By Steve Silverman
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The importance of the quarterback’s role is obviously paramount, and much of the conversation this week has been about the four outstanding passers who will be at the helm this Sunday in the conference championship games.
There’s no reason to try to minimize what Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady can do to lead their teams to the Super Bowl, but there’s a lot more to both games than these four signal-callers.
The Packers, Falcons, Steelers and Patriots each have key defensive performers that have at least helped their respective teams get on the right track and advance to within inches of the biggest game of them all.
In the case of the Packers, it’s not about suddenly playing shut-down defense and dominating opponents. It’s simply a matter of coming up with one or two key stops at crucial moments, and that specific mindset has helped Rodgers seize control at the most crucial point in the contests that have led up to Sunday.
The most effective defensive player for the Packers in their two playoff victories has been strong safety Micah Hyde, who has risen far above his regular-season play. Hyde has 11 tackles in the postseason, second to linebacker Jake Ryan’s 16.
Hyde is now making the instinctive plays that defensive coordinator Dom Capers wants him to make. Hyde has been attacking the line of scrimmage, and has also been very effective in coverage. He has a sack, four passes defensed and one interception, and has been around the ball quite a bit.
The Packers certainly need to put a pass rush on Ryan, and they will look to veterans Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers to provide it. If they can put heat on the Atlanta quarterback, Hyde and fellow safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix may provide the impetus for a Green Bay upset.
The Falcons have been an easy team to figure in years’ past. While Ryan’s ability to put the ball on the money often helped Atlanta get off to strong starts during the early part of past seasons, the Falcons’ inability to hold their own in the defensive trenches cost them from time to time.
The Falcons have regularly featured a fast defense, but too often their front seven was pushed around and gashed. Atlanta has often not been as big and strong as its opponents.
That has still been the case to a degree this year, but the Falcons are bigger, stronger and tougher this time around, and that’s one of the reasons they have been better against the run. Atlanta was 17th in rushing yards allowed during the regular season, and that’s at least somewhat competitive.
But the real reason they’ve been able to build leads and stretch them out during a streak of eight wins in 10 games has been the pass-rush ability of outside linebacker Vic Beasley. While he didn’t pick up a sack in the divisional round win over the Seattle Seahawks, he had 15.5 during the regular season. He can dip his shoulder, get past the offensive tackle and put the quarterback on his back side in a heartbeat.
If he can do that consistently against the Packers, this game could turn into a rout. If he can’t do it, but can pick his spots, it may lead to the crucial stops that help punch the Falcons’ ticket to the Super Bowl. If he can’t do it at all, Green Bay will win Sunday.
On the AFC side, the Steelers’ defense has shown quite a bit of improvement during the second half of the season. The Steelers allowed 30 points or more three times in the first nine games, but that has not happened once since.
The Steelers have become far more comfortable in the second year of defensive coordinator Keith Butler’s tenure. They now possess a cohesive and attack-oriented unit that can cause havoc for opponents.
Nobody has been more effective than veteran James Harrison, who at 38 is the oldest defensive starter in the league. Harrison simply refused to let the Kansas City Chiefs get their offense going in the divisional round, and has 16 tackles and 2.5 sacks this postseason.
Harrison is all about controlled rage at this point in his career, and he is going to have to use every bit of his savvy, experience and nastiness to get to Brady and help slow down the Patriots’ offense.
New England had the No. 1 scoring defense in the league during the regular season, but I’m not convinced that this unit is dominant. It was eighth in yards allowed and there have been some moments of vulnerability.
An argument can be made that the Patriots have not been tested on defense, as they have gone up against quarterbacks like Brock Osweiler, Matt Moore, Bryce Petty, Trevor Siemian, and Jared Goff.
They also faced Joe Flacco, a Super Bowl-winning quarterback who threw for 324 yards against them. Roethlisberger is a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, and he has far better weapons than Flacco had when he faced the Patriots in mid-December. Pittsburgh’s skill position stars, running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown, are capable of tearing apart any defense.
The key for New England is defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. He has excelled at coming up with schemes that have punished the lower-level quarterbacks the Patriots have faced. He must find a way to contain Bell and Brown, as the Steelers’ versatility on offense could very well cause quite a few problems.
The biggest issue is receiver Brown’s breakaway and big-play ability. That means cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan are going to be severely tested. It will be up to safety Patrick Chung to support their coverage with some nasty hits after Brown catches the ball.
No defensive coordinator is better at deploying his troops than Patricia, but, make no mistake, he will be tested by the Steelers.
Can he win the battle? Perhaps by a split decision, but Sunday’s game will be anything but easy for the favored Patriots.
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