The 2015-2016 NFL Season kicks off tonight when the Pittsburgh Steelers visit the reigning champs in Foxborough, the New England Patriots plan to raise their fourth championship banner. A matchup of top quarterbacks appeared to be lost when Tom Brady was issued a suspension for four games earlier this offseason, after winning the appeal he will be under center when New England’s offense lines up for the first time. Ben Roethlisberger will be leading one of the leagues better offenses last year, while he’ll be missing a couple of key playmakers he’ll still have Antonio Brown out wide. It’s a great matchup to start the year, it’ll be interesting to see which team’s defense can step up enough to get the job done.
There’s quite some time between now and kickoff, so here’s five things to look for in tonight’s game.
Missing Pieces – Let’s start with the Steelers, they had their own version of the triplets last season in the form of Big Ben, Antonio Brown, and LeVeon Bell. That last player mentioned will miss the first two games of the season due to a suspension. Bell had 1,300 yards last season and 854 receiving yards, his presence and production will certainly be missed. Big play sophomore wideout Martavis Bryant is out for the first month (four games) of the season, so one of those younger pass catchers will have to step forward and become a reliable option opposite AB. The hits keep coming, Pittsburgh will also be without their starting center in Maurkice Pouncey will be out until November per reports due to an injured ankle (required surgery).
New England will be without Brandon LaFell who had a slight career resurgence after leaving Carolina to join the Patriots. Last season, LaFell had 953 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. The Pats will also be without starting running back LaGarette Blount due to suspension, it’s of the one game variety. As expected with any Super Bowl winning team, some players were lost in the offseason via Free Agency like shut down cornerback Darrelle Revis, versatile running back Shane Vareen, and long time Pats nose tackle Vince Wilfork.
History – The Steelers have yet to beat a Brady led Patriots team in Foxborough since he’s took over for Drew Bledsoe way back when. The last time Pittsburgh traveled to New England, they suffered a 55-31 drubbing in 2013. The Steelers have been on the positive end of a streak like that, the Ravens hadn’t beaten Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh in postseason play until last season, the first time in franchise history. So, can the Steelers come out and end their New England drought?
High Powered Offenses – Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski will start the year healthy together which should be enough for Brady to be as destructive as possible to opposing defenses, it remains to be seen who in their stable of running backs can become the pass catcher or receiving threat that Vereen was. Also, keep an eye on that receiving corps, will any of those youngsters make a big stride this year?
We already mentioned what the Steelers will be missing on this end of the ball, but they’re kind of deep on that side of the ball at the skill positions. Former Panthers workhorse DeAngelo Williams gets the shot to fill in for Bell in his absence. Wondering who’ll fill in for the missing Bryant opposite AB? Well there’s Markus Wheaton who’s due for an opportunity to show what he can do, per several Steelers beat writers through training camp, the kid is ready. The Steelers also drafted a speedy wideout with decent size in this past draft in former Auburn playmaker Sammie Coates. Not saying that Coates is going to step into a starting role or make a huge impact, but keep an eye as to who’s out wide on ‘shot plays’.
Defenses –It’s often said in sports, that the defense is typically further ahead of the offenses early on. We’ll see if that rings true tonight as two of the league’s best offenses will take the field tonight, both with veteran signal callers. Will their be rust or will the defenses of both teams be behind the eight ball against the weaponry both offenses possess?
New England will be transitioning to life without Revis, the impact he had on that defense last season (along with Brandon Browner) on the opposite side allowed the Pats to take more liberties in attacking offenses knowing that they could trust their secondary to hold things down. Old reliable is still on his roost overlooking the defense though, Devin McCourty was retained this offseason and his presence shouldn’t be discounted even with a younger group back there. What will work for New England is that retooled front seven, yes Wilfork isn’t there but there’s talent in numbers up front. The return of Jerrod Mayo is huge for a defense that hasn’t had him in the middle consistently for a few seasons now. Additions like Jabaal Sheard, youngsters Dominique Easley, Malcolm Brown amongst others will try to fill in for the void left by Wilfork.
The Steelers are in transition on that side of the ball as a whole, especially their backend as they’re trying to figure out who’s going to step forward and try and fill the void left by Troy Polomalu and Ike Taylor. Keep an eye on on the secondary for Pittsburgh, they’ll be up for a tall task. It’s not just the corners as somebody’s going to draw that unenviable assignment of guarding Gronk. The Steelers get a chance to see if that trade in camp will pay tonight as Brandon Boykin will most likely be tested in that slot tonight. Up front is actually very stout for Pittsburgh, they don’t have the big names, but they have the requisite games that their not an issue. What might is a position that the Steelers are KNOWN for, outside linebacker. Will Jarivs Jones, Bud Dupree, and the ageless one in James Harrison be able to generate a pass rush strong enough that won’t allow them to sacrifice their coverage? We’ll see tonight!!
Game Plans/Schemes – It’s not football until teams are game planning for each other, preseason is over and the real thing starts tonight!! It’ll be fun to watch the chess match of wits between offensive and defensive coordinators for both teams. The pre-snap adjustments made by the offense and defense, the season long game of cat and mouse. Especially early in the season, there’s no tape on the new stuff yet, the wrinkles, the adjustments made in the offseason. That tape isn’t made until after this week’s games, so sit back and enjoy and happy football season!!