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Steelers have forged a stiffer defense since first meeting

Steelers linebacker James Harrison sacks Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith in Sunday’s playoff game.orlin wagner/AP/Associated Press

The AFC Championship game features the NFL’s two hottest teams.

The Steelers and Patriots both lost Nov. 13 (at home to Dallas and Seattle, respectively), and neither team has lost since. The Steelers have won nine in a row thanks to a reinvigorated defense and an all-time great season by Le’Veon Bell, while the Patriots have won eight in a row despite trading Jamie Collins and losing Rob Gronkowski for the season.

Bill Belichick and the Patriots are 5-2 all-time against Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, winning the last three games, including a 27-16 victory at Pittsburgh in Week 7. Tom Brady also holds a 5-2 head-to-head lead over Ben Roethlisberger, though Big Ben missed the Week 7 game with a knee injury. The Patriots and Steelers have twice played in the AFC Championship game, with the Patriots winning the 2001 and 2004 games, both of which were played at Heinz Field.

We know plenty about the Steelers’ offense: Roethlisberger’s big arm and big body, Antonio Brown’s world-class speed, and Bell’s incredible patience, vision, and power. It’s the defense where we focused most of our attention, curious to see how the unit has evolved since the Oct. 23 meeting with the Patriots.


Here is what we expect from the Steelers after watching their 18-16 win over the Chiefs and reviewing their 27-16 loss to the Patriots:


Coordinator: Todd Haley

Key skill players: QB Ben Roethlisberger, WR Antonio Brown, RB Le’Veon Bell, WR Eli Rogers, WR Cobi Hamilton, TE Jesse James.

Personnel notes: Rogers has replaced Markus Wheaton (injured reserve), and Hamilton has played more snaps in recent weeks. Starting RT Marcus Gilbert is back after missing the first Patriots game. TE Ladarius Green has a concussion and is unlikely to play. Bell plays 100 percent of the snaps.

What to expect: Bell is going to get his yards, there’s no doubt about that. He’s the first player in NFL history to average both 100 yards rushing and 50 yards receiving per game. And he’s running the ball a ton — from averaging 16.7 carries in his first six games to 27.5 his last eight, with the Steelers winning all eight. Bell ran the ball 38 times against Buffalo in Week 14, 29 against Miami in the wild-card game, and 30 times against the Chiefs on Sunday.


The Patriots have not stopped him in two career matchups. Bell had 149 total yards in the Week 7 game, and 139 in a 2013 game. But the Patriots won both games, by an average of 17.5 points, because they minimized Bell’s big plays and blanketed Brown with deep safety coverage.

Gap discipline is essential in slowing down Bell and his “hunt and peck” running style, as Bill Belichick called it last time. The Patriots held Bell to 3.9 yards per carry and 6.8 yards per reception in October, and got stingy inside the red zone, limiting the Steelers to one touchdown in four possessions.

The Patriots defense has one major change: Collins is out, and Kyle Van Noy is in at linebacker. Defensive lineman Trey Flowers played only 20 snaps in the first matchup, while cornerback Logan Ryan was in a reduced role with 31 snaps, compared with 73 for Eric Rowe.

Roethlisberger has a 20:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio at home, but just 9:8 on the road this year, with a measly 78.4 passer rating. He has thrown an interception in three of his last four games, and he’s not always on the same page with his young receivers. Roethlisberger was just 1 for 6 passing in the red zone against Kansas City, with an interception.


If the Patriots can take out Brown with two defenders and dedicate everyone else to swarming around Bell, they should be able to keep the Steelers under control.


Coordinator: Keith Butler

Key players: DE Stephon Tuitt, ILB Lawrence Timmons, ILB Ryan Shazier, OLB Bud Dupree, OLB James Harrison, CB Artie Burns, FS Mike Mitchell, SS Sean Davis.

Personnel notes: Dupree missed the first Patriots game but was activated from IR on Nov. 19. Harrison has replaced Jarvis Jones at outside linebacker and played 55 of 58 snaps against Kansas City. Shazier replaced Vince Williams in the starting lineup. Davis, a rookie, replaced Robert Golden, and Burns, also a rookie, replaced William Gay.

What to expect: Let’s do this in bullet points.

■  This defense is much better than the one the Patriots faced in October. In their first eight games, the Steelers recorded just nine turnovers and 11 sacks. In their last 10 games, they have forced 19 turnovers and had 33 sacks.

A lot of it has to do with Harrison replacing Jones. Harrison, a physical marvel at 38, had five sacks, two forced fumbles, and an interception in the regular season, and has 2½ sacks and another forced fumble in the playoffs. He doesn’t have the burst that he used to, but he still beat Eric Fisher cleanly for a sack Sunday. And Harrison is the smartest player on the field, disciplined in his run assignments and quick in diagnosing plays. He has 36 tackles in his last four games, and will be a handful for Nate Solder.


■  Dupree, the Steelers’ 2015 first-round pick, is developing into an excellent player. A great size-speed combination at 6 feet 4 inches and 269 pounds, Dupree has five sacks in his last six games and the athleticism to drop off into coverage. He and Harrison do so interchangeably, and were able to force an interception against the Chiefs.

■  The Steelers present a lot of variations. Sometimes they’ll play a basic four-man front, and fall back into a basic Cover 3 zone. Or they’ll play a five-man front, and blitz a linebacker and drop the nose tackle. Or they will bring both inside linebackers up to the line of scrimmage and make you determine whether they’re rushing or dropping.

Or they’ll get really crazy, blitzing a cornerback, dropping an outside linebacker, and forcing the offensive line to diagnose it all quickly. And they’re constantly rotating their safeties and linebackers to mask their coverage.

However, it’s fairly easy for the quarterback to diagnose whether they are in zone or man defense. If the Steelers aren’t matched up one-for-one on receivers, and if a defender doesn’t run with a man in motion, they are almost certainly in zone.


■  The Steelers’ base defense is a single-high deep safety, and they often drop into a Cover 3 zone.

But against the Patriots, they surprisingly played a lot of Cover 2, which Tomlin learned from his days with the Buccaneers.

The Steelers focused a lot of attention on shutting down Rob Gronkowski and the deep passing game, practically begging the Patriots to run the ball. And they ran it quite effectively, with LeGarrette Blount rushing 24 times for 127 yards and two touchdowns.

Tom Brady was a pedestrian 19 of 26 for 222 yards and only two passes of 20-plus yards, but most importantly he threw two touchdowns and no interceptions.

■  When facing a zone-heavy defense, the biggest opportunities for the offense are in the middle of the field. Gronkowski for years has torched the Steelers over the middle, and did it in Week 7 with a 36-yard touchdown.

On Sunday, Kansas City’s Travis Kelce had several big opportunities over the middle, settling into zones for easy catch-and-runs.

And Kelce had a huge opportunity down the middle, but dropped a potential touchdown.

The key for Brady is being disciplined enough to take the short throws until getting just the right matchups, and executing on their few big-play opportunities.

■  Of course, the Patriots’ personnel is different this time around. Gronkowski is out, while Dion Lewis and Michael Floyd are in. Gronk averaged 99.2 yards per game and has eight touchdowns in five matchups against the Steelers, and his presence will be sorely missed.

Martellus Bennett really needs to step up. He had just one catch for 4 yards and two drops against the Texans, and has only 14 catches for 165 yards in his last six games, though he does have three touchdowns.

The Steelers have an incredibly fast linebacker in Shazier, but Timmons is getting slow, and the Patriots could really stress the defense with Lewis, Bennett, and James White.

■  The Steelers don’t substitute much. Against the Chiefs, nine Steelers played at least 95 percent of the snaps, a 10th played 86 percent, and they rotate in an extra cornerback or an extra defensive end in the final spot.

The Patriots’ best attack on offense may be to try to wear down Harrison and the Steelers with Lewis, Blount, and the run game and keep the Steelers on the field for 70-75 plays.

Ben Volin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin