The New England Patriots face-off against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium on Sunday night in the AFC Championship game.
The New England Patriots are playing in their sixth consecutive AFC Championship game while the Steelers are coming off an impressive upset over the favored Kansas City Chiefs in Arrowhead Stadium.
A game this big is all about matchups. With little need for any preamble, let’s get right to the individuals who can swing the the game and determine who goes on to Super Bowl 51.
Antonio Brown vs Malcolm Butler
The Steelers’ offense misses the retired Heath Miller at tight end after the popular player retired after the 2015 season. Free agent acquisition Ladarius Green has been injured more than healthy and in his place Jesse James had just 39 receptions during the regular season (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted).
Add in the loss of wide receiver Martavis Bryant due to a year-long suspension and wide receiver Markus Wheaton to a shoulder injury leaving him on injured reserve after just three games and the offense in Pittsburgh has basically been Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown.
Opposite Brown has been the maddeningly inconsistent Sammie Coates and slowly improving Eli Rogers. Darrius Heyward-Bey is basically a special teams players at this point and Demarcus Ayers and Cobi Hamilton scare nobody.
For better or for worse, the Steelers’ passing game is Brown. Arguably the league’s best overall wide receiver, Brown is smart, strong, fast, athletic, runs precision routes, understands the offense inside-out and has great hands. Despite releasing stupid Facebook Live videos in the locker room, he remains a handful for any defense.
Brown matched-up with Malcolm Butler man-to-man in the 2015 season opener. Brown had nine receptions for 133 yards and a touchdown but 24 of those yards and the touchdown came in garbage time as the Patriots had a two touchdown lead with three minutes to play and focused on playing prevent defense and keeping the Steelers receivers in front of them.
In Week 7 with Landry Jones at quarterback for an injured Roethlisberger, according to ProFootballFocus.com the combined coverage of Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan held Antonio Brown to just five catches on nine targets for 94 yards and an interception by Butler. That is a 37.7 quarterback rating for passes throwing to Brown.
With Brown and Bell coming out of the backfield, the Patriots cannot sleep on the Steelers passing attack–especially with the big play ability of Roethlisberger. New England needs to start with stopping any big plays downfield by Brown.
The matchup of Brown and Butler has already been immortalized in a pizza commercial, but in all seriousness the Patriots will not hesitate to leave Butler on an island with Brown. The Steelers will move Brown to mix the coverage but New England is equally comfortable leaving Logan Ryan or Eric Rowe in coverage of Brown with safety help from Duron Harmon or Devin McCourty over the top.
The Steelers are going to make some big plays and going to put together a few scoring drives–the offense is simply too talented to be completely shut down. The Patriots will look to replicate their success without Roethlisberger by focusing on Brown in coverage and flooding the secondary and trying to generating pressure with their front four and occasional blitzes to slow the Steelers’ passing attack.
Keeping Brown under control and forcing Roethlisberger to find other targets underneath instead of downfield is a recipe for victory. The plan for getting to the Super Bowl starts with Malcolm Butler keeping Antonio Brown from making big plays downfield.