The Patriots will practice for the final time on Friday before heading to Pittsburgh for their showdown with the Steelers for AFC supremacy. Bill Belichick continued his admiration of the Steelers during his press conference, explaining how he's become more and more impressed as the week has progressed.
"I'd say kind of the more I've watched the Steelers this week, the more impressed I am," Belichick said to open his Friday briefing. "The way they play, they're really well-coached, they've had so many end-of-the-game, end-of-the-half situations that they're very productive and efficient with, and Coach [Mike] Tomlin does a great job with the clock management, with the play selection – just doing the right plays in the right situations and executing them well.
"They've played well on defense, on offense and in the kicking game, made a lot of critical plays. They do a really good job in that area, and that's translated into a number of wins for them. So, along with all the other things that they do well, that's pretty impressive, too. You need to play a good 60-minute, complete football game, all three phases, to be competitive with these guys. They're good at everything."
The late-game execution has generally involved the offense coming from behind to set up Chris Boswell for potential game-winning field goals. Boswell kicked four game-winners in Pittsburgh's last five games, and has become a weapon for the Steelers.
Obviously the kicker doesn't compare to the level of production of the Steelers offensive players and Belichick discussed them all throughout the week. On Friday, Le'Veon Bell and Ben Roethlisberger once again drew praise from the Patriots coach.
Passing concern –Bell leads the league in rushing but it might be his ability as a receiver that represents the bigger challenge. Last week in Miami, the Dolphins used Kenyan Drake spilt out wide as a receiver and his damage in the passing game was equally important to the 114 yards rushing he posted.
Bell is quite comfortable in such a role and given the Patriots struggles in that area last week it wouldn't be surprising to see the Steelers trying to create similar mismatches on Sunday.
"He comes out of the backfield. He's a screen player and they use him in empty split out. He caught a 30-yard screen pass against [Cincinnati]," Belichick said of Bell's pass-catching prowess. "I mean, it's a lot of yards. It's not some big creative play that nobody's ever seen run before, but it's 30 yards on a screen pass and a lot of it was good running. He made guys miss, got into space, made a lot of yards on his own, so he's capable of doing that.
"He's capable of splitting out, catching the slant pass that he caught against Baltimore, running through a couple of tacklers there on the goal line for a touchdown, can take check downs and make big plays out of those. Any time he has the ball in his hands he's dangerous.
"Sometimes they throw it down the field to him and sometimes they give it to him on shorter passes and let him run with it, but there's a lot of space there with his deep receivers so sometimes he gets the ball on check downs, screens, plays like that, where the offense doesn't have to block seven or eight guys like they do on a running play. They just get it to him in space and let him go. He's a tough guy to handle. He's got great run skills, vision, balance. He's as good as any back we've seen all year and we've seen a few good backs."
Ben has been Big –The start of the season wasn't particularly kind to Roethlisberger. After pondering retirement in the offseason, Big Ben struggled in the early going and looked like the end was near during a five-interception performance at home against Jacksonville in October.
Since then his production has gradually increased, and last week he threw for 506 yards against the Ravens, the third time he's done so in his career. Belichick believes Roethlisberger "does everything pretty well" and talked about the Steelers quarterback's many strong attributes.
"He's made – and as a team, they've made so many plays at the most critical times in the game when they've had to make them, and that's really what it's all about," he said. "He's done that as much as anybody. All their receivers – [Antonio] Brown, Bell, [Jesse] James, [Vance] McDonald – it's not like he's throwing to just one guy. He throws to all of them. They've all made big plays."
Lee's a fit –Linebacker Eric Lee has only been a Patriot for a short time after arriving a few weeks ago from the Bills practice squad. He has provided a spark to the pass rush, however, leading to some questions about his status as an undrafted player.
Belichick explained that his position and size (6-3, 260) make projections to the next level difficult.
"Like a lot of players in college that play that position, the defensive end to outside linebacker to off-the-line linebackers, sometimes it's a little hard to figure out," he said. "When you're clearly a defensive end team, which we primarily are, then it's hard to take a linebacker and put him at end. They're related. Trying to figure out whether a guy really is a linebacker, whether he's an end, whether he's a hybrid-type of player, he could play off the ball even though he hasn't done it before that you kind of project in him to do that.
"We have a number of players that fall into that category ourselves and finding the right ones and figuring it out and, again, you only have so many spots that you can do that with. When you're a 3-4 team you go to camp with let's call it seven outside linebackers and you have two or three on your roster and then you add three or four or whatever it is so you have a little bit more opportunity with those players. Eric certainly took advantage of that. We were able to see him doing some of those things."