title Game instead of making Brady throw to those guys?

35
by ramirez :: Sun, 01/22/2017 - 4:09pm

First, I never said that Lloyd, Welker, and Woodhead were injured. They weren't on the team. But other guys like Boyce, Tompkins, and Bolden were hurt, along with Gronkowski. The point is that when you combine those injuries with the personnel losses I mentioned, Brady was working with a far weaker receiving corps than in a typical year.

And I agree that Brady has generally had better offensive lines. But there's no question that Peyton has typically had deeper receiver corps, as he did in 2013. Which of those factors, a line or a group of receivers, is going to do more to help a guy put up individual passing stats?

To get back to the original point, the Patriots offense was injured in 2013, to the extent that you can't ignore injuries as a major factor in the game. It isn't fair to either Brady or Belichick to ignore those factors when evaluating their careers.

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by Anon Ymous :: Sun, 01/22/2017 - 6:09pm

Dm, I should have offered a different response earlier.

The fact of the matter is, regardless of whether you think I'm exaggerating about NE's maladies, Damon made arguments that clearly ignored the personnel issues that affected decision making. How those injuries stack up against the rest of the league isn't all that relevant, the primary factor is that it modified available skill sets and needs to be accounted for.

That was the point of my initial post. I conceded that Bill isn't perfect and even offered up examples that I think are superior, it's just that Damon's specific argument is incomplete and, hence, not persuasive. I mean, GB's injuries aren't historic, but would anyone use this game as evidence for why McCarthy's overrated?

22
by Will Allen :: Sun, 01/22/2017 - 11:38am

In game coaching is the least important part of the job, but the most visible, so guys get too much credit and blame for that stuff.

What stands out about Belichik's teams, against the general background of excellence, is the incredible record at Foxboro. This leads me to think of two things.1. The Patriots qb is ultra efficient, and when at home, with complete ability to run the game from the line of scrimmage, he controls the contest. It takes a great preparation by staff and qb to do this. 2. Belichick is just great at building a roster that can, with terrific flexibility, play extremely complimentary football to what Brady is doing. That's why beating them in Foxboro is such a daunting prospect.

No, my insights are not exactly unique.

25
by Boston Dan :: Sun, 01/22/2017 - 12:55pm

"And I just get tired of constant media kissing of Belichick's rear end all the time and acting as if when the Patriots lose it's the players fault"

Utter and complete nonsense. You're imagining things.

There are certain people in print and on the radio at local level (Boston) and the national (the Breers, Rappaports and Bedards of the world) that LOVE to attempt to take BB down a notch, at every opportunity.

Roster moves (Hubris!) or gameplan (Arrogance!), it has happened during every season since Belichick took over in Foxborough.

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by Anon Ymous :: Sun, 01/22/2017 - 1:38pm

Yes, even if there is some truth to Damon's point, his argument and supporting data is not grounded in reality.

7
by Damon :: Fri, 01/20/2017 - 10:02pm

This game is all about the Steelers playing clean football (no key penalties, turnovers, missed RZ TD chances), especially Ben and generating 20+ yard plays to help tilt the field against the Pats defense (Seattle hit at least one 20+ yard play on 5 of their 7 scoring drives) because you know the longer the drive goes the more opportunity for the Steelers have to screw it up.

In Week 10 vs NE- the two biggest moments of that game came on the Steelers 2nd and 5th possessions. On the 2nd poss, Landry Jones threw an interception in the end zone on 3rd and 6 at the NE 16 with the game tied at 0-0 and then on the 5th possession with NE leading 14-7, ball on the NE 14, Jones hit Heyward-Bey for what should've been the game-tying TD, yet a holding call took the points off the board and Boswell missed the field goal, so that's 10 points the Steelers lost out on and should have had a 17-14 lead but didn't and spent the rest of the game playing catch up.

Overall, I just trust don't Ben to play clean football against the Pats and see him throwing 2 int's, Pats win 31-20

8
by Mash Wilson :: Fri, 01/20/2017 - 11:18pm

Some fun factoids:

It's already cinched that, of the 51 Super Bowls, the AFC champion has been either the Patriots, Steelers or Broncos in 25 of them. There's a pretty decent chance they could make it fully half (26 of 52) next year.

The dominance of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger over the AFC continues: barring a bad injury late in Sunday's game, this will mark the 13th year in 14 (and 14th in 16) that one of the three has started the Super Bowl. The last time none of the three was in the AFC Championship was 2002, when Rich Gannon's Raiders beat Steve McNair's Titans.

In 2003, the last year before Roethlisberger entered the league, Brady played Manning for the AFC Championship; in 2016, the first year after Manning retired, Brady is playing Roethlisberger for it.

9
by Bright Blue Shorts :: Sat, 01/21/2017 - 5:13am

This is the first game since early in the season where New England will be challenged. Most of their games have been over by halftime.

There just hasn't been the quality of the opposition in the AFC for them to have to get out of 3rd gear. We really don't know whether 4th or 5th gear exists.

10
by PatsFan :: Sat, 01/21/2017 - 11:47am

I'd say NE was "challenged" last week. 17-13 at halftime and only an 8 point lead fairly late in the game.

Yes, they won by 18, but it was a phony 18, built on unsustainable, not-likely-to-be-repeated things.

12
by Will Allen :: Sat, 01/21/2017 - 11:59am

The Osweilers, for all their offensive atrocities, do have the people on defense who can bring pressure on Brady from the middle, which has always been the essential element to defending him. I just can't see the Steelers being nearly as effective on defense in Foxboro, althugh this bunch does have a lot more speed than has been the case for a while in Pittsburgh.

13
by Alternator :: Sat, 01/21/2017 - 2:08pm

You're right, the tipped ball first interception and the lost special teams fumble are unlikely to be repeated. Very much a phony 18; it should have been 25+.

14
by Otis Taylor89 :: Sat, 01/21/2017 - 2:17pm

They were challenged by the 1st or 2nd best defense of any of the playoff teams and seemed to have some post bye week struggles. I don't think Steelers D is as well rounded as the Texans and they need their offense to control the game like against KC.

11
by Will Allen :: Sat, 01/21/2017 - 11:54am

Yeah, it makes it a hard game to pick. I don't think the Steelers have the interior pass rush that really counters Brady. I have no idea how good the Patriots defense is against a very talented offense. 31-24 Patriots, as the Patriots gets shorter fields, and has HFA? 34-20?

If the Patriots defensive weakness has been well-hidden by playing stiffs at qb, then I could see Pittsburgh winning 34-17, as Brady is forced to try throw deep more often than he would prefer. For some reason, I don't see this one being 3 points or less.

15
by ramirez :: Sat, 01/21/2017 - 3:00pm

I've been very critical of this author in the past, but this is an excellent article. When he's not cherry-pickling stats to make some players look good, and tear down the achievements of others, Scott is capable of insightful analysis. The content here has helped me better understand the reasons behind the results when these two teams have played head-to-head in the past. Nice work, Kacsmar.

26
by medelste :: Sun, 01/22/2017 - 1:03pm

Patriots 26, Steelers 20

38
by Damon :: Sun, 01/22/2017 - 8:41pm

Missed opportunities/poor situational football by Steelers

1. Sammie Coates lets ball go through hands at NE 30 on first possession

2. Uncovered receivers, particularly on first Hogan TD

3. Boswell missed PAT

39
by Damon :: Sun, 01/22/2017 - 9:14pm

4. Mike Mitchell biting on the flea flicker and getting beat by Hogan for the second TD

5. Jesse James not getting the touchdown and the Steelers not getting 7, but settling for 3

Overall, not a good first half for the Steelers, but Ben's throwing it well, D'Angelo Williams has done a nice job filling in for Bell and they get the ball to start the second half.

Defensively, stop playing scared, come after Brady with pressure and play tighter coverage on the receivers.

40
by MJK :: Mon, 01/23/2017 - 12:28am

Wow. Championship weekend failed to live up to the hype. Atlanta lays down a curb stomping on Green Bay, and then the Pats-Steelers game stops being competitive a couple of minutes into the third quarter.

Despite being a Patriots fan, I think I like Atlanta to win the SB. Brady is the greatest of all time and the Pats offense is fearsome, but Atlanta's defense is better, the Pats defense is overrated, and Atlanta's offense is otherworldly right now.

41
by dryheat :: Mon, 01/23/2017 - 8:21am

By what metric is the Atlanta D good, let alone the better one in the matchup? It's hard to pick against the Falcons right now, because it's hard to imagine a defense that can stop everything they can do well. They're a lot like Pittsburgh, but with a better quarterback and better secondary threats. Their defense has been bad all year long before Sunday.

I think this is going to be a big LeGarrette Blount game, as the Patriots will try to do to Ryan what other teams do to Brady -- keep him on the sideline.