Steelers vs Patriots: Breakdown, matchups and prediction

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NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (0-0) vs. PITTSBURGH STEELERS (0-0)
Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015 at 8:30 p.m. ET

The Pittsburgh Steelers kickoff the 2015 NFL season tonight against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in a primetime matchup filled with off-season intrigue.  The Patriots spent the greater part of the offseason dealing with the deflategate fiasco, and both the Steelers and Patriots are dealing with players now suspended due to violation of the league’s substance abuse policy.

The AFC North champion Pittsburgh Steelers will travel to the not-so-friendly confines of New England with high hopes that Ben Roethlisberger can duplicate a 2014 season that saw him posting a league-high 4,952 yards and 32 touchdowns.

He will benefit from a high-octane offense featuring wide receiver Antonio Brown who led the NFL with 129 catches and 1,698 reception yards, both single-season club records. Brown became only the 4th player in NFL history with back-to-back seasons of 110 catches or more.

New England is the bully on the block, boasting 6 consecutive division titles and the current bragging rights of being the Super Bowl Champions. Over the past two years they are 15-1 in regular season play at Gillette Stadium and have an 11-2 career record in season openers with Tom Brady at quarterback. Brady garnered Super Bowl MVP honors last season, finishing the year with 33 touchdowns and 4,109 yards on the way to his 10th Pro Bowl appearance.

Both teams enter this game with high hopes of repeating as division champs but with significant questions surrounding their defensive backfields. Pittsburgh no longer has the services of Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu who both retired at the end of last season, while New England lost cornerbacks Darrelle Revis,  Brandon Browner  and Kyle Arrington to free agency.

New England owns a 3-1 record against the Steelers in the postseason and Pittsburgh holds a 14-9 advantage in the regular season.

For the first time since he became commissioner, Roger Goodell will not be attending the inaugural game of the season. He claims that it is his wish to keep the focus on the game, but in light of the deflategate court ruling, the less than welcoming New England crowd had to be a factor.

Key Matchups:

Aug 22, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) warms up prior to a preseason game against the New Orleans Saints at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

1. Patriots Wide Receivers/Tight Ends vs Steelers Defensive backs/Inside Linebackers

The Patriots are pretty thin at wide receiver.  Julian Edelman is the best on their roster, so it will be imperative that the cornerbacks stay in his pocket and that they can trust the safeties to be in position on deeper routes. Tight end Rob Gronkowski will surely be Brady’s favorite target all evening. Former Bills tight end Scott Chandler was signed in the offseason, so look for New England to show a lot  of two tight end sets tonight.  Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier will need to jam them at the line, throwing off the timing of the routes and stick close to them when they come across the middle of the field.

2. Steelers Defensive Line vs Patriots Offensive Line

The Patriots offensive line has been in flux this offseason. Both guard positions are questionable and center Bryan Stork may not be available due to concussion issues.  The Steelers need to monopolize on this opportunity and provide a consistent pass rush.  If they can get Brady’s head on a  swivel, it will open up opportunities for Pittsburgh’s defensive backs.

3.  Steelers Running Backs vs Patriots Front Seven

The strength of the Patriots team may lay in their front seven, though they have little depth at linebacker.  If he Steelers can create any type of running game it can only help Brown and Wheaton.  DeAngelo Williams is a savvy veteran who still has a lot of tread on the tires.  Don’t be surprised if Tomlin chooses to wear down the middle of New England’s D-line with Will Johnson.

Prediction:

I reluctantly give the edge to the Steelers due to their offensive versatility.  We can expect both teams to rely on the arms of their franchise quarterbacks and both should have big days. DeAngelo Williams is a wild card that could surprise fans that have written him off as stop-gap player. The Patriots will key in on Antonio Brown, which potentially sets up Markus Wheaton and tight end Heath Miller to have a big day.

On defense the game certainly hinges upon the play of Pittsburgh’s defensive secondary but it will be important for the inside linebackers to help set the tone.  With LaGarrette Blount suspended, the Patriots have no true north-south running back.  They will field three players that would be third down backs on most teams. In lieu of a true premium runner, look for Shazier and Timmons to have an opportunity to shut down the New England ground game.

Score: Steelers over Patriots  34-31

The Steelers have a lot of areas that will need to be tweeked as the season progresses, but they face a Patriots team that has had a ton of distractions and that is very thin at the skill positions. New England’s suspect offensive line, lack of a marquis running back, and their questionable secondary make me believe the Steelers walk away with the win

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