The Patriots and the Steelers was an AFC Championship match-up I expected back in September. While the road for the Steelers has been different, at the end of the day the best two QBs in the AFC are in the championship game. The Steelers offensively are a bit different in 2016 than you’d expect although they more closely align with the 2004 team than with their 2015 version. The Steelers finished 7th in weighted DVOA on defense and 8th on offense. They’ve won nine straight games and are not to be taken lightly.
Top Offensive Threat: RB Le’Veon Bell
The Steelers offense is still equally as potent as it was in 2015, but due to a massive drop-off in QB play from Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers offense is now more reliant on Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown than ever before. Bell in his two playoff games has rushed for 337 yards, albeit against the 22nd and 26th ranked rush defenses in terms of DVOA. Bell has carried the Steelers offense with Roethlisberger struggling. If the Steelers are able to effectively run the ball, that means Brady is not on the field victimizing the Steelers young secondary. The Patriots have to keep the Steelers in long distance situations where Roethlisberger’s inconsistent ball placement costs him against tight man coverage.
Top Defensive Threat: DL Stephon Tuitt
While James Harrison and Bud Dupree have been strong in the Steelers playoff run, the issue for the Patriots will be interior pressure. The Patriots struggled against the Texans exotic rush packages, although the Steelers aren’t going to replicate that game plan as successfully. 3rd year lineman Stephon Tuitt is the Steelers most consistent Front 7 player who disrupts plays from the inside and can handle double teams effectively. The Patriots were able to pound the ball on the ground against the Steelers in Week 7, with LeGarrette Blount running for 127 yards and a TD. If the Patriots are able to run the ball with Blount, then it’s not a question of winning but rather how much because it keeps the pass rush honest and opens up play action behind the linebackers. The best way to affect Brady is interior pressure, which isn’t a unique weakness to just Brady, which means the interior OL needs to give him room to step up from edge pressure.