We are down to four teams and two games for the Super Bowl. Three Hall of Fame quarterbacks, plus the probable MVP, will battle it out on Sunday. It’s been no surprise the best quarterbacks in the playoffs are still alive on Championship Sunday. Each of these four teams are also in the top 10 in turnover margin. This weekend’s games will be wonderful.
I’m previewing both games here, with emphasis on the most dominating unit in the playoffs ...
The Steelers offensive line.
The Steelers head to New England for the AFC Championship game riding a nine-game win streak. Le’Veon Bell has rushed for over 100 yards in eight of those nine games. The Steelers are 9-0 this season when Bell has broken the 90-yard mark.
It’s not often that running backs have success without a dominating offensive line, and the Steelers offensive line has been the most impressive unit in the playoffs. Sunday against the Chiefs, the Steelers rushed for 171 yards. Ben Roethlisberger was barely touched all game. I’ll get into how that was done and how New England can stop them.
While the Cowboys offensive line is the most complete and the Packers have the best pair of pass blocking tackles, the Steelers offensive line is the best at double teams. It has big physical guards in Ramon Foster on the left and David DeCastro on the right. Those guys lead the way inside. Their blocking style is a perfect fit for an explosive running back.
Bell is amazingly patient behind the line of scrimmage, waiting for just a small opening. I’ve never seen anything like it. It goes against every instinct of running the ball. Backs are taught to press the line of scrimmage and hit the hole at full speed. Bell presses the line, pauses, then bursts. His style of running wouldn’t be possible without the power of his line.
The Steelers favorite run play is a double or duo. The goal of this play is forming as many double teams across the board. Typically you’d end up with two or three, depending on the formation. This play is commonly called, “power without a puller.” I don’t terribly like that name because it’s not power. It’s double. Different mindset. The Steelers have been running this play as long I’ve been in the NFL, probably longer. In Carolina, 2008-11, double was our second favorite run. We would watch film on the Steelers for how to run it properly.
Here’s the Steelers running it beautifully early on against the Chiefs:
Pittsburgh is in 11 personnel, one back, one tight end. This puts the Chiefs in nickel. They have one less defender in the box. As you can see, the left guard and left tackle double to the playside backer. The right guard and center double to the backside backer.
These are physical double teams and take time to develop. Bell does an outstanding job of hiding behind the line and waiting for an opening. One way an offense can run itself into a poor run on this play is the back not being patient and bouncing it to the outside, where no one is blocking. I’ve seen it happen all the time.
Very next play, same idea from the gun. This could be inside zone, but it’s blocked like double. Hard and thick double teams. Mauling guys.
Double sets up weak-side zone. The backers must assume that in this formation, double is coming. They are lined up straight in their gap, even a tiny bit pushed to the strong side. This leaves the weak side zone play open to a big gain. The Steelers take advantage. Their line washes down the entire Chiefs defense and allows Bell to run through a monster hole:
Last play to highlight just because it shows that the Steelers linemen play well with each other, and more importantly, how a wide receiver block turns a good run into a monster one.
Weak zone from an offset. The Chiefs slant their tackle into the center. Just notice how smoothly the right guard passes off the tackle and takes the linebacker to open up a huge hole. That smoothness is all because of trust. The right guard trusts that the center will be there to pass this off.
Then notice the WR flash into the screen and block the safety, No. 29 Eric Berry! Not a killer block, but it springs Bell to a monster gain. We love receivers who take the time to make these blocks.
How do the Patriots stop Bell?
So how do you stop this run? Well you play a five-man front. A five-man front takes away the backside double team, and if you still insist on making that double team, a man runs free.
Take this play from the Chiefs game. There are some differences from the previous double plays. This is 13 or 22 personnel, depends how you want to identify it. Either way, it allows the Chiefs to play a 4-4 Bear front. The Steelers insist on doubling it, and the furthest linebacker comes free for the stop.
I’ve always admired the Patriots because of their ability to be multiple in what they do, both offensively and defensively. They aren’t set into doing one thing because “this is way we do it.” For example, one week Brady might throw it 40 times, the next they run it 40 times. This holds true on defense also. They change fronts week to week and change coverages.
Their favorite thing to do on defense to stop an elite wide receiver is double him with their No. 2 corner and a safety and put Malcolm Butler (their best defensive back) on the No. 2 receiver. Then you shut down two guys. It makes total sense, yet everyone wants to put the No. 1 defensive back against the No. 1 receiver.
So I expect the Patriots to come out in tons of five-man fronts. They already do it a bunch, but this will be their staple. And they do it in nickel packages as well.
Here’s one of the first plays of the game against the Texans:
On the flip side of the ball, Patriots offense vs. Steelers defense, the key for Pittsburgh will be getting pressure on Brady. Like almost all pocket passers who aren’t mobile, getting pressure up the middle is the key. Last Sunday, Houston did an excellent job of that by putting its defensive ends inside, on the guards and center, while lining up covering everyone. Therefore, no double teams. Everyone singled. And it worked well.
Because the Texans are able to get penetration, they are able to execute their line games with success. I can see the Steelers using this game plan. The Steelers have the same basic defense as the Texans with interchangeable parts up front. They can put Harrison over the center and walk up a linebacker on the end of the line to force one-on-one situations. If the Steelers allow Brady to sit back there all day, he will eat up their zone.
So with all the wonderful things I’ve said about the Steelers offensive line, in the end, I like the Patriots.
A race to 40 points
Heading over to the NFC. This game is simple to me. The Packers have a slim margin of error. Unlike the Cowboys, the Falcons won’t start the game with three points for most of the first half. The Falcons are so explosive on offense and perfectly built to abuse the Packers poor secondary. This game will be a race to 40 points.
If the Packers have any lulls on offense, like most of the second half last Sunday, this game won’t be close. Also, with the way the Falcons run the ball, they will stick to this plan, unlike Dallas, and it will limit drives from Rodgers. Another reason why the Packers have a tiny margin for error.
It’s hard to count out Rodgers with the way he’s playing lately, but I think the streak ends on Sunday.
At the start of the playoffs, I took New England and Atlanta to win their conferences. I still feel strongly about those picks!
Enjoy the games this weekend!