What The Bengals Can Learn From The AFC Championship Game

Jan 22, 2017; Foxborough, MA, USA; The Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots line up for the snap at the line of scrimmage during the 2017 AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 22, 2017; Foxborough, MA, USA; The Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots line up for the snap at the line of scrimmage during the 2017 AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports /

The 2017 AFC Championship game was anything but close as the New England Patriots demolished the Pittsburgh Steelers. While the lopsided game looked like a case of one team being flat out better than the other, the Patriots strategy created a blueprint that the Bengals should take note of.

Over the past decade, no team has had the Bengals number quite like the Steelers have. In their past 22 meetings, the Bengals have a record of 5-17. It’s apparent that it isn’t strictly personnel preventing the Bengals from beating the Steelers consistently. It seems like the team’s fundamental strategy needs to change in order for them to be successful.

One team in the AFC has unlocked the secret to beating the Steelers: the New England Patriots. They were at it again in the Conference Championship game as they handily defeated Pittsburgh 36-17. This was by no means the first time the Steelers have tasted defeat at the hands of the Patriots. In fact, the last 10 games the Steelers have played against the Brady bunch, they have only won two.

While the Patriots undoubtedly have a lot of talent to help them win, their coaching strategy wreaks havoc on the Steelers. So what is it about the Patriots game plan that wins vs. Pittsburgh, and how can the Bengals copy it?

Protect The Quarterback

The first thing the Patriots did in the AFC Championship game was to protect the quarterback. It’s no secret that the Bengals struggled with pass protection this season. They finished near the bottom of the league in sacks allowed (tied for 25th). The Pats, on the other hand, finished fifth in the league only allowing a total of 24 (1.5 per game). In the Patriots last two matchups against the Steelers, they only allowed two sacks total. This allowed Tom Brady to be comfortable in the pocket and allowed the receivers more time to get open. Almost any NFL quarterback with time in the pocket can be dangerous, especially when that quarterback is MVP caliber.

The Bengals actually protected Andy Dalton well in their two matchups with Pittsburgh in 2016, also allowing just two sacks. This is a big reason why the Bengals were able to remain within striking distance of the Steelers in both games even though they couldn’t pull off a victory. They will have to sure up the offensive line in 2017 to continue that trend.

Short Passing Game

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One major aspect of the Patriots offense that drove the Steelers crazy was the short passing game. As opposed to pushing the ball downfield on every play, the Pats focused on quick passes. These passes allowed for yards after the catch and kept the defense off-balance. What’s even more telling is that the Patriots receiving corps doesn’t consist of big name players. Instead, it contains hard-working multi-purpose players such as Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan.

While it wasn’t flashy, throwing short, quick passes kept the pressure off of Brady. It also opened up the field for the biggest plays of the game when Steelers defensive backs started jumping underneath routes and leaving holes in the secondary.

In the Bengals last two matchups with the Steelers, they have had trouble moving the ball. In many instances, they found themselves in third and long passing situations. This is obviously much more difficult to convert than a third and short. By utilizing quick passes on first and second down, the Bengals could stay out of long yardage situations. The best thing about this strategy is that the Bengals already have the quick, agile receivers the Patriots have in Tyler Boyd and Alex Erickson. Not to mention that they also currently employ former Patriot Brandon LaFell.

Contain Bell And Brown

The Steelers have a talented roster with solid players at the skill positions. However, two players stand out: Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. The Steelers offense thrives when at least one of these two players has a huge game. In Pittsburgh’s wild card round against the Dolphins, Brown and Bell combined for an incredible 298 yards and four touchdowns. In their divisional round match up vs. the Chiefs, they gained 274 yards. Against the Patriots, the duo was limited to just 97 yards and no touchdowns.

Even though other players on the Steelers are capable of making plays and scoring points, Bell and Brown are the heartbeat of the offense. Limiting them limits the entire offensive output regardless of which other players step up.

The Bengals actually did a good job limiting the Steelers two biggest playmakers in 2016. Bell Didn’t play in their first meeting and Brown was held to 39 yards. In their second meeting, Bell and Brown accounted for 189 yards but no scores. In both games, the Bengals held the Steelers to 24 points. Going forward holding Bell and Brown to under 150 yards will be key.

Strike Early And Keep The Pressure On

Something the Patriots did against the Steelers that the Bengals are notoriously bad at was keep the pressure on. The Pats jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter and led 17-6 at half time. In the second half, they didn’t change to a more conservatively game plan like the Bengals seem to do. Instead, they stuck to their game plan and put up 17 points in the second half.

Finishing a game is something the Bengals certainly need to learn. In fact, the Bengals had the Steelers in almost the exact same situation as the Patriots did in week 15. At the end of the first half, the Bengals led 20-9. Instead of keeping the pressure on, they coasted and the Steelers ended up winning 24-20.

Next: A Dynasty In The Making?

What It Means

While the Patriots have an impressive roster, the way they beat the Steelers is as much coaching strategy as it is talent. By using a similar strategy, the Bengals may be better equipped to win these two important divisional games against Pittsburgh next season.