By Danny Cox
After a dominant performance during the regular season, the New England Patriots had a first-round bye and then looked a bit flat in their first playoff game. Sure, they defeated the Houston Texans by 18 points when all was said and done, but it was quite a sloppy game and that victory can mostly be attributed to special teams.
While it's likely that the Pats accumulated just a bit of rust from the extra week off, New England needs to have shaken that off by the time they host the Steelers this Sunday in the AFC Championship, because Pittsburgh is a different beast. They're an extremely successful team with a lot of weapons that can jump out ahead of you in a hurry, and the Pats do not want to play catch-up against that defense.
Pittsburgh Steelers Season Record: 11-5
A strong 4-1 start made things look very promising for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but then Ben Roethlisberger suffered an injury that began a four-game losing streak. One of those losses was to the Patriots, but things changed considerably after the team became healthy. Now, they're riding a nine-game win streak, including two playoff victories, and have a lot of momentum on their side.
Steelers On Offense
New England won't be able to pick and choose who they need to devote the most attention to on defense, because everyone needs coverage. Antonio Brown isn't the only receiver to watch, but he's certainly the most dangerous. Big Ben doesn't look for just one receiver when he also has Eli Rogers and Jesse James sprinting around the field.
If the Patriots are going to win, though, the primary focus will be stopping running back Le'Veon Bell. New England cannot allow him to run the ball with strength and purpose, or he will be gone before they know it. Out of the backfield, he's a dangerous pass-catcher and was second on the team in receiving yards this season. He is the full package and the success of the Steelers this Sunday goes hand-in-hand with how well Bell plays.
Steelers On Defense
Throughout the regular season, the Steelers were allowing just over 20 points-per-game and didn't hold opponents to the lowest numbers in the NFL, but they certainly know how to contain. Players such as Ryan Shazier, Lawrence Timmons, Mike Mitchell and William Gay can come out of nowhere to deliver a game-changing play on defense. Add in linebacker Bud Dupree, who has been playing with fire and purpose, and that's a scary situation for the Patriots.
Steelers Players To Watch: RB Le'Veon Bell and LB James Harrison
At this point, the Patriots need to keep their eyes on the biggest and most reliable weapons that the Steelers have at their disposal. Despite missing four games due to a suspension, Le'Veon Bell still landed in the top five in rushing yards for the entire regular season with 1,298. In two postseason games, Bell has 337 yards on the ground which is more than 260 yards better than any running backs still left in the playoffs. If the Patriots are going to stop the Steelers, they must stop Bell.
Regular season numbers are one thing, but so is experience. James Harrison is closing in on 39 years of age, but in two playoff games, he is second with 16 tackles and 2.5 sacks. He's a force to be reckoned with as he's the total package of size, strength, speed and sheer determination. If the Patriots don't find a way to contain him, it will be a long day for Tom Brady.
Bill Belichick knows what to do in virtually every on-field situation. After the problems the team faced against the Houston Texans last week, he most certainly has his players and coaches working on correcting any mistakes that may have lingered. Unfortunately, they're going up against a Pittsburgh Steelers team that is riding a long win streak and a lot of momentum to go along with a lot of talented players. Every player on the Patriots roster will have to be on top of his game if New England is serious about returning to the Super Bowl.
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