Bell's style, and unique talents, present challenges to Patriots defense


Bell's style, and unique talents, present challenges to Patriots defense

FOXBORO -- There are plenty of damn good running backs in the NFL but there is only one Le’Veon Bell. The Steelers star shuffles, darts and then dashes, often with bodies crashing all around him, many of them intent on doing serious bodily harm . . . but often failing.

“He’s very unique,” said linebacker Shea McClellin. “I don’t think anyone else runs quite like he does, but it’s efficient and it works.”

Defensive end Chris Long concurred: “His style is so unique, his patience, what he’s able to do with his vision. And as far as breaking tackles, being a complete player, catching the ball, he can do all that stuff.”

Now don’t get it twisted. The Pats respect the hell out of Bell, but they’d prefer they weren’t in charge of corralling him Sunday because everyone has failed during Pittsburgh’s nine-game winning streak. Bell, who played in eight of those games, has piled up over 1,500 yards from the line of scrimmage during that stretch -- 1,172 yards rushing, 336 yards receiving -- while scoring 9 touchdowns. 

“He’s really fun to watch unless you’re getting ready to play him,” said Long.

The respect Bell commands in Foxboro is evident when talking to the Pats running backs, who spoke glowingly about the former first-rounder and in LeGarrette Blount’s case, former teammate.

“No one can do what he does,” Blount told me. “They can try, but it won’t work.”

“That’s his style,” added Dion Lewis, himself a shifty fella. “You can’t try to do that. I’m pretty sure he’s the only guy that can do that.”

So how do the Pats accomplish something no one has been able to do over the last two-plus months? How do they slow Bell down, as they did back in Week 7, limiting him to 81 yards rushing (only 3.9 yards per carry)? 

“I think defensively he really forces you to be disciplined,” said Pats coach Bill Belichick. “You jump out of there too quickly then you open up gaps and open up space. Le’Veon has a great burst through the hole. He doesn’t really need long to get through there, runs with good pad level. He’s hard to tackle so if you don’t get a full body on him then he’ll run right through those arm tackles. [He] really forces everybody to be sound in their gaps.”

“If there’s space or if there’s a gap in the defense or if there’s an edge in the defense, he’s quick to take advantage of that,” defensive coordinator Matt Patricia told us during a conference call earlier this week. “He’s going to be able to get into that open space pretty quickly so you can’t really -- I don’t think you want to sit there and guess.”

If the Pats defenders, especially at the linebacker level, do that -- guess and attack a gap aggressively in attempt to make a splash play -- they may fill one gap but open two others. And that’s where a four-yard gain can turn into 40.

“Everyone on the field, it’s their job to get to him, gang tackle and be aggressive,” said Rob Ninkovich. “It can’t be just one time but every time you’re on the field.”

“There’s no one guy that can stop him,” added Belichick. “You’re going to have to have everybody doing a good job in a number of different areas all the way across the front and then do a good job of tackling.”

The Pats are a terrific tackling team, and haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher this season (actually, not since November of 2015), but the red-hot Bell will put recent history to the test. 

Arrowhead Stadium surface looks good to go for Sunday

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Arrowhead Stadium surface looks good to go for Sunday

Maintaining a grass surface in the dead of winter is hard enough. Keeping it in good shape after a snowstorm is even tougher.

So when WBZ's Dan Roche tweeted this view Wednesday from atop Arrowhead Stadium, site of Sunday's AFC Championship Game, some were understandably concerned:

This tweet Thursday from Chiefs Head Groundskeeper Travis Hogan should alleviate a lot of fears, however:

But who knows what that will look like come kickoff time. With an Arctic Blast set to hit the Midwest this weekend, game-time temperatures were predicted to be as low as single-digits. But the forecast is now saying something slightly warmer.

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Patriots see room for improvement in run game despite success vs. Chargers

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Patriots see room for improvement in run game despite success vs. Chargers

FOXBORO -- The New England Patriots dominated the Los Angeles Chargers on the ground in last Sunday's AFC Divisional Round win at Gillette Stadium.

The Pats, led by their offensive line and tight end Rob Gronkowski, opened up huge holes for running backs Sony Michel, James White and Red Burkhead. The result was a whopping 155 yards and four touchdowns on 34 carries (4.6 yards per rush).

Despite the enormous success in the running game, the Patriots still see areas for improvement entering Sunday's AFC Championship Game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.

“I think we’ve done a good job of getting the ball rolling," Patriots guard Shaq Mason said Thursday. "There’s definitely stuff we can do better, but I think overall we came together as a group and have done a good job moving the football and running the ball.”

The play of Michel was notable. The rookie running back has battled injury throughout the season, but he looked very fresh against the Chargers. The Georgia product ran for 129 yards and three touchdowns, helping the Patriots take control with a 35-7 halftime lead. 

Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski caught only one pass from Tom Brady in the win over the Chargers, but he was exceptional as a blocker in the run game. Like Mason, Gronkowski likes the progress the Patriots have made running the football, and he is particularly impressed with the improvement Michel has made in his rookie campaign.

"I feel like overall we’ve done a good job," Gronkowski said. "There’s always room for improvement, always room to get better in the areas that we’ve been doing well too. It’s been great just working with the offensive line and seeing Sony (Michel) just the development he has had throughout the year since training camp. You see it every other week and just how he’s been approaching practice, coming out, trying to get better every single week and it shows. He’s been doing a great job. The offensive line’s been doing a great job and it’s just cool to be a part of it."

We should expect the Patriots to run the ball a lot against the Chiefs. Controlling the clock and keeping the Chiefs' high-scoring offense off the field as long as possible will be critical, and the KC defense gave up 5.1 yards per carry in the regular season -- the second-highest in the league. A ground-and-pound attack would be a good strategy for the Patriots as they try to punch their ticket to Super Bowl LIII.

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