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Ell’s NFL Playoff Breakdown: Strengths and Weaknesses

 

AFC 

#1: Patriots

Strength: Scoring Offense

QB Tom Brady continues to fight back father time putting up another MVP caliber season with complete control of his offense. He was so good this season that the team traded away backup QB Jimmy Garoppolo to the 49ers, despite the fact he looked ready to take over the job last season. This team can score on you in many ways, despite suffering many injuries at the WR spot. WR Brandin Cooks is a legit deep threat, WR Chris Hogan can play inside and outside, WR Danny Amendola continues to make the tough catches and show up on 3rd down, and, of course, Rob Gronkowski is a freak who can go up and get it and make the tough plays with defenders all over him due to his size. Veteran WR Kenny Britt is a late addition after getting cut by the Browns, he may be the big red zone receiver they have been missing. The run game has reinvented the game with a 4 back approach: Mike Gillislee is a power back/goal line back, Rex Burkhead is a 3rd down back who can also fight for tough yardage, James White continues to be a reliable pass catcher and one cut back, and Dion Lewis is an undersized tough back with good hands who can cause matchup problems in limited carries, as well as, play special teams. Trying to figure out which way the Patriots are going to try to fool your defense makes this a very hard team to beat every season the Hoodie Mastermind has chess pieces.

Weakness: 3rd Down Defense

The Patriots defense took a step back in production and a big step back in talent trading versatile LB Jamie Collins to the Browns last season and pass rushing LB Chandler Jones to the Cardinals to save money, along with the retirement of versatile LB Rob Ninkovich and loss of veteran pass rusher Jabaal Sheard to free agency to the Colts. Now, the Pats have a very young front 7, and the talent at LB has dipped significantly, with more run stoppers than versatile athletes. This had led to a decrease of consistent pass rush and the inability to get off the field at key times; this also opens the middle of the field for slants and TE plays. The Patriots need to find a LB that can either cause turnovers or get after the QB to help the young defensive line, but the secondary is solid. The biggest lost has been ILB Dont’a Hightower to season ending injury, as he has been a playmaker and enforcer in the middle for the last few seasons; his presence is greatly needed. Expect upgrades to this unit via free agency and the draft in the offseason.

*UPDATE* The Patriots have added OLB James Harrison from the Steelers for LB help.

 

 

#2: Steelers

Strength: Offensive balance

The Steelers are one of the top scoring teams behind their franchise QB Ben Roethlisberger and a plethora of weapons, led by a strong run game and franchised RB Le’Veon Bell with good speed and catching ability for a player his size. Bell controls the tempo of the offense and, as long as he is healthy, he is a mismatch that teams account for, but can’t stop; even if they stop him on the ground he can beat you out of the backfield like an extra WR. Ben has his most weapons ever and it might not even be fair: WR Antonio Brown is considered a top 2 current WR and the pound for pound the best player in the league, WR Martavis Bryant is a tall deep threat, but he has been very inconsistent this season, rookie 1st round pick WR Juju Smith-Schuster has been a good surprise with his deep play ability and toughness, and deep threat WRs Eli Rogers and Darius Heyward-Bey provide good depth; Brown has been a MVP candidate in his own right this season. TE Jesse James gives Ben a huge red zone target who has found nice soft spots in the defense, despite being more of a blocker, receiving TE Vance McDonald has yet to make his mark since being acquired, but could still come on late, as another big pass catcher, and TE Xavier Grimble has made a play when called upon. The Steelers can beat teams on the ground, through the air, or both with ease; if you can’t stop Bell or let Ben find open spots your team is in for a long day.

 

Weakness: Run defense

I don’t think this topic needs to be explained after the showing RB Alex Collins had in the Ravens vs Steelers game and this was a problem even before the Ryan Shazier injury, as RB Leonard Fournette did the same in the Jaguars game. The Steelers have a good front 7 and DB’s that like to hit, but they have consistently struggled against good, physical run games which is not good heading into the postseason. This problem has been exposed with the loss of Shazier who has no problem using his speed to set the edge, now runners can run outside, as well as, inside. The teams stars on the D-line DE/DT Stephen Tuitt and DE Cameron Hayward have done a great job pushing the pile for pass rush and freeing LBs, but they need to set the edge. However, the biggest improvement needs to come from the LB core that has shown a good ability to get after the quarterback, but the run defense must come 1st, if this team hopes to go the distance in the playoffs.

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