We’ve arrived at another conference championship weekend featuring the Patriots. They still have Bill Belichick, and they still have Tawmmy Whatshisnuts, same as it ever was. And this year they’re packing the NFL’s best defense in terms of points per game allowed. As they prepare to host the Steelers and their Ben/Bell/Brown offense, here are two questions worth pondering: Just how good is New England’s D? And can Ben Roethlisberger solve it?
The hard numbers are excellent. The Pats allowed just 15.6 points per game during the regular season, a full 2.2 points lower than the second-best Giants. New England’s defense also yielded points on a league-low 26.7 percent of drives. Per Football Outsiders, they allowed a league-best 1.42 points per drive. They’ve gone 24 straight games without allowing a 100-yard rusher. They finished seventh in the league on third downs (36.9 percent), and tied for eighth in the red zone (52.3 percent). Without question, the Pats have a solid, efficient defense.
Now for the caveats—the “yeah buts,” as ESPN’s Mike Reiss put it. The Pats’ D ranked just 16th in DVOA, and 23rd in DVOA against the pass. The offensive DVOA of their 2016 opponents ranked dead last in the league. If the Patriots have been great, it hasn’t been against great competition.
After looking at the list of quarterbacks they faced, it’s easy to see: Carson Palmer, Ryan Tannehill, Brock Osweiler, Tyrod Taylor, Cody Kessler, Charlie Whitehurst, Andy Dalton, Landry Jones, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jared Goff, Joe Flacco, Trevor Siemian, Bryce Petty, Matt Moore. Wilson hung a season-high 31 points on them—in Foxborough—and won. But Tannehill had the highest qualified passer rating (93.8, 12th-best in the NFL) in that group. And then they got to devour Osweiler—who had the next-to-lowest (72.2)–a second time in the divisional playoffs. “For once,” went the kicker to one of Karen Guregian’s columns this week in the Boston Herald, “here comes an offense.”
Roethlisberger, despite an up and down year, has the best passer rating of any QB the Patriots have faced all season. (Landry Jones started for an injured Ben in New England’s 27-16 win in Pittsburgh in Week 7.)
Brown and Bell make the Steelers offense go, and they could present a problem for the Pats’ pass defense, which ranked 20th in DVOA against both No. 1 receivers and running backs. The Pats also aren’t very good at generating pressure, ranking just 26th in adjusted sack rate. And the Steelers’ offensive line is as good as it’s been in years—second in adjusted line yards in the running game, fourth in adjusted sack rate in the passing game.
Are the Pats in trouble? Not necessarily. Their weighted defensive DVOA, which does not include Weeks 1 through 5 and discounts Weeks 6 through 11, came in seventh overall—an indication that the Pats’ D is playing well of late. There’s also no telling what kind of scheme Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia might cook up, because it changes from week to week: In the Pats’ regular-season win at Pittsburgh, cornerback Malcolm Butler mostly shadowed Brown, but last week against the Texans, it was safety Logan Ryan (and others) who mainly guarded DeAndre Hopkins, Houston’s No. 1 wideout. That arrangement worked out quite well for New England.
The Patriots, like everyone else, have gushed about Le’Veon Bell’s running style, which combines a unique ability to patiently wait for a hole to develop and the speed to do so. Bell has had just four games this season in which he was held to fewer than four yards per carry, but one of those came against New England. “It definitely can be a bit frustrating, because he makes you pick a side, and once you pick a side, he’s going to the other side,” Pats defensive end Trey Flowers said. “It could get frustrating at times. But I think the thing about it is just to continue to get some pushback, and also have some separation from the blocker, so you’re able to—whenever he does make that decision—you’re able to get off your block and make the tackle.”
Or, as Belichick put it:
“Well, I think defensively he really forces you to be disciplined. You jump out of there too quickly then you open up gaps and open up space. Le’Veon has a great burst through the hole. He doesn’t really need long to get through there, [and he] runs with good pad level. He’s hard to tackle so if you don’t get a full body on him then he’ll run right through those arm tackles. (He) really forces everybody to be sound in their gaps.
“Like I said, getting off and jumping around blocks or trying to get to the hole too quickly just opens up cutback lanes or stays in the front somewhere, and he does a great job of finding it. I mean team defense is the only way to stop it. There’s no one guy that can stop him. You’re going to have to have everybody doing a good job in a number of different areas all the way across the front and then do a good job of tackling.”
Which, with Bell, is often easier said than done.
Brown (154 regular-season targets) and Bell (94) are far and away the Steelers’ biggest receiving options, but last week Roethlisberger got tight end Jesse James involved enough for a career-high 83 receiving yards (from five catches on six targets). Wideout Eli Rogers has caught at least four passes nine times this year, including five catches last week against the Chiefs. Also, it looks like TE Ladarius Green might play, which would give Roethlisberger another prime target, albeit one who’s appeared in just six games this season. Then there’s speedster Sammie Coates, who caught 19 passes in the first five games but has just two since. Coates played only one snap last week against the Chiefs. Might the Steelers try to spring him on the Pats?
Roethlisberger clearly thrives when targeting Brown. As Neil Greenberg noted for the Washington Post (with data from Pro Football Focus), Roethlisberger has a passer rating (playoffs included) of 115.6 when throwing in Brown’s direction, and just 88.4 when he doesn’t. Given how maddeningly inconsistent Roethlisberger has been this year—especially on the road, a pattern that continued even in victory last week against the Chiefs—Belichick might want to force him to win it. Can he?