Thursday, September 10th
8:30 ET, NBC
New England Offense:
It’s official. As I predicted from the start, Tom Brady would be playing in Week 1. Now that the inevitable has occurred, Brady can finally focus on facing a team in the league rather than the league commissioner himself. Enter the Steelers, who are coming off a very impressive season offensively, but are lacking on the defensive side of the ball. Pittsburgh jettisoned longtime members such as Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and Brett Keisel, and time will tell if their replacements can step up to the task in the first week of the season. Judging by the preseason, Brady should be able to carve up the Steelers’ defense.
New England didn’t change much offensively from last season, but one major change occurred at left guard, where Josh Kline is expected to replace Dan Connelly, who retired in the offseason. While Connelly was an average player, he helped stabilize a line that got Brady killed in the early parts of the season. Once he became the starting left guard and allowed Bryan Stork to play center, the line became much more effective and gave Brady time to throw. Kline will have to prove his worth this week, as Pittsburgh has one of the best 3-4 ends in football lining up opposite him in Cameron Heyward, who received a much deserved pay raise this offseason. The rest of New England’s offensive line remains intact from last season, and the bookend tackle combination of Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer should be able to hold Pittsburgh’s pass rush duo of Bud Dupree and Jarvis Jones at bay. While Dupree has flashed this preseason, he is still very raw, while Jarvis Jones has been a huge bust thus far and will frequently be spelled by James Harrison, who is somehow still playing decent football entering his 12th year in the league.
With Brady likely to have plenty of time to throw, he should be able to complete the short and intermediate passes he usually makes, while also finding tight end Rob Gronkowski in the seams. Gronkowski was an absolute animal last season, returning to pre-injury form and hauling in over 80 passes, with 12 coming for scores. And while inside linebackers Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier are very solid in pass defense, it’s unlikely they will be able to cover Gronkowski one on one, meaning a safety (more than likely Mike Mitchell) will need to spy Gronk, opening up more passing lanes for Brady and his receivers. And while it’s up in the air if Brandon LaFell will suit up, Brady will still have Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola to throw to. And while Reggie Wayne may be running on fumes at this point in his career, he still may have a big game or two left in him before he hangs the cleats up. And it’s not like Pittsburgh’s corners will be able to stop anyone. While William Gay was average last season, Cortez Allen was one of the worst starting cornerbacks in the league. Much more was expected from him after signing an extension last offseason. The Steelers did acquire Brandon Boykin, maybe the NFL’s top nickel corner, but he will only stop one of New England’s slot receivers.
The Patriots will be without LeGarrette Blount in this contest, as he is serving his one game suspension this week, meaning Jonas Gray will get the start for New England. Gray had a huge game against Indianapolis last season but was relegated to the bench the remainder of the season after arriving late to practice. And considering the “Belitricks” that coach Bill Belichick likes to play with his runningbacks, it wouldn’t be surprising to see multiple runners get involved in this game. James White is expected to replace Shane Vereen as New England’s pass catching back, and he showed enough this preseason that he should be considered a threat out of the backfield. This is one area where Pittsburgh holds the advantage, as the Steelers were very efficient against the run last season, ranking 6th in the NFL in rushing yards per game. Heyward is a huge reason why that number was achieved, but nose tackle Steve McClendon was another, as the Troy alumni was able to open up tackling lanes for the linebackers all season long.
While Tom Brady had one of the best seasons of his career last year, you could make the argument that Ben Roethlisberger had his best season as a pro last year too. With the best supporting cast of his career around him, and another year in offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s system, Roethlisberger was lights out from the start. Roethlisberger threw TWELVE touchdowns, 6 a piece, in weeks 8 and 9 while also tying the NFL lead in passing yards with 4,952. In short, Big Ben was brilliant last year, and against the Patriot’s skeleton crew of cornerbacks, he should pick up right where he left off last year.
As mentioned, New England doesn’t have the best secondary in the world. After losing Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington, the Patriots will be relying on Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan and Tarell Brown to stop Pittsburgh’s potent passing attack. While Butler came on at the end of last season, Ryan faltered after an impressive rookie season, and Brown was released by the Raiders, which is about as much of a low blow as you can get. None of those players should be expected to cover Antonio Brown one on one. Last season Brown had one of the best seasons for a wide out in NFL history, catching 129 passes for 1,698 yards and 13 touchdowns. He also threw for one and returned two punts for scores too. My favorite stat about Brown: it’s been since Week 13 of 2012 that Brown hasn’t had at least 5 catches in a game. With the raport he and Roethlisberger have, it’s believable that no player in the league can cover Brown. One blow to the Pittsburgh passing attack is the suspension of Martavis Bryant. Though Bryant didn’t play until Week 7 last season, he still ended the year with 8 touchdowns on only 26 catches. Bryant took the top off the defense, and with his absence, Markus Wheaton will have to step up and replace Bryant’s production. With Bryant not constantly going deep, Belichick will be able to play safety Devin McCourty underneath more, which could limit Pittsburgh’s short and intermediate passing game.
Pittsburgh suffered a major loss this preseason, as starting center Maurkice Pouncey sustained a broken ankle and will be out most of the season. You could make an argument that Pouncey is the league’s top center, and not having him in the lineup is a huge blow for the Steelers. Also missing for Pittsburgh is star runningback Le’Veon Bell. Bell is also serving a suspension, meaning DeAngelo Williams will be in the starting backfield. Williams looked finished last season, and it was surprising to see him latch on somewhere this offseason. The lack of a running game will cripple Pittsburgh, as New England’s rush defense is mediocre, especially after the loss of Vince Wilfork. While the return of Jerod Mayo will help, the Patriots had a tough time stopping the run last year. It appears they will get a solid warm up game in as Cody Wallace, Pittsburgh new starting center, has proven nothing up to this point that he can handle a rush defense.
X-Factor, New England:
Devin McCourty. McCourty is one of the most versatile players in the league, and while he hasn’t been named to a Pro Bowl, he has certainly been deserving the best few seasons. McCourty played cornerback in college and in the early parts of his career, but has transitioned to a centerfield role in this stage of his career. McCourty played some corner earlier in the preseason, and I could see Belichick using him there again in this game. With McCourty’s ability to play deep and also man to man, how well McCourty plays will determine a lot of how New England’s defense produces against the high powered Steeler offense.
Cody Wallace. While Wallace has been a replacement level player thus far in his career, Pittsburgh has still seen enough to keep him around on their roster. A graduate of Texas A&M, Wallace isn’t an overbearing blocker, but he does have a decent ability to get to the second level. Pouncey was responsible for many calls at the line of scrimmage, and Wallace will be expected to do the same. How well he is able to make calls and hold his blocks will be key to how well Roethlisberger is protected, and how well DeAngelo Williams is able to run.
Result: New England 31, Pittsburgh 24
In the end, there will be just too much Brady and company for Pittsburgh to handle. This game is also at Gillette Stadium, and in Thursday matchups, that plays a much larger key than it does later in the week. Pittsburgh suspension and injury issues don’t make matters any easier either. It wouldn’t be too surprising to see these teams faceoff again in the playoffs, in which a result may be totally different.
Tom Brady: 27/34, 309, 3 TD’s
Ben Roethlisberger: 31/41, 389, 2 TD’s 1 INT
James White: 12 carries, 34 yards; 6 catches, 42 yards
Brandon Bolden: 2 carries, 7 yards, 1 TD
DeAngelo Williams: 18 carries, 68 yards, 1 TD
Julian Edelman: 7 catches, 72 yards, 1 TD
Danny Amendola: 4 catches, 32 yards
Antonio Brown: 9 catches, 118 yards, 1 TD
Markus Wheaton: 6 catches, 83 yards
Rob Gronkowski: 8 catches, 97 yards, 1 TD
Scott Chandler: 2 catches, 17 yards, 1 TD
Heath Miller: 5 catches, 39 yards, 1 TD