The New England Patriots have a unique match-up on Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers because no other offense in the NFL is so reliant on just two players. FiveThirtyEight notes that running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown are on pace for a combined 3,930 yards from scrimmage, edging out the record for the most by any duo in NFL history.
The current record holders? 3,926 yards from scrimmage by Bell and Brown with the Steelers in 2014.
“Those two guys are both fabulous players on the same team,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said about the Steelers duo. “Very hard to defend Brown and Bell, just dynamic players that have the ability to do so many things, do them so well consistently. They’re there every week. They make big plays every week. Two thirds of the offense with two guys – that’s a lot of offense.”
Bell and Brown account for 62.8% of the Steelers offense, which is an incredible figure, especially with how the Patriots like to play defense. Belichick likes to take away the opposing team’s favorite option or two and force them to win with their third, fourth, and fifth options.
But what happens when the other team relies so heavily on just two players? And what happens when their top two options are unstoppable?
Bell is the best running back in the NFL and he’s able to do everything on the field. He has 1,105 rushing yards and 579 receiving yards and teams haven’t found a way to bottle him up when he’s on the field.
“He's really good,” Belichick said about Bell. “He's a tremendous player. He leads the league in yards from scrimmage and that’s about really all you need to know. He’s a receiver when he’s out of the backfield. He can run any run you want – inside, outside, runs with power, runs with a lot of skill and quickness in the open field. He’s an excellent receiver in the passing game. A big guy, blitz pickup, matches up well against linebackers and DB's that he has to block. He’s a tremendous player.”
“He does whatever he needs to do,” Belichick added. “If you want to see him run hard, run over people, run downhill then you can find plenty of plays of that. You can see him with his vision finding space in the defense. There’s plays on that. Catching the ball – plenty of plays on that. The guy doesn’t lead the league in yards from scrimmage by doing one thing, doing it a little bit. He does everything. He does it well, does whatever he needs to do. You give him an opening, wherever it is, and he's going to make you pay for it.”
Bell’s success on the ground is linked to his ability as a receiver because defenses can’t match him with a defensive back in coverage without weakening their run defense- and Bell is going to win a coverage match-up against every single linebacker in the NFL.
So the only way to match Bell is by using multiple defenders, which is again a tricky recommendation because wide receiver Antonio Brown and his 1,509 receiving yards require double coverage, too.
“Antonio Brown is a great player,” defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. “He's one of the best wide receivers in the league so obviously he gets a lot of attention which frees up some opportunities for some of those other guys and the quarterback will do a great job of exploiting those situations whether it's a check down to the back or get the ball to the tight end quickly. There's a lot of formations. Coach [Todd] Haley does a good job of moving the formations on you also so that you have to try to defend a lot of space which they have really good players to take advantage of that.”
The “best” way to cover Brown is to use a cornerback with trail coverage and a safety over the top, but there’s a reason why Brown is one catch away from an NFL-record five-straight 100+ reception seasons and why he’s averaged 102.9 yards per game over the past five years. There is no “best” way to cover him.
Bell and Brown already combine for 3,193 yards from scrimmage in 2017, which is the 37th-most productive duo in NFL history with three games to play. They need just 317 combined yards to move into the top 10 most productive duo of all time.
While this might seem like a low bar, if the Patriots defense can prevent the duo from reaching the top 10, then New England will be in a great position to win the game because the Steelers offense doesn’t have too many other options.
Rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster ranks third on the team with 585 yards, while wide receiver Martavis Bryant ranks fourth with 433 yards and tight end Jesse James ranks fifth with 356 yards. They are all capable of making plays and deserve plenty of attention, but they haven’t shown a consistent ability to take over a game- although there’s an easy counterargument that no defense has been able to stop both Bell and Brown to require Pittsburgh to look in a different direction.
If I were Matt Patricia, I would ask Malcolm Butler and Duron Harmon to cover Brown all game and have Stephon Gilmore cover Bryant or Smith-Schuster on an island. That would leave Patrick Chung with the slot receiver or tight end James and allow McCourty to either cover James or help the linebacker in bracket coverage of Bell whenever he moved out as a receiver.
There’s no easy solution to the Steelers offense, but you can be certain that the Patriots defense will be prepared.