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Bell is the engine that makes a star-studded Pittsburgh offense go
The one constant critique of this year's romp of a Patriots season has been a lack of serious competition. That critique will be either put to bed or validated by Sunday night, as the Pittsburgh Steelers come to town with a Super Bowl berth on the line. The Pats faced and beat the Steelers back in Week 7, but the differences from then to this current Steelers group go far beyond Ben Roethlesberger, who missed that game due to injury. In fact, the second half emergence of several young defensive playmakers has fueled a defensive turnaround that has been key to their active nine game winning streak. Couple that with an offense that surrounds Roethlesberger with seemingly unstoppable stars Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, and you have an opponent that will be up to the challenge of facing the Patriots, even at Gillette. Lets take a closer look at the matchups that will likely decide this high-stakes contest.

Steelers offense vs Patriots defense

You don't need me to tell you that the Steelers offense is capable of being scary good. Their reputation, buoyed by the eye-popping numbers put up by both Brown and Bell, precedes them. However, their reputation has been more imposing than their actual play on the field this year, as injuries and suspensions have chipped away at their playmaking depth behind those aforementioned superstars. The offense has still been more than respectable (10th in scoring, 7th in yards), but not quite as explosive as one might think.

That doesn't change the dillema of facing Brown and Bell, both of whom are capable of taking over a game and carrying their team to victory on any given Sunday. Both were extremely productive in their last matchup with the Patriots, although Bell had one of the least efficient outings of his outrageously good 2016 season.

While both stars must be heavily schemed for, I for one consider Bell to be more important to the Steelers success. I also expect him to get a heavy workload, especially early as the Steelers attempt to set a physical tone. Establishing the run will be critical for the Steelers, as winning the time of possession battle will help greatly in limiting Tom Brady's opportunities to attack their defense.

Stopping Bell is much, much easier said than done. The Pats did an excellent job at making him earn every yard back in Week 7, holding him to 81 rushing yards on 21 attempts (3.86 yards per carry). This game was a classic case of how stats don't always paint an accurate picture, as Bell often frustrated the Patriots by turning should-be losses into positive gains. Despite being held well under his season average, Bell ground out enough tough yards to allow the Steelers to stick with the ground game, helping to protect backup quarterback Landry Jones.

It's also worth noting the timing of that matchup. With Bell missing the first three games of the season due to suspension, that Patriots game was just his fourth of the season. Perhaps rust can be attributed to his slow start, as that game fell in the middle of a five game stretch during which Bell averaged just 58 rushing yards per game (3.5 yards per carry). He also saw 20 or more carries just twice in his first six games, as the team was likely managing his workload in his first games back from reconstructive knee surgery.

It's no surprise that the Steelers winning streak has coincided with a dominant turnaround from Bell. In the past nine games, he's averaged 24 carries for 130 yards a game (5.3 per carry). I'll do the math for you, thats 1,172 rushing yards in just over half a season, besting LeGarrette Blount's season long total.

Villanueva has developed from a raw project into an excellent starter at left tackle
Bell, of course, deserves plenty of credit for his dominance over that stretch. However, his much-discussed patience behind the line wouldn't be possible without stellar play from the big guys up front. ProFootballFocus recently ranked them as the league's third best line in 2016, thanks largely to their balance, as every starter earned excellent grades for their work this season. The big names here are center Mike Pouncey and right guard David DeCastro, thanks to their status as former first round picks, but right tackle Marcus Gilbert and left guard Ramon Foster actually narrowly edged them out for the highest PFF grades of the group. Left tackle was perceived as a weakness going into the season, where converted defensive end Alejandro Villanueva had struggled the previous season after a torn ACL to starter Kelvin Beachem forced him into action. However, Villanueva held off veteran Ryan Harris to win the starting job in camp (Beachem signed with the Jaguars last offseason) and improved throughout the year, ending the season with a more than respectable grade at the line's most difficult position. In fact, Villanueva gave up just one sack over the season's final 10 weeks.

The talent and balance of this line allows Pittsburgh to have one of the most diverse running attacks in the league. They can run the stretch zones that have given the Pats defense trouble in the past, as Bell's vision and patience behind the line makes him particularly dangerous in that cut-back based scheme, but will also run plenty of man-blocking staples, such as traps, counters and ISOs. They will run inside and out, often pulling DeCastro to lead the way when they attempt to set an outside edge and let Bell get to the perimeter. They will spread you out and run against your nickel, but they'll also use traditional power sets with fullback Roosevelt Nix, who earned PFFs fourth highest run blocking grade amongst fullbacks this season.

In short, the Patriots front seven will need to be prepared for anything on rushing downs. The Pats have been good against the run all season long, a trend that continued with a solid performance last week against Houston workhorse Lamar Miller, but they are going against a different kind of animal in Bell. The onus will be on the big bodied rotation of Alan Branch, Malcom Brown and Vincent Valentine to keep the battle for the line of scrimmage at least neutral. If they allow the Steelers line to generate consistent movement and give Bell space to survey the field, they'll be in big trouble. On the contrary, winning the line of scrimmage and taking away his space will force Bell to hit the hole earlier, hopefully resulting in more 2-4 yard struggles while eliminating the big plays that result when he has the time to let his blocking fully develop before hitting the hole.

Even if they manage that, gap discipline will be key, particularly from the linebackers. Bell excels at reading linebackers, waiting for them to shoot a gap before cutting the opposite direction. Both Dont'a Hightower and Elandon Roberts have made plenty of impressive plays by playing downhill with force, but Bell can make you pay for playing that aggressive style of defense. Overrun one gap, and Bell will almost always capitalize.

Finally, continuation of the Patriots season-long strong tackling will be imperative to limiting Bell. His patience and vision are what makes him so unique, often overshadowing just how much raw physical talent he has. With impressive leg drive and balance, Bell has the strength to drag defenders for extra yards. He also has the quickness of a scatback, allowing him to regular make defenders miss with regularity in the open field. While the Patriots strategy should be to keep Bell inside, where there will be more bodies and traffic to slow him down, their tackling will be tested on the plays when Bell escapes and gets outside.

Even if they can force Bell into an inefficient outing, the Pats will still have to contend with an explosive Steelers passing attack. While the passing game and Roethlesberger in particular were less consistent than fans would want, part of that was due to aggressive playcalling that was unafraid to attack downfield and create big plays vertically. As a result, the Steelers ranked fifth in the league in passing yards, fourth in touchdown passes and eighth in net yards per attempt.

Butler figures to match up with the explosive Brown all game long
Of course, much of this is due to Brown, who remains one of the league's most dangerous weapons. 2016 marked his third consecutive season with over 100 catches, 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns, a remarkable stretch of production even by the standards of the modern, pass-happy NFL. Built like a slot receiver, Brown's quickness makes him a matchup nightmare. He typically destroys man coverage, using said quickness to separate quickly on shorter routes. Unlike most other "quickness" based receivers, Brown also has the deep speed to be a major vertical threat, despite the lack of prototype size associated with that role. His yards per catch numbers, bogged down by a steady diet of quick targets, don't necesarily reflect that, but having a catch of 50+ yards in six straight seasons certainly does. Throw in the fact that he's a nightmare to tackle after the catch (something the Steelers take advantage of regularly with quick receiver screens and the occasional end-around) and you have a complete receiver who makes his defender cover every blade of grass on the field.

That defender has been Malcolm Butler in the past two matchups between these teams. Butler has established himself has one of the league's top cover corners and will once again face arguably his toughest challenge in Brown. Brown torched Butler in Butler's first game as a starter back in the 2015 season opener, with his 9 catch, 133 yard, 1 touchdown statline only becoming more impressive when factoring in just how close and competitive Butler's coverage was on a snap-to-snap basis. Butler fared better in their second matchup, keeping Brown quiet for long stretches of the Pats Week 7 win, but Brown did finish with 7 catches and 106 yards, thanks to a season long 51 yarder.

While Butler is likely to remain Brown's primary defender in a third matchup, the Pats will almost surely keep a safety shaded to his side over the top to prevent big plays like that. Brown will make a play here and there  (he's too good not to) but the Pats will count on Butler to limit how many and how much they effect the game. In fact, given the vertical nature of the Steelers offense, I wouldn't be surprised if we see plenty of two deep safety looks from the Patriots. All of the Steelers complementary receivers have the speed to threaten a defense deep, testing the principles of a Pats defense that has excelled all season long at preventing big plays.

Of those complementary receivers, Eli Rogers has been the most productive. He's (obviously) not nearly as good as Brown, but Rogers has a similar skillset, combining slot receiver quickness with some vertical speed to overcome his lack of imposing size. He's seen an inconsistent workload throughout the season, as other receivers have been in-and-out of the lineup and Roethlesberger has spread the ball around, but settled in by season's end as the de-facto starter opposite Brown. He's the type of receiver Butler would normally cover, but with Brown taking his attention, Rogers will likely be checked by Logan Ryan, who often bumps inside to the slot when the Pats face three receiver sets.

With Markus Wheaton injured and Martavis Bryant suspended, journeyman Cobi Hamilton has been the unlikely third receiver in recent weeks for the Steelers. At 6'2" and 205 pounds, Hamilton has a long, lean build that helps him to go up and make contested catches, something he displayed the last time these teams faced each other. Don't sleep on his deep speed either, as Hamilton ran a 4.33 40 yard dash during his draft prep in 2013. As by far the Pats biggest and longest corner, Eric Rowe seems like the logical choice to match up with Hamilton when the former Arkansas star is on the field.

The remaining Steelers depth receivers include veteran Darius Heyward-Bey, who remains dangerous despite his notorious inconsistency due to his world-class speed. Sammie Coates is another deep threat who flashed his tantalizing combination of size and speed earlier in the season, but Coates seems to have fallen behind rookie DeMarcus Ayers on the depth chart. The 5'9", 182 pound Ayers is diminutive but lightning quick and tough to bring down in space. When in he's in the game, the defense must be aware, as the Steelers could run any combination of screens or end arounds to take advantage of his explosiveness.

Playing a lot of two deep safety makes sense against a team with so many vertical threats, but will be a dangerous strategy if tight end Ladarius Green is able to suit up. A tantalizing talent with tons of seam-stretching speed, Green is a major big play threat and a mismatch creator when on the field. However, he's been sidelined since Week 15 with a concussion and is considered unlikely to be cleared in time due to his troubling history of head injuries. Green did get in a limited practice session on Wednesday, but was downgraded to not participating yesterday, with concussion/illness listed as his "injuries".

James has started at tight end for the injured Green
If he cannot go, Jesse James will remain the starting tight end. A fifth round pick in 2015, James has spent the majority of the year as the starter due to Green's various injuries. He's been a steady but unspectacular presence both as a possession-type pass catcher and as a blocker. Neither he nor the Steelers pedestrian backups, veteran David Johnson or youngster Xavier Grimble, should pose much of a vertical threat down the middle, which is typically how to successfully attack Cover 2 defenses (aka two deep safeties). Fun random fact: not only was Grimble briefly a member of the Patriots practice squad in 2014, but he's also cousins with current Patriot Barkevious Mingo.

Patrick Chung typically checks the opposing team's tight end, and certainly would spend time on the speedy Green if he defies the odds and gets cleared to play Sunday. However, the Pats could eschew traditional assignments this week and put Chung on Bell, who was easily second on the team in targets, receptions and receiving yards despite playing in only 12 games. Bell's well developed route running and great hands make him an impossible cover for linebackers, something the Steelers have exploited throughout his career. Chung, who has had plenty of man-coverage success against athletic tight ends and even some receivers over the past two seasons, would have a chance of limiting his production as a pass catcher. I can't say that for either Hightower or Kyle Van Noy, as the Patriots have struggled to cover running backs for much of the season. Bell took advantage of that back in Week 7, hauling in a season high 10 catches for 68 yards for the checkdown-happy Jones. While Bell would still be dangerous on screens, putting Chung on him would turn an obvious passing game mismatch for the Steelers into more of a push.

Of course, putting Chung on Bell would also have ramifications. While James isn't a super dynamic receiving threat, he's athletic enough to not be an ideal matchup for either Hightower or Van Noy. Checking Bell with Chung would also necessitate going with steady nickel looks, likely keeping Chung in the box as the de facto third linebacker in "base" situations, with Duron Harmon joining Devin McCourty as a second deep safety.

However, the potential benefits of playing nickel with three safeties outweigh the risks in this case. The Patriots have been able to stop the run all season despite playing nickel the vast majority of the time, thanks in due part to Chung's ability to hold his own in the box. They'll have no choice but to hope that continues, as playing true base personnel will create plenty of passing game mismatches for the Steelers to exploit. Furthermore, while Hightower/Van Noy on James isn't the best matchup for the Patriots, they'll certainly take their chances there rather than allowing Bell to consistently beat their linebackers for positive gains.

Now, we turn to the guy getting all these weapons the ball. Roethlesberger hasn't quite lived up to his own lofty standards this year, but he's still extremely dangerous with the ball in his hands. We know that the moment won't be too big for him; after all, he's been to three Super Bowls, winning two of them. We also know the mystique of playing Brady and the Patriots won't faze him, as Ben has generally played well against the Patriots in his career. Much has been made of his startling home/road splits this season, as Roethlesberger has put up MVP numbers at home but thrown more interceptions than touchdowns on the road. However, that won't mean a damn thing if the future Hall of Fame quarterback we've seen for over a decade shows up this particular Sunday. Roethlesberger's experience alone makes him an opponent to fear, but his ability to extend plays could be particular dangerous, especially if the Patriots continue to play matchup coverage as they have in past games against Pittsburgh.

Unlike many quarterbacks, the key to defending Roethlesberger isn't pressure. While Ben's numbers do drop when under pressure (like nearly every quarterback), pressuring him is extremely difficult due to that great offensive line. Furthermore, Roethlesberger remains one of the toughest quarterbacks to bring down, which makes devoting extra resources to pressuring him an even riskier proposition. Instead, the Pats should continue what they've done for most of 2016: rushing just three or four, trying to scheme pressure with twists, stunts and disguises on obvious passing downs, and using their secondary to prevent the big play and force the quarterback to take checkdowns. Ever the gunslinger, Roethlesberger will take his chances deep occasionally despite tight coverage, and it will be imperative for the Pats secondary to take advantage and turn some of those risky throws into interceptions.

Steelers defense vs Patriots offense

While the Steelers offensive stars have generated the headlines, a defense rebuilt with young, developing talent has quietly developed into a unit capable of winning games on it's own. During their nine game winning streak, they've held opponents to a downright stingy 16.5 points and 287 yards per game, numbers that would rank second and first in the league if prorated over 16 games.

One merely needs to take a look at their starting lineup to see how their heavy recent draft investments have begun to pay dividends on defense. Defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt (2nd round, 2014) and Javon Hargrave (3rd round, 2016), linebackers Ryan Shazier (1st round, 2014) and Bud Dupree (1st round, 2015) and defensive backs Artie Burns (1st round, 2016) and Sean Davis (2nd round, 2016) have all emerged as key contributors on a unit that has played shutdown defense over an extended stretch despite the absence of their best lineman, Cameron Heyward.

Dupree has emerged as a dangerous pass rusher
The biggest key to that turn-around has been the emergence of Dupree. A pass rushing outside linebacker with freakish physical talent, Dupree failed to make an impact as a rookie last year and missed the first nine games of the season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn core muscle. Dupree's first game back was the first of the Steelers winning streak, during which he earned more and more playing time before eventually wresting the starting job away from former first round pick Jarvis Jones. Dupree's emergence gave the Steelers some badly needed pass rushing juice, as they ranked among the league's worst pass rushing teams at the time of his activation from IR. It's also been a major help to the seemingly ageless James Harrison, who badly needed someone to help him generate pressure. Harrison's play has spiked with Dupree's emergence, giving the Steelers a dangerous edge rushing duo.

While the Patriots allowed plenty of pressure against the Texans last week, it rarely came from the edges. Instead of matching up their stars with the Patriots more-than-capable pass protecting duo of Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon, the Texans often moved Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercillus inside, where they were able to repeatedly victimize center David Andrews and rookie guard Joe Thuney. The Pats tackles will see a much bigger challenge this week, as neither Harrison nor Dupree have taken snaps inside with any regularity. Solder and Cannon have won their one-on-one matchups all season long and will be counted on to continue to do so against some considerable competition. Depth behind those two consists of Jones, who has been a solid edge setter in his career but has disappointed as a pass rusher, and Arthur Moats, a veteran and former starter whose best days are behind him.

Instead, it will likely be the interior duo of Tuitt and Hargrave attempting to capitalize on the Patriots (relative) weak links in the middle. Hargrave doesn't have the type of blinding quickness that Mercillus used to brutalize Andrews (no interior lineman does), but he is an undersized interior player who typically wins with quickness and penetration rather than power. That actually makes him a better matchup for Andrews and Thuney, both of whom are somewhat undersized and struggle at times with bigger, more powerful players. The tougher matchup for them will be Tuitt, a Notre Dame product who has developed into an excellent all-around lineman in his third season. Best described as a 3-4 end, Tuitt is big and powerful enough to hold his own two-gapping against the run, but also has enough quickness to his game to add some pass rush disruption.

With Heyward out for the year, the Steelers lack depth on the interior. Veteran journeyman Ricardo Matthews had been the third man in the rotation, but missed the past two playoff games with an ankle injury. He looks likely to return this week after participating fully in both practices so far, but he could be limited on game day even if active. The only other depth behind him is Leterrius Walton, a big bodied tackle who has played sparingly aside from two spot starts for Tuitt at the end of the season. With Tuitt and Hargrave likely to play the lions share of the snaps, the Patriots typical high snap counts and uptempo offensive tempo could be used to wear them down and erode their effectiveness.

Shazier is an impossible to miss playmaker at linebacker
The player most capable and likely to attack Andrews with Mercillus-like quickness is linebacker Ryan Shazier. Undersized but freakishly athletic, Shazier has finally begun to reach his potential after teasing with the occasional highlight during his first two seasons. Built for the modern, pass-happy NFL, Shazier is athletic enough to turn and run in coverage, but he really excels when allowed to be aggressive and attack downhill. He was highly effective as a blitzer this season, grading out as the league's fourth best linebacker in that category by PFF, while also showing up with plenty of jaw-dropping plays shooting gaps against the run. He'll have to be accounted for in every protection the Pats call on Sunday.

Shazier partners with long-time Steeler Lawrence Timmons to form an imposing duo at inside backer. Timmons isn't nearly the athlete Shazier is, but he's much bigger and more adept at taking on blockers. While Timmons would be mismatched constantly in a man coverage scheme, he's been well protected by the Steelers zones, which largely call for him to patrol the shallow middle portions of the field and make clean-up tackles against the short stuff. He did an excellent job of that back in Week 7 against the Pats, standing out as part of an effort that held Julian Edelman to just 60 yards on 9 catches.

The fatigue factor could also be utilized against that linebacking duo, which figures to face the lions share of the snaps again. The rest of the Steelers depth behind them is banged up, as both Vince Williams (shoulder) and Anthony Chickillo (ankle) have missed time. Both of those players are severed downgrades from Shazier and Timmons regardless.


Cockrell has developed into a steady starter at corner
The Steelers secondary is neither the sieve that overconfident Pats fans have made them out to be nor the shutdown unit that recent statistics hint at. Much has been made of them starting two rookies (both of whom have seen their roles dramatically increased since Week 7), but that inexperience has been aided by good play from the veterans in this group. The biggest key has been eight year veteran Mike Mitchell, who has been a reliable, steady presence at free safety, but the Steelers have also gotten a career year out of corner William Gay, a 10 year veteran. With fellow corner Ross Cockrell maintaining the steady form of his breakthrough 2015, Gay has actually been relegated to nickel duties, with first round rookie Artie Burns emerging as the starter on the base defense. A similar situation has occurred at strong safety, where second round pick Sean Davis has sent five year vet Robert Golden to the bench.

There have predictably been some rookie moments during each player's trial by fire (one happened in Week 7, when an apparent miscommunication between Burns and Davis led to deep touchdown to Rob Gronkowski), but both have improved with experience throughout the year. Burns' world class speed makes him a nice fit for the Steelers zone, which often calls for him to defend the boundaries deep. Meanwhile, the heavy hitting Davis has the size and length to match up with tight ends, where he could contribute to limiting a clearly wounded Martellus Bennett.

The Steelers remain largely married to former coordinator Dick LeBeau's famed zone blitz principles. The Pats will have to be aware at all times of the possibility of extra rushers from anywhere, including the secondary. The strong safety Davis and slot corner Gay have been sent most frequently this year. Brady will also have to be constantly aware of the possibility of supposed pass rushers dropping back into vacated zones, which can lead to offensive confusion but also mismatches to exploit if recognized in time.

So, how to attack this greatly improved front? Back in Week 7, the Patriots leaned on their running game, rushing 29 times for 140 yards while throwing only 26 times. While the Steelers zones did a good job of limiting the Pats yards after the catch on short, quick-hitting throws, the Pats excelled at using their varied personnel to get the Steelers into nickel looks, which they then punished with a heavy dose of LeGarrette Blount.

It's hard to say whether that approach will work against this current group, as they victimized a unit that was still reeling from the recent loss of Heyward in Week 7. During their nine game winning streak, the Steelers have allowed over 100 yards rushing just twice. Both times came without Tuitt, who missed the season's final two games, and one was in the season finale, which the Steelers treated like a preseason game. With Tuitt during that streak, they've allowed an average of just 62 rushing yards per game, including shutdown performances in the playoffs against Jay Ajayi and Spencer Ware.

While the Pats will still try to maintain offensive balance, I could see them continuing to go with Dion Lewis more than LeGarrette Blount in this one. The Steelers front seven is big and physical, but less athletic on a whole than many (with the noteworthy exceptions of Shazier and Dupree). That could make them a good matchup for Lewis, who is shifty enough to be a tough tackle for bigger, stiffer linebackers like Timmons.

Lewis will get his touches, but the biggest key to this matchup for the Patriots is brain-numbingly obvious: Tom Brady. Brady has the Steelers defense for breakfast, lunch and dinner throughout his career, including when they had championship level personnel. I suspect the reason for this is their predictability, as the Steelers have largely run the same scheme throughout Brady's career, sticking with predominately zone-blitz concepts even since the departure of long-time defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Brady has proven throughout his career to be absolutely deadly once he figures out the coverage, and the Steelers will largely present looks that he's seen countless times just in his matchups with them over the years. Against a zone based team like this, the Pats strategy will be less concentrated on creating problematic one-on-one matcup for the defense and more on Brady's ability to diagnose the zones and get the offense into the proper plays to counter. With a hyper focused Brady appearing to be even more angry and focused this week following a substandard performance against the Texans, my money's on another team carrying performance, even with several of his passing game weapons playing at less than 100% (Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell and Martellus Bennett).

Special teams

The Patriots special teams have been largely excellent this season, with the notable exception of some ball security issues in the return game. That trend continued last week, as the coverage teams were excellent, but Dion Lewis had the shine of his kickoff return touchdown tarnished somewhat by a lost fumble later in the game.

While that was undeniably disappointing, his 98 yard return was a huge play in a harder-than-expected win and illustrated the upside he brings to the position. I would expect him to remain in that role, with Danny Amendola available as an alternative option if his ball security issues remain. Either returner could have a chance to break a big play against the Steelers below average coverage teams, which allowed nearly 24.7 yards per kick return. Opponents started their average possession against Pittsburgh at nearly the 29 yard line, a below average mark. Combine that with below average punt coverage as well (opponents averaged 9.6 yards per return), and the opportunities could be there for a big play. Julian Edelman, who looked dangerous in that role last week, is particularly someone to watch on special teams.

The biggest concern from a Patriots perspective is Brown as a punt returner. He's largely been kept in check as returner this year, but his five career return touchdowns illustrate how dangerous he can be. Lane discipline will be key for the punt coverage team, as Brown can capitalize on a mistake in a hurry. Fitzgerald Toussaint has been uninspiring as the primary kickoff returner, and looks set to return after missing time with a concussion. Sammie Coates and former Browns draft bust Justin Gilbert split return duties in his absence, with Coates being a major threat due to his pure speed and physicality as a runner.

The kicking game has been decidedly average for Pittsburgh, despite the headlines kicker Chris Boswell made for scoring all of their points last week. Boswell has been pretty reliable from reasonable distance but has missed both attempts from 50 plus yards. His lack of range could become a factor if this game is close late, particularly kicking outside in Gillette. Punter Jordan Berry has been mediocre, averaging just 45.6 yards per punt.

Ned Brady 1/20/2017 11:14:00 AM Edit
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