The Pittsburgh Steelers are in a difficult situation as they play host to the New England Patriots on Sunday. QB Ben Roethlisberger is out with a knee injury and that is just the tip of the offensive iceberg.
Number two WR Martavis Bryant is suspended for the entire season. Number three WR Markus Wheaton didn’t play last week due to a shoulder injury. Number four WR Sammie Coates played a reserve role last week despite having stitches in his hand. Number two RB DeAngelo Williams is dealing with a knee injury and barely played last week. RT Marcus Gilbert has missed the past two weeks with an ankle injury. TE Ladarius Green still hasn’t returned from the PUP list.
Roethlisberger and Bryant are definitely out this week, while the other players will be game-time decisions. The odds- and apparently the football gods- are against back-up QB Landry Jones (and this isn’t even addressing the Steelers injuries on defense).
But despite all of the injuries, the Steelers still have the best wide receiver and running back in the AFC in Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell- and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick won’t take them lightly.
“Landry [Jones] is young but has some experience,” Belichick said on Tuesday. “Again, any quarterbacks job really is to get the ball to their skill players. I mean that’s what all quarterbacks do. They control the game relative to play-calling and possible audibling and things like that obviously. But their real job is to get the ball to their playmakers and the Steelers have a lot of them.”
The Patriots will be looking out for Brown and Bell on every single play.
Brown isn’t the first elite wide receiver the Patriots have faced this season; Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins and Bengals WR A.J. Green would join Brown to round out my top three AFC wide receivers, while Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald and Dolphins WR Jarvis Landry are two of the best slot receivers in the NFL.
If Coates is limited again, then the Patriots can dedicate their secondary talent to slowing Brown’s production. Look for CB Malcolm Butler to get a rematch with Brown one year after coming thisclose to playing successful defense in the 2015 season opener. Brown had nothing but good things to say about Butler after the game.
Butler is coming off his best game of 2016 and will likely receive some safety help over the top to take away the home run pass.
If Coates is available, then the Patriots might not be able to dedicate a deep safety to Brown the entire game, but CB Eric Rowe could get an opportunity to show his performance against A.J. Green wasn’t a fluke.
As for Bell, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Patriots brought back the 6-1 front they deployed against the Browns to ensure the running back can’t leave the backfield. Bell is averaging 146.7 yards from scrimmage per game this year and is the most important Steelers skill player, especially with Roethlisberger sidelined.
“He’s not only a good runner but a good receiver,” Belichick said about Bell. “He does a great job with the ball in his hands however they get it to him. Tackling will definitely be an issue for us. [He has] good balance, good vision and I’d say he’s a very determined runner. He does a good job of fighting for extra yards, keeping his balance, but just making it difficult, too, to get him down.”
Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia echoed and expanded on the analysis during a Tuesday press conference.
“Bell is a very multiple player,” Patricia said. “He’s extremely good in all down-and-distance situations. Very athletic, very quick in space, shifty, has real good moves to kind of get away from defenders whether it’s guys trying to tackle him or guys trying to cover him. It’s really the same situation. You can just see him out in space; he’s a very good space player. As far as the run game, he is extremely patient with the reads.
“They do a real good job up front of covering guys up. They’re extremely large from an offensive line standpoint. Big, long, tall guys that really just cover up defenders and they allow Bell and Williams to be able to sit back there and find some space. You know, hit it through the hole or bounce out outside and get really good yardage by the time the defenders get a chance to get off the blocks and find him. They’ve gained some substantial yardage there.”
The Patriots will have to win the battle on the line of scrimmage to make sure that Bell has no openings into the second level. They will also need LB Jamie Collins- or possibly S Patrick Chung- to cover Bell in the open field as a receiver.
“Bell they’ll put out there a little bit more as a receiver type and actually split him out of the formation and try to design the plays a little bit more to get him the ball when he’s out there in space,” Patricia said while highlighting Bell’s quickness and elusiveness. “If they can get the ball out in space and put a defender in a one-on-one tackling situation, it usually turns out pretty well for them.”
The Steelers use 2-running back formations at times to ensure Bell and DeAngelo Williams can both be on the field, but Williams has just 19 yards from scrimmage (YFS) since Bell returned from suspension three games ago.
Over those three games, Bell has been responsible for 36.2% of the Steelers YFS, with Coates accounting for 17.9% and Brown 15.4%. WR Darrius Heyward-Bey is the only other player to account for more than 7% of the offense and 60 of his 91 YFS came on a single play.
In other words, if the Patriots can limit Bell and Brown, more than 50% of the Steelers offensive production will be in jeopardy. The Steelers #3 option (Coates) might be able to make some noise, but he’s dealing with a hand injury. The Steelers #4 and #5 options on offense are not reliable contributors.
For comparison, TE Rob Gronkowski (22.4%), TE Martellus Bennett (17.8%), RB James White (17.3%), RB LeGarrette Blount (13.1%), WR Chris Hogan (12.3%), and WR Julian Edelman (7.2%) represent a far more diversified offensive approach by the Patriots.
When your #5 option is Julian Edelman, your offense will be in pretty good shape.
But regardless of the opposing quarterback under center, the Patriots defense was going to spend their day limiting the Steelers playmaking duo. That game plan still hasn’t changed.