Steelers AFC Championship: Balance is key to beating the Patriots

The Steelers will need to balance their offense if they want to defeat the New England Patriots.

In Week 12 of the NFL Season, after suffering through a four-game losing streak that had Pittsburgh on the outside of a rather daunting playoff picture, the Steelers decided to change their offensive approach.

With Martavis Bryant missing this season, the passing game had been impacted and Antonio Brown stood as the only game changing superstar amongst a cast of some good players, but none of Bryant’s caliber.

Pittsburgh became a run-first and more conservative team, something unfamiliar in the Roethlisberger era, and in pro football itself. With the game becoming much more passing oriented, not too many teams have adopted the running game as the forefront of their gameplan, and out of those who do, even less have succeeded.

Since the Steelers adopted the new style, the team has been undefeated. They secured themselves atop the AFC North, and have plowed their way through the playoffs all the way to the AFC Title game, and Le’Veon Bell has been key to that.

Bell has had upwards of 30 touches in a number of games and has averaged almost 180 yards from scrimmage per game since the adaptation of the offense. He has become the most vital piece of a Steelers’ offense that has much improved since the first half of the year.

Now, Pittsburgh faces its most vicious opponent all season in a game where a trip to the Super Bowl is at stake. The New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers have been on a mighty collision course for each other for weeks, and now it’s finally time to see the matchup.

A challenging part of the beating the Patriots has been their ability to stop the run. The Patriots had the 3rd best run stopping defense this season and allowed the least number of rushing touchdowns. Against Houston last week, the Patriots shut down the Texans’ Lamar Miller, forcing Brock Osweiler to throw the ball and make some costly mistakes.

But of course, the Patriots haven’t faced the likes of Le’Veon Bell…well, at least not since the change in offensive style. In Week 7, the Steelers and Patriots played in a game that should hold little significance in trying to gauge the outcome of this one. That game had Rob Gronkowski and lacked Ben Roethlisberger as well as New England’s Dion Lewis.

With new faces on the field and a whole new style to the Steelers, this is a whole different ball-game. If there’s any running back and any offensive line that can overpower a Patriot defensive line, it’s this one. But with that being said, the Steelers can’t solely rely on Bell.

Head Coach Bill Belichick will make it his sole mission to shut down Bell, forcing Roethlisberger to make more passes, which has led to mistakes in recent games. The Steelers need to improve their passing game and need to be able to rely on both dimensions of their offense if they want to take down New England. If the Steelers can find success in the passing game, it’ll only force Belichick to change his gameplan and hopefully allow Bell to make his impact.

If anything showed from the game against Houston, the Patriots are beatable. Yes, the scoreboard may not read it, but the Patriots struggled through the first half. The Steelers might not have the Houston pass rush, but they have a speedy defense capable of making plays and a defense that has been huge down the stretch in keeping Pittsburgh alive (i.e in Kansas City).

This is a different Steelers defense than we’ve seen in recent years and one that should be capable of limiting the Patriots to an extent. In the end, the game rests more on the offense. Kicking field goals all day won’t lead to a win in this one. The Steelers need to find a balance between their run and pass game. Not necessarily an equal split, but a way to make both facets succeed enough to keep up with Brady.

All season, analysts have consistently pinned Pittsburgh as that one AFC team that can take down New England. In the end, the Steelers are still the underdog, but that might ring true. If anyone can do it, Pittsburgh can, but finding a successful balance will be instrumental in making that happen.

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