FOXBORO -- Listen to Bill Belichick long enough, and you may wonder if the Patriots defense has much of a chance this weekend.
At his press conference earlier in the week, the Patriots coach made the Steelers offense sound like a high-powered windup toy that has steadily and unyieldingly waddled its way for touchdown after touchdown in pursuit of the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
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On running back Le'Veon Bell, Belichick was effusive in his praise: "He's a tremendous player. He leads the league in yards from scrimmage and that’s about really all you need to know...He does whatever he needs to do. If you want to see him run hard, run over people, run downhill then you can find plenty of plays of that. You can see him with his vision finding space in the defense. There’s plays on that. Catching the ball – plenty of plays on that. The guy doesn’t lead the league in yards from scrimmage by doing one thing, doing it a little bit. He does everything."
On receiver Antonio Brown, Belichick was equally complimentary when asked what makes Brown special: "Everything. Just make a list. He's on all of it."
The question is, which player will Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia consider the priority? Ideally, of course, they'd like to slow down both. But if they had to pick one, Bell or Brown, who would it be?
The answer, in my opinion, is Brown. And it's not really close.
Belichick and Patricia's plans to force opponents to string together long drives and execute in the red zone are well-established. Their defensive numbers from this season tell the story. The Patriots are 29th in the league in yards allowed, but they're fifth in points due in part to what they've done inside the 20s.
That strategy could be particularly useful this week as the Steelers are the No. 25 red-zone offense in football. If the Patriots can make Pittsburgh's offense work from an area where it's statistically below-average, they'd be giving themselves a better shot at success than if they're allowing huge chunks of yardage to be ripped off in a play or two.
Hand-offs to Bell would be preferred, it would stand to reason, over bombs to Brown.
Plus, there's the fact that the Steelers running game simply hasn't been very efficient in 2017. Bell leads the league in yards from scrimmage, but he's doing it by averaging 3.9 yards per carry. As a team, the Steelers have a yards-per-attempt average of 3.7, fifth-worst in the league.
Add it to the list of reasons for why it makes sense for the Patriots to encourage Pittsburgh to keep it on the ground - even if that means more touches for one of the most talented players in football.
The argument against this approach could be made by referencing one of Belichick's go-to adages: Tough football teams run the ball, stop the run and cover kicks. Stopping the run is a consistent focus from week to week for the Patriots.
But in certain situations, Belichick has proven he's perfectly fine with allowing explosive passing offenses to hand it off again and again. He has a game plan that's sitting in the Hall of Fame because as defensive coordinator of the Giants in Super Bowl XXV he was OK with Thurman Thomas running for 135 yards and a touchdown. As long as the "K-Gun" offense didn't chuck it all night, Belichick liked his chances.
"I felt like if we went into the game and just tried to shut down Thurman Thomas," Belichick said in ESPN's "Four Falls of Buffalo" 30 for 30 documentary, "it would be a 50-pass game. And I didn’t really think that’s where we wanted to be."
It would come as little surprise if Belichick felt the same way about the Steelers.
So, how would it look if the Patriots sold out to stop Brown, who is now considered the second-best bet (tied with Russell Wilson and behind only Tom Brady) to be named NFL MVP, according to Bovada, despite the fact that a receiver has never won the award?
Malcolm Butler has a history of checking Brown, and despite the fact that Butler has had an up-and-down season, their skill sets match up well enough. Using Butler underneath with Duron Harmon over the top could be the tactic. That would leave Stephon Gilmore to take the bigger and more physical JuJu Smith-Schuster, while Eric Rowe could be the choice to take on the long-and-lanky Martavis Bryant.
Whether it's Butler, Stephon Gilmore or Jonathan Jones as the corner on Brown, throwing obvious doubles that way and steering Ben
Roethlisberger in a different direction seems sensible, if not foolproof.
"Even if you get, at times, you get two guys on him, staying in front of him is tough," Devin McCourty said of Brown. "I think what you see him do -- which usually a lot of receivers that are not 6-[foot]-3 and 6-4 don’t get credit for it -- he makes catches in surrounding areas where there’s three guys around him. Or Ben throws it in between two guys and it looks there’s no way he’s going to come down with it . . .
"You’re not going to probably come out of this game [and] he has two catches for 10 [yards]. It’s just not going to happen. He’s too good of a player but you’ve got to try to contain him somewhat and not let him just ruin the game for you."
For the Patriots to follow-through on a plan that would encourage the Steelers to lean on Bell over Brown, their front-seven will have to play better than it has of late. If Trey Flowers (ribs) and Kyle Van Noy (calf) could return to action, they'd be a boon for a group that has allowed 123.3 yards rushing the last three weeks and helped rookie Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake look like an All-Pro on Monday.
But even with banged-up personnel on the defensive line and at the linebacker level, encouraging the Steelers to run looks like a
decidedly better idea than the alternative.