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The game within the game: Analyzing the Patriots’ defense vs. the Steelers’ offense

The Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots are about to square off come Sunday, and we break down the “game within the game” heading into the biggest matchup of the season.

NFL: AFC Championship-Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

As you may know, typically leading up to a regular-season game, I’ll have the chance to ask someone from the opponent’s SB Nation website some questions regarding the upcoming game. You know, the usual players to watch and prediction questions, but this week is different.

As the Steelers prepare to play the Patriots on Sunday in Week 15, I felt it necessary to dig a little deeper to divine what the opponent might be thinking. I was able to pick the brain of my friend Rich Hill, editor of Pats Pulpit, to break down the Patriots possible thoughts on both offense and defense against the Black-and-gold.

This will be a two-part series where Rich will be the offensive or defensive coordinator of New England, and diagram what he thinks the Patriots will try and do, while I will be either Todd Haley or Keith Butler for Pittsburgh.

Today’s matchup is the much-anticipated showdown between the Patriots’ defense vs. the Steelers’ offense.

New England Defense (Rich)

If I’m New England Patriots defensive coordinator, I’m thinking about slowing down Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. They can’t be stopped, but they can be contained…the Patriots just haven’t found a solution yet.

Brown has played New England five times, seeing 55 targets for 37 receptions, 454 yards, 3 receiving touchdowns, and even adding in 13 rushing yards. He’s averaged roughly 8 catches for 105 yards in his three games against Malcolm Butler and that means that I either need to give Butler additional safety help (either Devin McCourty or Duron Harmon), or ask Stephon Gilmore to step in.

But with 6’1 JuJu Smith-Schuster and 6’4 Martavis Bryant on the other side of the field, I’d rather have Gilmore cover them on an island and give Butler and a safety to Brown. It’s not a perfect situation, but it’s better than the alternative. Jonathan Jones will cover the slot receiver and Patrick Chung will cover the tight end, as per usual.

Bell is a different beast. He was injured in the AFC Championship Game, but in his two regular season games against the Patriots he’s received 37 carries for 155 yards and seen 24 targets with 14 receptions for 133 yards. That’s an average of 144 yards from scrimmage per game. The Patriots need to think about having a safety cover Bell out of the backfield because no linebacker is capable of the task- but that leaves the Patriots vulnerable to the rushing attack.

I would consider playing a heavier bear front for the whole game to try and limit Bell’s damage on the ground and to give the offense some time to hopefully build up a lead and remove Bell’s rushing ability from the equation.

But Bell and Brown combine for an average of about 250 yards from scrimmage against the current Patriot roster, which is a pretty high total for just two players. If the Patriots can keep them under 200, it’ll be a good day and the Patriots will have a pretty good chance to win the game.

Pittsburgh Offense (Jeff)

Just like the Steelers defense vs. the Patriots offense seems like a gigantic mismatch, the Steelers offense should be a mismatch for the New England defense. If I am Todd Haley, I know the Patriots are going to try and take one player out of the game, and I am going to gamble on him trying to take out Antonio Brown. Belichick would probably love to take Le'Veon Bell out of the game, but his versatility would require a complete adjustment on defense, and one which could leave the secondary hanging out to dry. Belichick will want to slow down the Steelers' offensive attack, and keep plays in front of them.

In the past, New England has bracketed Brown as many times as they could, and Todd Haley would be wise to truly mess with the Patriots' heads. I am going to put Antonio Brown all over the field. Outside, in the slot, sending him in motion, in the backfield...everywhere. Always make the Patriots have to account for Brown, and what the team can do from where Brown is located on the field. While the Patriots focus on Brown, this is where others will have to win their one-on-one battles. Jesse James at tight end, Le'Veon Bell out of the backfield, JuJu Smith-Schuster in the slot and Martavis Bryant opposite Brown.

While that may look like the Steelers are going to just come out and chuck the ball around the yard, the Steelers want to run the football, and run it a lot. If the Patriots come out in nickel or dime sub packages, expect Le'Veon Bell to get a heavy workload. If they are in their base/run stopping defense, Roethlisberger will find the one on one options and attempt to exploit them.

The main factor in all of these plans is the offensive line. The unit has done a tremendous job keeping Roethlisberger upright, and they will need to stay focused and on point if they want to win this game at Heinz Field. Lastly, moving the ball has never been a problem for the Pittsburgh offense, but 3rd downs and red-zone offense has. In the last four games both areas have improved tremendously, but TDs, not FGs, will be the only way the Steelers will win this game. This offense was built to score with teams like the Patriots, and now is the time to prove it.

How do you think this matchup will play out? Let us know in the comment section below, and be sure to check out Part Two of this feature on Sunday morning!

A big thanks to Rich for taking the time to help us with this feature. If you want to know about things on the other side of the fence, Pats Pulpit is your place to be.

Part One: Steelers defense vs. the Patriots Offense