The Pittsburgh Steelers lost All Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown early in the second quarter with a calf injury and that forced their offense to rely heavily on running back Le’Veon Bell. The Patriots were unable to find a solution as Bell rushed for 117 yards and a touchdown and added 48 receiving yards, carving up the New England defense in every direction.
It was clear that the Patriots missed Kyle Van Noy at linebacker and Alan Branch at defensive tackle, but the Steelers reliance on Bell provided a great showcase for what the Patriots can expect to see next week against the Buffalo Bills.
Without Brown, Bell accounted for nearly half of the offensive yards by players active for the Steelers for the entire 2017 season. He was and will be the focal point of the Pittsburgh offense for the rest of the year.
Bills running back LeSean McCoy is used in a similar workhorse fashion, without the benefit of having Antonio Brown to distract opposing secondaries. McCoy accounts for nearly a third of the Bills offense, with only tight end Charles Clay (457 yards), quarterback Tyrod Taylor (376 yards), and wide receiver Deonte Thompson (311 yards) providing more than 30 yards per game on the season.
The Patriots cannot allow McCoy to get to the edge or to the second level as freely as they allowed Bell to do so in week 15, with Bell averaging 11 yards per carry around the edge. The hopeful return of Kyle Van Noy would certainly bolster the Patriots’ ability to contain McCoy in the backfield.
It also helps that Taylor is not as great of a quarterback as Ben Roethlisberger, and that the Bills don’t have a Martavis Bryant or JuJu Smith-Schuster on the roster to convert huge chunk plays. It’s really just the McCoy show, with Taylor a threat to slip free to scramble for a third down conversion.
New England has to learn from their struggles against the Antonio Brown-less Steelers offense and apply it immediately to their week 16 opponent. Stopping McCoy is the key to stopping the entire Bills offense. The Patriots allowed just 3 points to the Bills in week 13, but gave up 183 rushing yards (and a mere 85 passing yards).
They will have to do better against the run in week 16 to stay ahead of the AFC and retain homefield advantage.