In an effort to provide in-depth coverage into the upcoming AFC Championship game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots, we are going to break down the matchup in every facet, position by position.
Today’s breakdown will be the Steelers wide receivers vs. the Patriots defensive backs. First, let’s analyze the personnel groupings:
New England Defensive Backs
Matchup to Watch:
Antonio Brown vs. Malcolm Butler
On paper, this looks like an easy nod to the Steelers receivers, but this New England secondary is more talented than most might believe. Led by Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler, the Patriots’ defensive backs play their scheme to near perfection. Throw in their safeties of Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung, and they are a very experienced group in the back half of the secondary.
Sure, they have been beaten before, and are capable of being beaten, but what they do is make the windows for opposing quarterbacks downright tiny. For a team to go into Foxborough and win by throwing the football, the quarterback has to be on point, and that has been a struggle for Ben Roethlisberger away from Heinz Field.
New England was 15th in the NFL in interceptions this season, with 13, and tied for 16th in pass defenses with 70. As for yards per game surrendered, the Patriots ranked 12th in the league allowing 238 yards per game through the air.
On the flip side, the Steelers ranked 5th in the league for most passing yards in a game, with 262.2 yards per game through the air.
The Steelers must enter this game with a balanced attack, and not be reliant on the passing game to move the ball. I envision the Steelers doing exactly what they did vs. the Kansas City Chiefs by opening up the game throwing, and helping to create space for Le’Veon Bell to run. Typically, the second drive of the game has been very run-heavy throughout the playoffs, and that trend will likely continue.
Nonetheless, the Steelers will need to rely on their secondary matchups if they want to punch their ticket to Super Bowl 51. Eli Rogers, Darrius Heyward-Bey and even Cobi Hamilton, not to mention the tight ends and Bell coming out of the backfield, need to win their one-on-one matchups as the Patriots will likely try to take Brown out of the game entirely.
In the Week 7 matchup at Heinz Field, Pittsburgh totaled 281 yards receiving, with Brown gaining 106 of those yards off 7 receptions, but failing to hit pay dirt. That game saw Landry Jones at quarterback, and Jones was able to distribute the ball to 8 different receivers throughout the game. A recipe for success against the New England secondary.
Slight nod to the Steelers WRs