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Week One Preview – Pittsburgh Steelers vs. New England Patriots

Has there been a gloomier feel to a season opener than this one?

Who will be grimacing less after Thursday's season opener? Photo by Steven Senne/AP

Who will be grimacing less after Thursday’s season opener?
Photo by Steven Senne/AP

Week One received some more clarity this week for the New England Patriots, as we now know that quarterback Tom Brady will indeed be under center. While this decision has been expected now for a while, the news was not any easier for Pittsburgh Steelers fans to hear as the struggles of the secondary throughout the preseason have to remain a concern as they march into Foxboro and take on one of the best quarterbacks of the generation, if not of all time.

The Steelers also received clarity regarding their starting lineup heading into the first week of the season, albeit the news wasn’t welcomed. The Steelers will be severely shorthanded and undermanned heading into Foxboro as the lineup will be down two All-Pro players in center Maurkice Pouncey and running back Le’Veon Bell, as well as the budding young superstar Martavis Bryant.


Key Match-up to Watch Offensively: Cody Wallace vs. New England’s Interior Defensive Line

After Malcolm Brown inexplicably fell to the Patriots in the first round of the draft, the Patriots’ defensive line was reloaded after allowing tenured nose tackle Vince Wilfork to leave via free agency. He, along with sophomore defensive tackle Dominique Easley, former Seattle Seahawk Alan Branch and nose tackle Sealver Siliga have the potential to be a disruptive rotation against the interior offensive line of the Steelers. This match-up would have been considered an easy win for the Steelers prior to Pouncey’s injury, but with Cody Wallace anchoring the line, there remains the possibility this proves to be a long day for Ben Roethlisberger. Wallace’s issues in pass protection are well documented and the Patriots have the clear upper hand.

That being said, the tackles Kelvin Beachum and Marcus Gilbert should be able to hold their own. The Patriots lack a dynamic edge rush and Beachum has become one of the best young tackles in football.

Key Match-up to Watch Defensively: Ryan Shazier vs. Rob Gronkowski

Ryan Shazier and Mike Mitchell were both quoted recently describing how effective a jam against tight end Rob Gronkowski can be in a timing offense like the one the Patriots boast. While I encourage anything to throw off the timing between one of the best quarterbacks in football and the best tight end in the league, this seems more like slowing down the aerial destruction rather than stopping it. While the Patriots do lack a quality receiver opposite Edelman on the boundary, this is made up and then some with their two tight end set in Gronkowski and the newly-acquired Scott Chandler. This isn’t necessarily all bad news, as if there is a point of strength on this defense, it is the speed and coverage ability of the inside linebackers. Shazier and Pro Bowl linebacker Lawrence Timmons may indeed be two of the only encouraging players on a defense lacking quality talent or depth.

All of this may be for naught, however. The Steelers defense isn’t going to stop the hemorrhaging against the Patriots on Thursday night. The best case scenario for this unit is to simply slow down the bleeding and allow the offense to carry the load. If they manage to force a turnover or two and get to Brady a couple of times, it can be considered job well done.


Let the Receivers Run Wild

It’s not all doom and gloom. In fact, there is reason for optimism on the offensive side of the ball. If there is a secondary that boasts a similar lack of quality talent and depth, it belongs to the Patriots. This is a unit that simply does not have an answer for Antonio Brown. Assuming the gameplan for the Patriots is to double cover Brown — which common sense dictates it would have to be, or Brown might break a few receiving records to open the season — this opens the Steelers’ offense up to attack elsewhere. This is the game in which Martavis Bryant’s absence will be most noticeable. If the Steelers were to have Brown and Bryant on the boundary with Markus Wheaton in the slot and Le’Veon Bell in the backfield, a different kind of fireworks would be going off in Foxboro. Unfortunately a neutered, albeit still very good, offense takes the field Thursday night. Brown and Wheaton will play the boundary with Darrius Heyward-Bey manning the slot and Sammie Coates as the home run threat. Expect to see a lot of empty and four wide sets against a secondary that simply cannot contain the speed and talent of this receiving corps.

Heath Miller and DeAngelo Williams Need to Turn Back the Clock

DeAngelo Williams will start in the backfield, a veteran running back with still plenty left in the tank and the ability to be a force on the ground. Watch for Williams to be a threat in the receiving game as well, as the Patriots struggle containing running backs out of the backfield. While Williams isn’t nearly the receiving threat Bell is, he is more than capable of turning a screen or dump off into a big gain.

This might be Heath Miller’s biggest game of the season, and it’s a good thing it came early. Miller is going to have to act like this is 2005 and find ways to get open against a Patriots linebacking corps that boasts tremendous speed, especially from Jamie Collins. Miller has had his struggles in the preseason, but this shouldn’t be of any concern to the Steelers. The coaching staff knows the kind of stability and continuity to the offense he brings. Simply put, he is Roethlisberger’s safety blanket. If the Steelers are going to steal a win from the Patriots on opening night, Miller might have to be more than that. He may have to be a weapon over the middle of the field. At 32 years old, it remains to be seen if this is even possible any longer.

Ben Roethlisberger Needs to Enter the MVP Conversation From the Very Start

Roethlisberger has had tremendous personal success the last three times in which he has played the Patriots. In his last three outings, Roethlisberger has passed for 1152 yards and 9 touchdowns. It needs to be noted that these outings were against far better secondary play from the Patriots. Averaging 3 touchdowns and over 380 yards per game is impressive and should get the job done.

Here’s the issue: that isn’t going to be nearly good enough.

If the Steelers are going to beat the Patriots, Roethlisberger is going to have to have his hat thrown into the MVP race right from the very get-go. He needs to have a night that would rival his games against both the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens last season. Games in which he threw for a combined 12 touchdowns. Roethlisberger is going to have to put this team onto his back and, with help from Brown, shred a Patriots secondary that is ripe for the picking. There can not be any early season jitters or struggles – Roethlisberger needs to come out throwing. The offense needs to play to near-perfection and force the Patriots to drive 80 yards after touchdowns. If they have a fighting chance, the Steelers are going to have to put points up on every offensive possession. This does not necessarily mean touchdowns, but they cannot lose the field position battle to an offense that is going to destroy the Steelers secondary.

If the offense is able to play to perfection and Roethlisberger has what might be a career night, the Steelers have a fighting chance.

But never tell me the odds.

Connor is a Steelers contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh.