By Michael Donovan
Here are four matchups that are key in today’s NFC and AFC championship games:
Patriots RBs Dion Lewis and James White vs. Steelers linebackers
In their divisional-round rout of the Houston Texans, the Patriots repeatedly targeted linebacker Benardrick McKinney, who gave up touchdowns to both Lewis and White in coverage. New England may again look to those two to exploit Pittsburgh in the passing game.
Pittsburgh might not be so easily susceptible to such plays, and linebacker Ryan Shazier has impressive range. But in their zone-heavy scheme, the Steelers might struggle to keep up with the horizontal movements of the Patriots’ attack. White showed off this element by taking a
If Pittsburgh is too focused on the quick strikes, receivers could find opportunity to attack the defense down the seams. And LeGarrette Blount, who rushed for 127 yards and two touchdowns in the regular-season meeting, could thrive if the Steelers overcommit to the passing game.
Falcons pass rush vs. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers
Opponents might be running out of approaches to contain the red-hot quarterback, who has thrown for 24 touchdowns and just one interception for a 117.5 passer rating in his last nine games. Rodgers is comfortable picking apart a defense from the pocket, but he’s also proven adept at evading the rush and extending plays for huge gains.
It’s up to Atlanta, then, to find a way to throw him off without repeatedly conceding downfield shots to Green Bay’s receivers.
Pressuring Rodgers in the first place may prove difficult for the Falcons. In Atlanta’s 33-32 victory in Week 8, Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga mostly handled NFL sack kingVic Beasley as Rodgers threw all four of his touchdown passes after more than 2.6 seconds, according to Pro Football Focus. Atlanta also will be without defensive endAdrian Clayborn, who is sidelined with a torn biceps.
The Falcons may look to rush Rodgers from the edges without pushing him out of the pocket, as the New York Giants found success early in the wild-card game with this approach. But adopting the Dallas Cowboys’ game plan may be more beneficial, as blitzing Rodgers with defensive backs slowed him in the second half last week. Atlanta blitzed on just 20% of its plays, ranking 30th in the NFL per Pro Football Focus, and a change of style may be necessary.
Steelers WR Antonio Brown vs. Patriots CB Malcolm Butler
After a week dominated by talk of his Facebook Live video of Mike Tomlin’s postgame speech, Brown has the chance to set things right with the Steelers. With Brown accounting for nearly 30% of the passing offense, Pittsburgh likely needs another strong outing from its star receiver.
Brown has eclipsed the 100-yard mark in each of the two career meetings in which he was shadowed by Butler, including this season’s matchup with Landry Jones filling in for Pittsburgh. His 232 receiving yards are the most of any player in the playoffs.
But Butler had an interception in this season’s previous matchup, and Roethlisberger lauded the cornerback’s ability to jump routes. Brown already said he expects a physical matchup and that Brown “puts hands on you like no other.” If Butler fares well with his assignment, it would cut off a crucial lifeline for the Steelers’ offense and allow New England to commit to stopping Bell in the run game.
Packers DT Mike Daniels vs. Falcons offensive line
A battered Green Bay secondary is ill-equipped to go it alone against Atlanta’s pass catchers, who set an NFL record by having 13 different players haul in a touchdown this season. Daniels might be provide one of the Packers’ best opportunities for disrupting Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ offense.
Daniels doesn’t get the attention that Clay Matthews or Julius Peppers do, but he may be the most important defender for Green Bay at this point. He overpowered Falcons guards Andy Levitre and Chris Chester in the regular-season meeting and could prove to be a thorn again. Atlanta’s offensive line, anchored by center Alex Mack, will have to find an answer.
If Daniels can’t disrupt Ryan or the running game, the Packers’ defense could be in a bad spot. Even if cornerback LaDarius Gunter and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix can handle Julio Jones, Green Bay is vulnerable elsewhere. Linebacker Jake Ryan has improved in coverage, but he could struggle against the shifty Devonta Freeman and explosive Tevin Coleman.