The Patriots are coming off their first loss in two months and now face the prospect of travelling to Pittsburgh to take on one of the hottest teams in football.
The 11-2 Steelers are as talented as any team in the league, and despite that Bill Belichick believes the team's greatest asset may be its resilience. The Steelers haven't always played up to their capabilities this season, but that has been the case more often than not when they needed to. That's what stuck out when listening to Belichick open his Wednesday press conference gushing about Pittsburgh.
Obviously, Pittsburgh is having a great year, very talented team, playing very well right now," he said. "They've been playing well all year but especially over the last couple of months. They've put a lot of big wins together, played a lot of good football at the most critical times of the game when they needed to. It's a well-balanced team, very explosive on offense, good on defense, good in the kicking game, have a lot of great players, well coached, tough, hard-nosed, physical team."
The Patriots and Steelers are no strangers to one another having met in several big games over the years. Even though most of those meetings haven't taken place recently, with last year's AFC title game being an exception, Belichick acknowledged the history.
"We've had a long history of great competitive games with [them]. I'm sure it will be a great environment there Sunday afternoon," Belichick said. "We're going to put everything we have into it here the next four days and be ready to go, but this will be a big challenge up there. They're very good. They're playing well. They have great players, great coaching staff, great organization.
"They're a strong competitor all of the times we've played them through all the years I've been here going all the way back to '01. Those games don't really mean anything now. It's just about this matchup this week. We've got a lot to get ready for. We're going to put our foot on the gas here and hit it today."
Obviously, any talk of the Steelers is inevitably going to feature the play of the offense, and in particular the talents of Le'Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger. Belichick spoke plenty about them and touched on some other elements as well on Wednesday.
Ringing the Bell –The so-called killer Bs are as dangerous a trio as there is in the NFL today, and the focal point of it all is Bell. Few running backs get leaned on more than Bell, who is Pittsburgh's leading rusher (1,105 yards) and second-leading receiver (75 catches) trailing only Brown.
Belichick was asked about the unique nature of Bell's skills.
"He's really good. He's a tremendous player," the coach said. "He leads the league in yards from scrimmage and that's about really all you need to know. He's a receiver when he's out of the backfield. He can run any run you want – inside, outside, runs with power, runs with a lot of skill and quickness in the open field. He's an excellent receiver in the passing game. A big guy, blitz pickup, matches up well against linebackers and DBs that he has to block. He's a tremendous player."
Bell is often described as a patient runner and his style is definitely different than most. Belichick was asked if that patience changes anything for the defense.
"He does whatever he needs to do. If you want to see him run hard, run over people, run downhill then you can find plenty of plays of that. You can see him with his vision finding space in the defense. There's plays on that. Catching the ball – plenty of plays on that. The guy doesn't lead the league in yards from scrimmage by doing one thing, doing it a little bit. He does everything. He does it well, does whatever he needs to do. You give him an opening, wherever it is, and he's going to make you pay for it."
AB does it all –Belichick spoke just as glowingly about Brown as he did Bell, citing the tremendous play-making ability the wideout possesses. When asked what makes Brown so special, the coach had a simple reply: "Everything. Just make a list. He's on all of it."
In terms of his impact on the offense, Brown's 99 catches for 1,509 yards both lead the league by a wide margin. His presence also opens opportunities for others.
"Everything opens up everything, so they can do it all," Belichick said. "They have great skill players. They can run the ball. They can throw it, throw it long, throw it short, run after the catch, extend plays. Everybody is involved – tight ends, receivers, backs, multiple receivers, a very experienced offensive line, big offensive line. Just keep going. We'll be here all day. There's no real weakness on that offensive unit. They can't come all on the field at the same time. Whichever ones they put out there are good. Whichever ones they take off and put out there the next play, they're good, too."
What about the defense? –Belichick did not leave out the Steelers defense, which had been playing exceptionally well this season prior to the devastating injury linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered in Week 13. His absence left a huge void and Pittsburgh survived a 39-38 shootout over Baltimore in its first game with him out of the lineup.
Belichick was about defensive lineman Cameron Heyward and how he sets a tone for the rest of the group.
"Cam Heyward's having a really good year for them," he said. "They have a very strong front. He's having an outstanding year. He's a good football player. He's played well in the past, but I think his play this year coming off the injury last year – that hurt the team a little bit not having him – but he's back. [Stephon] Tuitt, those guys give them two very good players at end. [Javon] Hargrave is very disruptive inside.
"It's a good front. Heyward – he's played very well. He's a hard guy to block. He rushes with a lot of power, plays with great effort. He's a very good pursuit player. John Mitchell, the defensive line coach there, he's been there for 23 years. He has all of those guys playing well as he always does. They use their hands well. They play with good power. They play with good discipline. They're physical and they pursue very well.
"This is one of the best pursuing defensive lines that we ever play against. They make plays 15, 20 yards down field. They're never out of the play. You can put [Bud] Dupree and [T.J.] Watt in there, too. But those guys, they're a factor in every play. Not just the plays at them or the plays that are kind of at the point of attack, but they show up on plays 50 yards away. Coach Mitchell does a great job with that."