Steelers AFC Championship: Dynamic Middle Linebackers

The Pittsburgh Steelers looked like an underwhelming team through the first half of the season, but they are the hottest team in football right now, riding a nine game winning streak.

Their defense has been a huge reason for this success. If they have plans to make their ninth Super Bowl appearance, they will have to ride their dynamic middle linebacker duo.

Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons have been playing at All-Pro levels throughout the Steelers’ recent winning streak. They have both shown the ability to stop the run and defend the pass exceptionally well.

Their biggest test is coming up in Brady and Co., but if defensive coordinator utilizes his studs in the middle right, the defense will be able to slow down the Patriots.

Many were surprised by how close the Patriots-Texans game was last weekend. A 17-13 Patriots’ lead at half seemed unreal. However, the Texans were able to expose the Patriots’ biggest weakness.

Houston lined up Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus, two outside pass rushers, over the guards and center. The Patriots interior offensive line is extremely young and inexperienced. The threat of speed and power rushes that Clowney and Mercilus bring to the table was enough to make Brady uncomfortable. Then halftime came around and the Patriots made adjustments.

Defensive coordinator Keith Butler would be smart to copy this gameplan. However, they should leave their linebackers in the middle and use them to exploit New England. They both have more than enough speed to ensure the offensive linemen cannot set up for a bull rush. Keeping the guards guessing and exploiting their flaws will get enough pressure on Brady to force checkdown throws throughout the game.

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Leaving Shazier and Timmons in the middle of the field also allows them to drop into coverage, something they do better than outside linebackers Bud Dupree and James Harrison. The Patriots thrive on attacking the middle of the field on short and intermediate routes.

Timmons is old reliable for the Steelers pass defense, and Shazier always makes the splash play the defense relies on.  Shazier will be looking to extend his streak of interceptions to five games, which would be a franchise record.

Perhaps the best part of the duo’s game is their run stopping ability. Allowing them to sit back and trust their instincts is a luxury the Steelers have when on defense. Having two guys who can bring down workhorse LeGarrette Blount while also corralling scatback Dion Lewis is not something many teams have in their middle linebackers.

There is no stopping the Patriots offense. They scored 20 points in 15 of 16 games this season. However, slowing them down has proven to be possible. The Steelers’ defense has been great during their winning streak, but if they want to beat the best team in football, Shazier and Timmons will have to lead the way in pass rush, stopping the run, and coverage.

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