Dont’a Hightower will be a big part of the Patriots defensive game plan Sunday. (Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports)
FOXBORO — Sunday night discipline and fundamentals will meet patience and speed.
The winner will advance to the Super Bowl. The loser will ponder why their approach didn’t work.
The discipline and defensive fundamentals belong to the Patriots defense while patience and speed belong to the Steelers and their explosive offensive weaponry.
The Steelers arguably possess the most feared running back and wide receiver tandem in the NFL in Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. They also have a gunslinger in Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback and a supporting cast in running back DeAngelo Williams, tight end Jesse James and wide receiver Eli Rogers totally capable of spreading a defense and finding weak spots.
The Patriots have built a reputation as the most disciplined defense in the NFL. They’re not spectacular playmakers but they’re rarely out of position. It’s why Jamie Collins was traded and Jabaal Sheard was benched for a week. If you think you’re bigger than the sum of the parts, you will quickly find your way out of town, or – at the very least – the lineup.
What does discipline on defense mean exactly?
“Basically doing your job,” Dont’a Hightower said. “Patience is something than [Bell] does and discipline is something that will kind of counteract that. A lot of times it’s guys who may have an A-gap and they’re looking in the B-gap and they are shedding, trying to get off because of his patience—not having good enough discipline or getting off and causing those areas that he’s looking for. He has such great quickness and bust that’s he’s able to hit that hole and before you know it, it’s seven yards and he’s pulling the pile for another three yards. Those 2-yard runs, 3-yard runs turn into 11-yard runs real quick.”
Devin McCourty, just like he is on the field, was in sync with Hightower in explaining the approach.
“I think it’s going to start with everyone understanding their role and whatever the defensive call is,” McCourty said. “If you’ve got to be at that one spot we’re going to need you there. They’ve got guys on the field that if they catch a ball on the left side of the defense they can easily end up on the right side if they break a couple tackles. So first is just doing your assignment then I think it’s just pursuit. We can’t be out there jogging or not getting to the ball. We’ve got to get everyone to the ball once the ball is in the air.
“Whether it’s Le’Veon Bell running the ball and he’s so patient behind the line you don’t really know where he’s going to end up once he puts his foot in the ground and goes or it’s one of the receivers catching the ball. If it’s [Darrius] Heyward-Bey on a crossing route he has the speed to catch a pass and turn up field and go 70-80 yards. It’s just everyone hustling, [in] pursuit and just really wanting to get it done. We’ve had plays throughout this season where we’ve seen that. Where we have plays where it’s a five-yard gain and we get all 11 guys to a pile. I think we’ve got to have that for 60 minutes all day Sunday.”
What makes McCourty most proud about how effectively this defense has played this year?
“I would just say believing in the process,” McCourty said. “I think we have a group that’s a hardworking group that have come in everyday, just put their head down, work on whatever the coaches say we need to work on and really being able to adjust to whoever we’ve played. In this league you’re going to go against different teams. Every offense is different. We’ve been able to, week by week, try to come up with a game plan and say this is what we need to stop and we go out there and we try to stop those things. I think we’ve done a good job of that. This is obviously our biggest challenge and most balanced offense we’ve played. We just have to put it together and keep believing in that process of what we’ve been doing and hope it turns out well on Sunday.”
Try as they might, the Patriots defenders know their limitations. They know they can’t replicate Antonio Brown’s speed on film on the practice field.
“We won’t get that in practice,” McCourty said. “There’s no doubt about that. But that’s what it takes – watching the film, it’s going in practice, it’s having the right angle and honestly it’s guys running to the football even in practice. We can easily sit here and say we want to make every one-on-one tackle but there’s a going to be a good time probably that a guy misses a tackle because Antonio Brown makes them miss or [Le’Veon] Bell makes them miss. It’s guys pursuing and I think that’s what we need to see in practice – guys having the right angle, guys getting to where they need to get to. Even in practice where it looks like a guy has him, we need another guy getting there so if he doesn’t have him he’s there too. That’s the hard thing about this league, you can’t simulate every guy you’re playing against and this is definitely the case with some of the guys they have over there. But I think it’s just a mentality with us of knowing where we need to be and trying to get there in practice and unleashing in the game.”
McCourty is the leader of a secondary that is second-to-none in run support on defense in the NFL.
“It’s big on this team,” McCourty said. “Our defense, our coaching staff lets us know we need 11 guys on the field that are tacklers, that are willing to tackle and go out there and make big tackles. I think you see that. Like I said earlier, Antonio Brown caught a ball and sidestepped three defenders and made a guy miss and he’s off for a 50-60-yard gain. That’s pass coverage but it’s also tackling. So whether it’s in the run support or if a guy catches a ball in the open field, tackling is a key part of not giving up big plays. So it’s something we pride ourselves on and believe if we don’t give up the big play we give ourselves a good chance to win.”
Containing Brown in the receiving game doesn’t stop on defense. It’s also the job of Matthew Slater and his special teams unit.
“It’s a tall task. With a player like that, you want to try to minimize the space that he has, but at the same time, you want to be under control,” Slater added. “We don’t need to go out there on Sunday and have an out of body experience and do something that we haven’t done all year. We need to play together. We need to leverage the football. We need to have all 11 guys in the kicking game doing their job to stop this guy. It starts with Joe [Cardona] and Ryan [Allen] and their execution. As coverage players, we have to understand our leverage, our responsibility and play to it, not try to do anything heroic or anything else, play our leverage and responsibility and then hope for the best, hope that we can get a lot of hats to them and hope to get him down before he does too much damage.”