While the Pittsburgh Steelers are a tough team to play against, the Patriots will have the advantage of playing at home. The Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger has really bad home/road splits in the 2016 season and will be traveling to Foxboro to play on Sunday with a Super Bowl trip on the line. The trick will be slowing the Steelers offense, which heavily depends on their top two skill players Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. At the same time, the Patriots offense has to keep the “Blitzburgh” defense on their toes and not let them get to Tom Brady.
Limit Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown: The Patriots are not going to be able to completely stop them because those two are the top RB and WR in the conference. The Patriots can scheme up things to try to limit the gains they will get. Bell and Brown account for half the Steelers offense in terms of plays called their way and their share of the team’s total in yards from scrimmage. In order to do that, the Patriots Front 7 simply has to beat the Steelers five blockers and not have to force the Patriots to put an extra defender in the box so they can keep a safety over the top of Brown. The Patriots defense will be playing a lot of Cover 2 Zone or 2 Man Under in order to limit the big plays the Steelers can get through the air. The Steelers have a very good offensive line, so the task is easier said than done.
The key to limiting the impact of those two will be good tackling. Brown and Bell are very quick and one missed tackle turns 2-3 into 12-13 yards, if not more. The Steelers are very good at capitalizing on mistakes of the opposing defense and they'll want to control time of possession.
Activate Blount Force: I believe in this case the best defense is offense. The Patriots need to control the ball in order to keep the Steelers Bs off the field. In the Patriots' Week 7 win mostly came from the running of LeGarrette Blount. Blount ran for 127 yards and 2 TDs on 24 carries, so a similar outing will go a long way. Back in Week 7, the Steelers lost their most consistent and reliable Front 7 player to a season-ending injury the week before and were struggling to defend the run. Now they’ve gotten better against the run of late and it’s not going to be easy for Blount to get 100 yards. The key for the Patriots is being able to get into the 2nd level and block their fast linebackers. If Blount is able to make a significant impact on the game, it helps the rest of the offense because...
Use misdirection and play-action to attack the Steelers aggressive linebackers: The Steelers have fast and aggressive linebackers, just like the Houston Texans. The Patriots need to use the Steelers speed and aggression against them. Use play-action to suck up the linebackers against the run and hit them right behind with Martellus Bennett or Julian Edelman in the middle of the field for significant chunks. With the season on the line, Josh McDaniels should not hold back in terms of play calling and go for the throat. We will likely see some end-arounds, reverses, and screens mixed into the offensive game plan. I believe the misdirection plays will work well against a young defense.
Utilize the top chess pieces to diagnose the Steelers defense in the pre-snap: Dion Lewis and James White are the Patriots top two chess pieces to move around the formation in order to figure out the Steelers defense pre-snap. Whether it’s by personnel, formation, or motion, the Patriots have to be on top of those things to try to create favorable match-ups. I went into further detail on how both White and Lewis will ultimately be the key for the Patriots to be able to force the Steelers to tip their coverage. Patriots need every advantage they can get for this game, especially if it turns into a possible shootout if Roethlisberger gets hot. Patriots should be able to exploit a match-up against the Steelers linebackers in coverage with their two receiving backs.
Utilize more tempo in the offense: The Steelers are dealing with a flu problem, so the Patriots can win with an up tempo approach early. When I say tempo, I mean a no-huddle approach to prevent the Steelers from subbing on defense. If the Patriots can tire out the Steelers defense early, then that should set the stage for the Patriots to control the ball in the 2nd half by applying Blount Force.
Win the battle of field position: When facing a tough offense to defend, every yard matters. Football is a game of inches and the Patriots need to fight for every inch of field position. Punter Ryan Allen was listed as my X-Factor for the Patriots Special Teams unit, but it’s really the entire punt coverage unit. The Patriots need to force the Steelers to continually have to make 75+ yard drives because I don’t think Roethlisberger will play mistake-free for the game due to his recent struggles away from Pittsburgh. Field position translates into points and if the Patriots can use their Special Teams as a field position weapon, it helps in putting away the Steelers.
Avoid silly mistakes: When I say silly mistakes, it’s stupid dead ball penalties or turnovers. The Patriots were plagued by these mistakes in their 34-16 win over the Houston Texans, a game much closer than the final score thanks to inept QB play by the Texans. The Patriots cannot turn the ball over three times or commit a personal foul to extend drives after getting a 3rd down stop. Last week we saw Travis Kelce melt down on the Chiefs final drive, getting a 15-yard penalty after pushing a Steelers defensive back after being taunted about his drop on the previous down. The Patriots cannot afford silly mistakes against the Steelers because it could keep them in the game or swing the game the other way.
Final Score Prediction: I have the Patriots winning at home 35-28. This will be a back and forth affair with the two offenses matching blow for blow, but ultimately at the end the Patriots are going to be able to establish a 35-21 lead late in the 4th quarter although the Steelers will score a TD with under a minute and then fail an onside kick attempt to seal it. Bell and Brown will combine for 290 of the Steelers 435 yards, as the Steelers do get solid contributions from Eli Rogers and Jesse James in the passing game. However, the Patriots offense lead by a 325 yard game from Brady and a 125 yard receiving game from Julian Edelman and a pair of receiving touchdowns by James White will propel the Patriots into Super Bowl LII.