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2017 AFC Championship Preview: Steelers Rushing attack vs. Patriots Rush Defense

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During the Steelers’ 9-game winning streak, they have seen themselves morph into a running football team. We take a look at the matchup between the Pittsburgh running game, and the New England rush defense.

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.

Today’s breakdown will be the Steelers ground game vs. the Patriots rush defense. First, let’s analyze the personnel groupings:

Pittsburgh

RB Le’Veon Bell
RB DeAngelo Williams
RB Fitzgerald Toussaint
FB Roosevelt Nix

New England

DE Chris Long
DT Alan Branch
DT Malcom Brown
DE Trey Flowers
LB Shea McClellin
LB Dont’a Hightower
LB Rob Nincovich

Matchup to Watch:

Roosevelt Nix vs. Dont’a Hightower

Breakdown:

The Pittsburgh Steelers have completely changed their offensive approach since they started the season 4-5. Once a quick passing attack, the Steelers have turned to the ground-and-pound game with Le’Veon Bell. It isn’t just Bell who is turning heads, but an offensive line who has dominated opponents in recent weeks, and a "jumbo" package which features fullback Roosevelt Nix and Chris Hubbard to help move people around to give Bell room to run.

In the first meeting between the Steelers and Patriots, New England kept Bell in check, but it wasn’t necessarily their doing. With Landry Jones at quarterback, and the Steelers playing from behind, they were forced to abandon the run. Bell ended up with 81 yards rushing on 21 carries, a 3.9 yards per carry. That is a low output for Bell, but without Roethlisberger in the lineup the Patriots were able to load the box and for Jones to beat them — which he didn’t.

The next meeting should be different as Bell is averaging over 170 yards rushing this postseason, but how does the Steelers rushing attack line up with the Patriots rush defense?

The Pittsburgh rushing offense averaged 4.3 yards per carry throughout the regular season, which ranked 15th in the league, while the Patriots defense allowed 3.9 yards per carry, 8th in the league. From a per game look, the Steelers averaged 110 yards per game this season, while the Patriots held opponents to 88.6 yards per game, 3rd best in the NFL.

The numbers might be slightly skewed considering Bell missed the first three games, and it wasn’t until the 9-game winning streak the Steelers truly started to focus on the running game on a weekly basis. To be honest, the Steelers’ rushing attack doesn’t even look the same as it did early in the season. Bell is performing at an All-World level, but the Patriots run defense is no joke. They do a great job with gap discipline, can get interior pressure and are great at shedding blockers, but they have yet to face a back who is in the groove like Bell has been the past two weeks.

Conclusion:

The Steelers should bank on Bill Belichick having almost the same game plan for the Steelers he had in Week 7 at Heinz Field. Sell out to stop Bell. Bell is the straw which stirs the Steelers’ offensive drink, and the Patriots will likely gamble on Ben Roethlisberger beating them, rather than getting gashed by Bell repeatedly.

It sounds funny to consider a team wanting to dare Ben Roethlisberger to beat them, but Roethlisberger hasn’t thrown for more than two touchdowns twice in the team’s 9-game winning streak. It is very unlike Roethlisberger, and a reason why some suggest he is "due" for a big game. The 5 touchdown performance against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 4 seems like ages ago.

Nonetheless, the Steelers will have to remain balanced, but I have a hunch Todd Haley will be bringing a unique game plan to the table this Sunday. Fans should be on the lookout for a quick passing offense to start the game, using Bell out of the backfield and hopefully having success so they can pound the ball, preferably with the lead, late in the second half.

Advantage:

Slight advantage to the Steelers with Bell being red-hot, and an offensive line which has been a Top 3 unit all season.