Dont’a Hightower will be one of the most important players in keeping Le’Veon Bell in check come Sunday. (Charles LeClaire/USA Today Sports)
FOXBORO — One of the biggest keys to Sunday’s AFC championship game for the Patriots will be stopping Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell.
Bell has been a beast of late. In the two postseason games, he’s totaled 59 carries for 337 yards with two touchdowns. Dating back to the regular season, he’s gone over 118 yards rushing in seven out of his last eight games.
The biggest key to his success is his patient running style. He will even go as far as stopping behind the line of scrimmage before bolting to an opening.
For the Patriots, their defensive line will need to clog the holes and the linebackers can’t over pursue or miss tackles.
Given he’s the Patriots’ best defensive lineman, Alan Branch and linebacker Dont’a Hightower are the Patriots’ most important players when it comes to stopping Bell.
“We’ve got to do our best to stay on our job, and not to do anyone else’s job and stay in our gaps,” Branch said Thursday. “You’ve just got to do your job for the whole game. We can’t relax. We’ve got to stay on top of our game.”
In the Week 7 meeting, Branch played 40 of the 73 defensive snaps, but could be asked to do more this Sunday. He will be approaching it just like any other game, though.
“I never have extra excitement for any game, any team, because I got here doing what I’ve been doing all year,” Branch said. “I don’t see any reason to change it. Just go out there, have fun and try to make some plays.”
Hightower played 68 of 73 snaps in the first meeting, but it’s also worth noting how much the defense has changed since the game as it was before the Jamie Collins trade. The linebacker knows how patient Bell is and how he will need to stay disciplined.
“Patience is something that [Bell] does and discipline is something that will kind of counteract that,” he said. “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.”
Overall, the Patriots defense has done well against some of the best backs in the NFL. New England played seven games against backs in the top 10 in the NFL this season and none of them had a 100-yard rushing game.
If the Patriots can stop Bell, they will have a good chance to win come Sunday night.