The New England Patriots are 6 point favorites heading into the AFC Championship game on Sunday. Head Coach Bill Belichick spoke to the media yesterday about the game:
BB: It’s always an honor to be participating in the AFC Championship game. We have a great history and a great deal of respect for the Steelers, the organization, coach [Mike] Tomlin, their staff, their players. They’re a good football team, playing very well at the right time of the year now, the second half of the season. They have a good winning streak. They’re good at everything, good in all three phases of the game. [They’re] a very explosive and dynamic team, turn the ball over, score on offense pretty much from anywhere. [A] physical team, they play smart, good situational football. We’ve seen them do it throughout the course of the year and in the past. So, hopefully we can have a good week here and be at our best Sunday night. That’s our goal, and that’s what we’re going to work toward. We know we have a lot to do, a lot to prepare for. I think the game earlier in the season is not really that relevant. I mean, it is, but it really isn’t. There’s a lot of water under the bridge since then. What the Steelers have done in the last two-and-a-half months is really what we’re probably going to see Sunday night, and that’s what we’ve got to be ready for. So, that’s where we’re at.
Q: What sets the tone for the Steelers’ offense? Is it the run game with Le’Veon Bell, or is it the passing game with Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown?
BB: It’s everything. They’re good across the board. [They] have a good offensive line, the quarterback doesn’t get sacked much, they run the ball well, so I think it all starts up front. They have good skill players; they have a good quarterback, obviously Brown and Bell are dynamic players, tremendous with the ball in their hands. But, it’s not all them. Again, the offensive line does a good job of making everything go; the running game, the passing game, you name it. They’re solid, they’re well-balanced, well-coached, good all the way around.
Q: What has distinguished the Steelers over the last two-and-a-half months from the Steelers of the earlier part of the season? Particularly that defense?
BB: They’re, again, a solid defense. They made a couple of changes in the secondary; [Artie] Burns and [Sean] Davis have kind of taken over full-time. You know, [Ryan] Shazier came back for our game, but then he’s been full-time after that. They really don’t substitute any of those back end players; [William] Gay comes in in nickel, but that’s it. [Lawrence] Timmons and Shazier never really leave the field, four [defensive backs] that never really leave the field. And I’d say a lot of the guys on the front, they play through it too; [Stephon] Tuitt, he’s hardly ever out of there. [James] Harrison and [Bud] Dupree’s back. Dupree, Davis, and Burns, you know, Burns was playing anyway, but he’s kind of taken over for Gay. Gay has really just been the nickel player. They’ve kind of become full-time players. [Cameron] Heyward, of course was out, but [Javon] Hargrave has done a good job for them in there. Tuitt is a force. They’re playing good team defense. Again, it’s not one guy. There are 11 guys out there doing a good job.
Q: Commissioner Roger Goodell hasn’t been to a game here in two years. The reports yesterday were that he was going to be in Atlanta this weekend. Is that something that matters to you?
BB: I’m focused on the Steelers.
Q: Bill, the secondary has had several good games in a row. How important has their defense been in run support this year for this team, in terms of supporting the front seven?
BB: It’s always important. The front seven usually has their responsibility in the running game, but there are going to be times in every game and with every team when the ball gets through the front seven and the secondary has to be that next line of defense. And those are plays that could be five or six yards, or they could be 60 yards if not played properly, or tackled well by the safeties and the corners. So, corners and safeties are a big part of the perimeter game, but they’re also a big part of that secondary net that comes behind the front seven when the ball gets through there to do a good job of leveraging and tackling, and then keeping those runs to minimal gains. So, always critical.
Q: Coach, I know you always show your opponent the utmost respect publicly, but from a confidence-building standpoint, privately, do you ever say, ‘If we do this, this and this, we’ll kick their tails.’?
BB: We do whatever we think is best to try to win the game.
Q: Coach, any concerns with Tom Brady being on the cover of Sports Illustrated? Distraction? Bad luck? Or are you just not superstitious about that sort of thing?
BB: I’m focused on the Steelers.
Q: Obviously, this is a game that comes with a little more pomp and circumstance; the backdrop, these helmets, there’s a trophy there…
BB: I know, it’s so exciting (laughter)
Q: Would you regard this as a distraction at all?
BB: Like I said, it’s a great privilege to play in this game. It’s the two best teams in the AFC. You earn your way to this game. There’s no other way to get there. You’ve got to earn it, and you’ve got to earn it on the field. You’ve got to go out there and beat somebody – you’ve got to beat a lot of people to get to this game. Both teams have done that, so that’s the matchup. We’re glad to be in the game, proud to be playing in it. We earned it, they earned it, and we’ll play Sunday night and see how it comes out. Great to be part of this game.
Q: Are any of these trappings at all a distraction? All the things that come with games of this magnitude?
BB: That’s part of the game.
Q: Bill, there’s been so much focus on how they’ve been able to get to the quarterback in the second half of the year, and they’ve also been able to generate turnovers. I think they have five in their two playoff games. How much does your offense and Tom Brady have to be aware of not just the sacks, but ball security?
BB: We found that out on the first play of the game last time. It was an issue from the first play of the game. There’s nothing more important than taking care of the ball; it’s Number One on the hit parade.
Q: Coach, can you reflect for just a moment on what it means to be in this game for the sixth year in a row, and what it takes to get here every year?
BB: Again, we’ve talk about that before. All of that’s in the past. I don’t really care about that right now. We’ve got a few days left here to get ready for the Steelers Sunday night [and] that’s really what it’s all about. We can talk about that some other year or some other time.
Q: Coach, you had a player last week who had a historical performance in Dion Lewis. Do you expect a similar type of role for him this week, and how surprised were you that he had the performance that he did?
BB: I think everybody at this time of year wants to put their very best out there. Whether it’s last week or now it’s Sunday night. We’re in a one game season. We don’t have any more than Sunday night’s game unless we earn it. So, I expect everybody will put their best effort into doing the best they can Sunday night; myself, the coaching staff, all the players involved in the game, everybody involved in the game, all the support staff, everybody. This is what we play for. We’ve worked all year for this to get to this position. We’ll put everything we’ve got into it. I would expect that from everybody.
Q: Bill, I know you always say the best team wins, whoever plays better on the field. But, having the home field advantage and playing in front of your fans, how much does that help you?
BB: I don’t know. Go ask Dallas and Kansas City.
Q: But do your home fans give you a little extra support here?
BB: Yeah, of course, but the game is won by the players on the field. That’s who wins football games – the players. And they’ll decide it Sunday night.
Q: With three running backs who have three unique skills sets, how do you decide [their role]? At the beginning of the game, maybe at halftime, throughout the game, how do you decide which running backs to use at particular times?
BB: We do what we feel is best for the team based on whatever the circumstances are. We make out the game plan, we practice it, and then in-game decisions based on a multiple number of factors. With the running backs and everything else, we do what we feel is best for the team.
Q: Bill, with Ben Roethlisberger as big as he is and trying to bring him down if you get to him, how do you draw the line in practice with trying to bring him down versus maybe the referees are calling a penalty because you’re doing too much?
BB: Doing too much of what?
Q: Meaning because you’re always after him, trying to bring him down and sometimes he just doesn’t go down.
BB: We’re after every quarterback. I mean, what quarterback aren’t we after? The rules are the rules. It’s our responsibility whether it’s Ben Roethlisberger or Landry Jones or whoever it is. There is a target zone where you can legally hit the player and where we legally can’t. There are things we can do and there are things we can’t do. That’s the rusher’s responsibility to know that. For us, and for every team in the league, that’s no different. So, yeah, he’s a tough guy to get down. He’s very hard [and] we’ve got to be aggressive, but at the same time, we’ve got to play within the rules or it’s roughing the passer. It’s as simple as that.
Q: Bill, you mentioned Bud Dupree is a guy who has become a full-time player since the last time you played the Steelers. What’s made him an impactful guy for them since he came back, and I’m wondering if, from what you’ve seen, they’ll maybe take a guy who is typically classified as an edge guy and rush the passer from the inside?
BB: Yeah, they do occasionally move those guys inside. Really, to have kind of four linebackers on the field with [James] Harrison, [Bud] Dupree, [Ryan] Shazier and [Lawrence] Timmons. Or it could be [Jarvis] Jones or [Anthony] Chickillo, whoever those four guys are, with a couple of defensive linemen. So, they can put those guys in different spots, they mix them up and do different things in their third-down packages. So, yeah, Dupree is long, he’s athletic, runs well, but he’s got some length and he’s a hard guy to throw over. He does a good job working the edge on the pass rush. They have good depth at that position, the outside linebackers. As they have played those guys through the year, it’s been more Dupree and Harrison in the last, I’d say, second half of the season. But, those other players played, and Jones has done a good job for them in the kicking game. So, they’ve been able to get production out of all of those players.
Q: Bill, can you speak to the discipline required of your defensive tackles in your running game to two-gap and not get too far up the field and create space for a back like Le’Veon Bell?
BB: Well, just in general, defensively, we have to do a great job of playing team defense. That includes everybody. And Bell has great vision, patience, and they have a very good offensive line, and a good scheme, so they make it hard to penetrate. There are not many times when guys are running into the backfield against them. They do a good job of getting on the blocks, staying on them and eventually, Bell does a good job of creating space or finding space or making it look like he’s going to go to one spot and kind of enters in another gap. So, we’re going to have to do a good job across the board, and whatever the defensive tackle’s responsibility is … Is it a two-gap, is it a one-gap? Whatever it happens to be, then that’s what they’re going to need to do and everybody is going to have to do a good job. No one guy can stop the running game. You’ve got to have team defense and multiple players playing good technique, playing the right responsibility and then tackling is an issue. Even if you play well, you’ve still got to get him on the ground, and that’s hard.
Q: Bill, how important is it to get off the field on third-down? And how key will the play of the special teams be in this game?
BB: Third-down is always critical. If you look at the turnover plays themselves, because there is an exchange of possession depending on how third-down goes. And in the kicking game, field position and of course scoring opportunities, points, they’re always important. Field position is always important in a game like this – in every game – but particularly in a game like this with two good teams. The two best teams, being ready to play 60 minutes and being expected to go all the way that a few yards here or there – as we saw last weekend in a couple of the other playoff games – how a couple of yards can make the difference between field goal range and not field goal range. It’s kind of hidden yardage that can show up somewhere else; on a punt or on a punt return or on a kickoff or something like that. But then as the ball moves and those few yards become important, in terms of field goal range or percentage of accuracy in field goals, that can be critical. We saw a couple of big plays in our game, kicking the ball and punting the ball inside the 10-yard line, inside the 5-yard line, putting the opponent on a long field. Again, we saw that in multiple playoff games last weekend. So, those are big plays. Statistically, those are worth points. You’ve got to play defense, you’ve got to get the ball back, you’ve got to convert it, but statistically, those plays create scoring opportunities. So, yeah, sure that’ll be important