The New England Patriots’ defense exudes confidence as it prepares for its toughest test to date Sunday in the AFC Championship Game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The unit has etched a chip on its shoulder based on comments made midway through the season that the defense wasn’t passing the eye test nor playing up to its ranking. They’ve only improved since and still are blasting their critics.
Sunday is as good a time as any to prove the Patriots’ defense can hold up against a quarterback as good as Ben Roethlisberger. Here’s how they can ensure victory.
This is an area where the Patriots should be able to limit the Steelers. The Steelers took four trips inside the red zone Sunday in their divisional-round win over the Kansas City Chiefs and didn’t come out with a single touchdown.
The Steelers ranked 14th this season in red zone touchdown percentage. They’re 18th in their last three games and ranked 29th in away games, scoring a touchdown on just 37.04 percent of their trips inside the 20-yard line.
The Patriots, on the other hand, dramatically improved their red-zone scoring defense throughout the season, ranking eighth. They rank second in their last three games, allowing a touchdown on just 28.57 percent of opponents’ trips inside the red zone.
Steelers top offensive weapons Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown both work better in space. Bell only scored seven rushing touchdowns this season and added two through the air. Brown had 12 receiving touchdowns this season, but only four came inside the red zone.
KEEP LE’VEON BELL COVERED
The Steelers’ star running back hasn’t been heavily involved in the passing game through two playoff games, and Pittsburgh still is winning. Now might be the time for the Steelers to pull out all the stops and give Bell more targets.
He has just four catches for 3 yards over the last two games but had 75 receptions for 616 yards in the regular season. One of his best games as a receiver came in Week 7, when he had 10 catches for 68 yards against the Patriots.
The Patriots’ linebackers will have a tough time covering Bell, so it might be up to strong safety Patrick Chung to keep him in check. Chung was solid all season when asked to cover running backs. The key to stopping Bell through the air will come through tackling. The Patriots’ secondary has shown sure-tackling skills all year, especially of late.
GIVE BRADY TIME
If Brady has a good game, it will be extremely difficult for the Steelers to win because there’s a good chance Pittsburgh can’t keep up with the Patriots’ offense.
Brady had his worst game of the season against the Houston Texans on Saturday, completing less than 50 percent of his passes while throwing two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Brady clearly was affected by the pressure the Texans were bringing, especially up the middle where the QB is being protected by a rookie and two second-year players.
The Steelers’ pass rush doesn’t have as much talent as the Texans’, but they were actually more productive in 2016, ranking 10th in sack percentage. They rank fourth in sack percentage over their last three games.
The Patriots’ offensive line must be prepared for pressure to come from all over as they protect against James Harrison, Bud Dupree, Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt and Jarvis Jones.
Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images