Usually, a running back's defensive match-up would be an opposing team's front seven. But with Bell and how versatile he can be as a runner and as a receiver, it will involve the entire Patriots defense in order to keep his impact to a minimum. The New England Patriots (5-1) travel to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers (4-2) in what many had hoped to be a clash of possibly the two best teams in the AFC. Unfortunately, with the injury to Ben Roethlisberger, this match-up loses a bit of shine. Nevertheless, the Steelers are not without dangerous players on their offense that have the ability to give the Patriots defense a run for their money. The key player here will be their star running back.
Since coming back in week four following his three game suspension, Bell has been a man on a mission. He has at least 100 yards from scrimmage in each game this season and has accumulated a ridiculous 440 yards from scrimmage in only three games. He's had at least 50 yards rushing in each game while also having at least 50 yards receiving over the past two games as well. Whether he is running the ball on an early down or getting the ball out of the backfield on third down, he is the focal point for this offense and teams have struggled to find a solution against him.
The Patriots have faced their fair share of star running backs this season including David Johnson, Lamar Miller and LeSean McCoy. But Bell has proven for a few years now that when he is healthy, there isn't a better running back in this league at both running the ball and catching it. And with Landry Jones at quarterback this weekend rather than Roethlisberger, expect the Steelers to utilize Bell more than usual to make up for Big Ben's absence. His 29 touches in week five is his season high, but it wouldn't be surprising to see him surpass 30 in this game. The key for the Patriots will be to limit his effectiveness as well as possible.
The Patriots have actually done very well in run defense lately, as they have given up only 228 yards on 73 rushing attempts (3.12 yards per carry) over the past three games to running backs such as Isaiah Crowell, Duke Johnson, Jeremy Hill, Gio Bernard and McCoy. They have only given up one total touchdown (a receiving touchdown to McCoy in week four) over the past three games as well. On the season, the Patriots have given up only 3.7 yards on 148 rushing attempts by opposing teams. Their run defense has stepped up as of late, with Malcom Brown, Alan Branch, Woodrow Hamilton and even Elandon Roberts being main catalysts for this.
This will be the biggest test of the season so far for the Patriots run defense and it will take everyone to stop him. Todd Haley and the Steelers offense has brilliantly worked to get Bell adequate space to work with in the run game with unique blocking on designed run plays to allow him to get into the open field. Perhaps better than anyone else in the league, Bell's open field ability to make defenders miss and also have the toughness mixed with speed to be difficult to tackle is especially difficult. Luckily for the Patriots, starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert will miss Sunday's game, forcing them to use back-up Chris Hubbard in his place.
The Steelers are no-where near full strength, as mentioned above with injuries to Roethlisberger and Gilbert for example. Especially with Big Ben's injury, the Patriots will be allowed to focus more on Bell and "load the box" more with more defenders to better defend against the run. But Bell is just as dangerous as a receiver who can catch out of the back-field or even line up in the slot if needed. And with other offensive threats such as Antonio Brown and Sammie Coates needing proper attention on every play, the Patriots will need to make sure they allocate their attention appropriately even with Jones as quarterback.
The key for the Patriots to limit Bell in the run game will be attacking the middle and stuffing any holes there while attacking the Steelers offensive tackles to seal the edge. With Pittsburgh on their back-up right tackle and already employing a below-average left tackle in Alejandro Villanueva, using EDGE rushers such as Jabaal Sheard, Chris Long and Jamie Collins (assuming he is active) to take away from Bell being able to get outside and into open field. The Steelers are boasting a weaker exterior offensive line, so taking advantage of that deficiency will be important for the Patriots. And with how well New England's interior defensive line has done over the past few games (as highlighted below), containing the run game to the inside is an advantage for the Patriots.
Malcom Brown has been the Patriots best run stopping DT.— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) October 20, 2016
Woodrow Hamilton has been a huge part of the D improvement past two weeks. pic.twitter.com/hc8zjwd1pE
In the receiving game, the Patriots will constantly need to keep an eye on Bell whether he is in the backfield or lined up as a slot wide receiver. Bell's speed is a threat, so to match his speed, Elandon Roberts could be a solid choice to spy on him and be his match-up. Roberts has shown able to read defenses while also make plays quickly due to his own speed so he may be the best player to have watching him besides perhaps Collins. He is arguably the best cover linebacker that the Patriots have, so he could be another option as well. Bell is a danger in both phases of the offense and needs constant supervision, so the Patriots need to be sure in having at least one player on him at all times on every play.
Overall, Bell is a game-changer and makes it difficult for any defense to stop him or the offense he is on. The Patriots are hoping that their success against the run game over the past few weeks can carry over to Sunday's game. Whether it's the run or passing game, Bell is a second away from making a play. If the Patriots want to make sure they come out with a victory, they need to make sure they keep Bell at bay.