The New England Patriots have one of two options to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers: eliminate WR Antonio Brown, or defend against RB Le’Veon Bell. Both players are among the best at their position in the entire league.
Is either task possible to accomplish?
Brown has only been limited in three games this year: two against the Bengals, and one against the Dolphins and former Bengals defensive coach Vance Joseph. He racked up 119 yards from scrimmage against the Patriots back in week 7.
“We obviously know what Antonio Brown is,” Patriots defensive captain Dont’a Hightower said this week. “He’s arguably the best wide receiver in the league. We know what kind of match-up threat he poses. We expect [Patriots CB Malcolm Butler] to take advantage of that, and I know he’s ready to rise up to that challenge. Just like any other week, he’s going to come in and work hard. That’s just the kind of person that he is.”
The Bengals and Dolphins have had success slowing down Brown with a pretty simple strategy: they double cover him. No matter what the play is, they hit Brown at the line to disrupt his timing, and then they devote a second player to covering Brown in support of the cornerback.
The Patriots could do that with Butler and help by FS Devin McCourty or FS Duron Harmon, but it might be a better use of defensive resources to place Butler in single coverage of the #2 receiver for the Steelers, and allow CB Logan Ryan or CB Eric Rowe to jam Brown at the line of scrimmage. The Patriots know that it will be a team effort to slow Brown’s production.
“We can easily sit here and say we want to make every one-on-one tackle but there’s a going to be a good time probably that a guy misses a tackle because Antonio Brown makes them miss or Bell makes them miss,” McCourty said at a press conference. “It’s guys pursuing and I think that’s what we need to see in practice – guys having the right angle, guys getting to where they need to get to. Even in practice where it looks like a guy has him, we need another guy getting there so if he doesn’t have him he’s there too. That’s the hard thing about this league, you can’t simulate every guy you’re playing against and this is definitely the case with some of the guys they have over there. But I think it’s just a mentality with us of knowing where we need to be and trying to get there in practice and unleashing in the game.”
The Patriots will have to make a tough decision to double Brown on every snap because Bell is arguably a bigger threat. Bell has eclipsed 100 yards from scrimmage in all but one of his games in 2016, and his 70-yard day against the Baltimore Ravens was a major fluke.
“That was a weird game from start to finish,” BehindTheSteelCurtain.com‘s Jeff Hartman writes. “The Ravens didn't buy Ben Roethlisberger was healthy, his first game back after injuring his knee against the Dolphins in Week 6, and they gambled right. They completely sold out to stop the run, and the Steelers weren't prepared for anything different. Leading up to that game the Steelers had a very vanilla offensive plan considering they didn't know how Roethlisberger would play, and in case Landry Jones had to be under center. It was when the team started their winning streak they seemingly sat down and said Bell is the focal point on the offense, and we need to ride him to have success...and it's worked.”
So unless Roethlisberger is seriously hurt- or the Patriots want to challenge Roethlisberger to throw the ball down the field- the Ravens strategy to slow down Bell isn’t replicable. Of course Roethlisberger has been a poor road quarterback as of late, so maybe the Patriots actually do want him to throw the ball- if only to get the ball away from Bell, who recorded 149 yards against the Patriots in week 7.
“The running back, Le’Veon Bell, is obviously a very dangerous player,” Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said this week. “A guy that really does a great job in the run game and the pass game; a guy that’s a great space player; really very dynamic in his ability to make people miss in open space from a tackling standpoint; very patient runner. It’s kind of a different style of running game where he kind of gets to the line of scrimmage and really just finds that hole or that seam and he has this incredible burst to be able to get through.”
Bell has a unique style of running where you can watch him setting up his blocks before picking a running lane and flashing his impressive burst. There are times where he’s walking in the backfield because he’d rather wait for a lane to open than to dive into the back of his blocker. The Patriots will need to ensure they have great gap integrity against the run and they cannot afford to let Bell break many tackles.
“I think defensively [Bell] really forces you to be disciplined,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. “You jump out of there too quickly then you open up gaps and open up space. Le’Veon has a great burst through the hole. He doesn’t really need long to get through there, runs with good pad level. He’s hard to tackle so if you don’t get a full body on him then he’ll run right through those arm tackles.
“[He] really forces everybody to be sound in their gaps. Like I said, getting off and jumping around blocks or trying to get to the hole too quickly just opens up cut-back lanes or stays in the front somewhere and he does a great job of finding it. I mean team defense is the only way to stop it. There’s no one guy that can stop him. You’re going to have to have everybody doing a good job in a number of different areas all the way across the front and then do a good job of tackling.”
Bell is a “unique” talent, according to Hightower, and should receive the Marshall Faulk treatment that Belichick deployed in Super Bowl XXXVI, where he had multiple players swarming and hitting Faulk on every given play. Perhaps the Patriots can live with Brown picking up 100 yards if Bell posts his worst day of the season.
And if the Patriots can stop both, well, they’ve earned the right to call themselves the #1 defense in the NFL.