The Steelers have the undisputed top RB and WR in the AFC in Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. Each player presents a big match-up problem for many teams, including the Patriots. The Steelers are also very reliant on those two, which means that could present an opportunity for Bill Belichick, Matt Patricia, and the rest of the Patriots defensive coaching staff to find a way to cripple the Steelers offense. The Steelers’ #3, #4, and #5 threats on the field are Eli Rogers, Jesse James, and either Cobi Hamilton or Sammie Coates. Rogers is the only player of that group that could have a big game against the Patriots barring coverage breakdowns although Hamilton and Coates have flashed potential in certain games.
Le’Veon Bell missed the first three games of the season after testing positive for marijuana. In the 12 regular season games he played (sat out Week 17), Bell has averaged 157 yards from scrimmage. Bell isn’t just a bellcow RB running the ball, he is also a legitimate receiving threat out of the backfield. Bell runs routes and catches the ball like a WR plus is difficult to tackle. With the Steelers traveling to Foxboro on Sunday, the Steelers will be very reliant on his skills to move the chains as both a runner and a receiver.
In the games he’s been active, Bell has played no fewer than 87% of the snaps on offense. That means he’s on the field every down. Bell is either running the ball, lined up as a WR and running routes, or staying in to block. Despite playing in only 12 games, Bell has 261 of the Steelers 409 rushing attempts. In the games he was not active, the Steelers ran the ball or kneeled down 30, 36, 10, and 28 times. Take those games out of the equation, Bell has accumulated 85.6% of his team’s carries when on the field. As a receiver Bell has been targeted 94 times, which is 2nd on the team behind Antonio Brown. Bell is often used as a checkdown or short yardage, but that doesn’t mean the Steelers won’t use him on wheel routes similar to how the Patriots utilize James White out of the backfield.
Bell’s 355 combined carries and targets take up the Steelers 1026 plays, or 34.6% of their plays from scrimmage. Over 12 games, that’s been an average of 30 touches a game. The Patriots should definitely be expecting that, especially with Bell having the most success of his career to date with 170 YFS per game in his two postseason games. The Patriots cannot stack the box with 8 defenders because it leaves them vulnerable to single coverage against Antonio Brown, which is never a good game plan.
The Steelers top overall receiving threat, Antonio Brown has 154 targets and 3 carries, totaling 157 touches. Brown is 2nd in the team in scrimmage yards with 1,293, or 86.2 per game. Brown is the #1 target in the Steelers offense and Ben Roethlisberger’s go-to-guy in single coverage. The Steelers, and Roethlisberger in particular, love to take shots to Brown in single coverage, which is why stopping the run with just the Front 7 is paramount for the Patriots defense. Brown has 1,284 receiving yards on 106 catches, so whatever teams have tried has not worked consistently. Brown had 112 receiving yards in the first quarter against the Dolphins in the Wild Card round, but the Chiefs were able to bottle him up in the 2nd half before making the game-clinching grab on the Steelers’ final meaningful play from scrimmage.
Totaling up the number of times the Steelers attempted to get the ball to both Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, the Steelers targeted or handed them the ball 512 times. The Steelers ran 1026 plays on the season, which means the Steelers attempted to get Bell and Brown on about half of their offensive plays. In the Patriots case, you do as much as you can to limit those two, as the Patriots 3rd, 4th, and 5th defenders can handle the Steelers 3rd, 4th, and 5th receivers, as Rich pointed out in why he wanted the Steelers for the AFC Championship. Stopping Bell and Brown is going to be hard because the Steelers scheme them the ball a lot and they are the best two skill players in the AFC. If the Patriots are able to slow down both Bell and Brown, that should allow the defense to get off the field and allow Tom Brady to build a lead on the other side of the ball.