Steelers vs. Patriots: Full New England Game Preview

Sterling Xie@@sxie1281Correspondent IISeptember 9, 2015

Steelers vs. Patriots: Full New England Game Preview

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    Brady vs. Big Ben figures to produce plenty of fireworks.
    Brady vs. Big Ben figures to produce plenty of fireworks.Steven Senne/Associated Press

    Following an offseason that has focused on everything besides football, the New England Patriots finally get to turn their full attention to the field.  The will-he-or-won't-he saga surrounding Tom Brady no longer looms as the elephant in the room, which allows the Pats to begin their Super Bowl title defense at full strength.

    Granted, there is still a strong element of the unknown surrounding this team following its offseason turnover.  The Pittsburgh Steelers won't have a trio of critical offensive players, but Ben Roethlisberger and friends still figure to stretch the revamped Patriots secondary.  The Pats offense should be able to keep up with Pittsburgh on paper, but the precarious depth at running back and wide receiver has thinned the margin for error to start the season.

    The Patriots scored a huge victory in court last week, and now they'll seek to start the 2015 campaign with another one in the actual win column.  Dissecting the game's biggest matchups, let's forecast the state of the Patriots entering the regular-season opener.

    Location: Gillette Stadium; Foxborough, MA

    Date: Thursday, Sept. 10

    Time: 8:30 p.m. ET

    TV: NBC

News and Notes

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    Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

    Return of the Two-Tight End Offense

    The Patriots ushered in the two-tight end craze at the beginning of the decade but have largely turned to three-receiver sets the past two seasons.  However, with the lack of wide receiver depth and the signing of Scott Chandler this offseason, ESPN.com's Mike Reiss firmly believes that New England will re-root itself as a "12" personnel (2 WR, 2 TE, 1 RB) offense, starting with the Steelers matchup:

    Yes, David, that projects as the Patriots' base personnel on offense, and the odds are high we'll see plenty of that. The key thing to watch for is how the Steelers decide to match up against it -- do they stay in their base defense, or add a fifth defensive back in sub by treating Chandler like a receiver? The opener is a lot about adjustments, and the Patriots will ascertain that information as the game unfolds and then figure out how to proceed from there (and vice versa for Pittsburgh).

    Much of this is predicated on Rob Gronkowski's health, of course, and perhaps the Patriots don't play as much 12 personnel at the start of the year while Gronk knocks off the offseason rust.  Moreover, we shouldn't assume Chandler will learn New England's byzantine playbook and develop a connection with Tom Brady.  Remember, the Pats moved away from two-tight end sets last postseason in part because of Tim Wright's inability to pick up the playbook.

    Still, so long as Brandon LaFell is out, the Pats might not have the personnel to consistently succeed from three-receiver sets.  Given the potential matchup advantages presented in both the passing and rushing game, expect the Patriots to stay in power personnel as often as possible so long as Gronkowski and Chandler live up to expectations.

    Diminished Steelers Important Barometer for Secondary

    No spot on the roster presents more trepidation for Patriots fans than the new-look secondary.  But while Antonio Brown represents a nearly impossible matchup for any defensive back, the Boston Herald's Karen Guregian believes that struggles against an otherwise diminished Steelers receiving corps would augur a rough season ahead:

    Without Bell, the Steelers will be more one-dimensional, which helps the Pats. Still, Tarell Brown, Bradley Fletcher, Logan Ryan and Butler, who have taken over for the Revis, Browner, and Kyle Arrington connection that was so successful a year ago, will be up against it.

    So if they have trouble slowing the Steelers down with all that they’re missing, you know you’re going to have bigger problems down the road.

    In fairness, New England (and most teams in general) will struggle early in the year as it figures out the personnel combinations that work best.  The Patriots appear settled on a top three of Malcolm Butler, Tarell Brown and Bradley Fletcher at cornerback, but it's still undetermined what scheme might best accentuate the strengths of that particular group.

    Removing Le'Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant from Pittsburgh's lineup eliminates two huge matchup problems, but that doesn't guarantee the Pats can cover the likes of Markus Wheaton and Heath Miller (who has especially given the defense issues in the past).  No matter how it performs, though, there will be a temptation to overreact to our first look at the revamped New England's secondary.

    Promotion Imminent for Thompkins?

    The Patriots welcomed back old friend Kenbrell Thompkins to the practice squad this week after the former undrafted wide receiver spent most of the 2014 season and all of the offseason with the Oakland Raiders.  Thompkins garnered 32 catches for 466 yards and four scores as a surprise contributor during his rookie season but fell out of favor and was released after Week 3 last season.

    Now back in Foxborough, it's not hard to envision Thompkins working his way back onto the 53-man roster, given that the Pats only have four wide receivers following Reggie Wayne's surprise release and Brandon LaFell's placement on PUP.  Per NESN's Doug Kyed, Bill Belichick appeared to suggest that Thompkins could be on the active roster once he relearns the playbook:

    We’ll see how long it takes, but it shouldn’t be too long from a relearning standpoint. He’s a good learner, but to just get back in to what we’re doing and all that, to be able to compete for playing time based on where he was here before. And it looks like, based on a short look yesterday, it looks like he still has good skills to contribute. He’s got the experience to play in the slot, which he did more in Oakland than he did here. He’s kind of developed some versatility, so we’ll see how it goes. But I think we’re happy to have him and a player of his caliber in that position.

    For now, Thompkins is probably better served as an insurance policy in the event that the injury-riddled receiving corps suffers another casualty.  But given his experience in the system, the Pats couldn't have asked for a better fit among the post-cutdown options.

Latest Injury News

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    Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
    PatriotsSteelers
    PlayerPositionInjuryStatusPlayerPositionInjuryStatus
    Bryan StorkCConcussionDNPLandry JonesQBHeadDNP
    Tavon WilsonSQuadLimited    
    Travaris CadetRBHamstringFull    
    Trey FlowersDEKneeFull    

    The biggest issue for New England lies at the heart of the offensive line, where Bryan Stork has remained sidelined for the majority of the preseason with a concussion.  Having missed every practice thus far, he appears unlikely to suit up for the season-opener.

    New England would then have a few possible combinations on the interior of the line.  While Tre' Jackson appears entrenched at right guard, the Patriots could conceivably play Ryan Wendell at his natural center spot and have Shaq Mason or Josh Kline at left guard.  Or, they could move Wendell to left guard, where he's expected to start in 2015, and toss undrafted rookie David Andrews into the fire.

    Apart from Stork, neither team has any pressing short-term injury woes.  Landry Jones is a third-string developmental quarterback for Pittsburgh after the Steelers inked Michael Vick to back up Roethlisberger.  Meanwhile, it's encouraging to see Pats players such as Travaris Cadet and Tre Flowers return to practice on a full capacity after missing nearly the entire preseason slate.  Neither team will be at full strength because of long-term injuries and suspensions, but both teams are otherwise in solid shape at the start of the year.

    *Injury information via Patriots.com.

Key Matchups

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    Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    Malcolm Butler vs. Antonio Brown

    Talk about initiation by fire.  The second-year pro Butler has followed up his Super Bowl heroics with a strong offseason and certainly deserves the first crack at replacing Darrelle Revis on the left side of the Pats defense.  Unfortunately, it's hard to envision a worse first matchup for Butler than Brown, whose quickness and fluidity make him arguably the league's best route-runner.

    Brown will win his share of battles, especially with Le'Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant suspended for the opener.  Last season, Brown was remarkably consistent on a per-game basis in terms of targets, receiving between 12 and 16 targets eight times and seeing fewer than nine passes just once.  With Ben Roethlisberger's top secondary weapons missing, the Pats should expect Brown to see the high end of that target total.

    If you want to know how much New England really trusts Butler, watch what happens when Brown moves to the slot, as he often does in three-receiver packages.  Do the Pats ask Butler to shadow from an unfamiliar alignment, or do they keep him pinned to the left side and ask Devin McCourty or Logan Ryan to play the slot? 

    Brown is an irrepressible talent, as evidenced by his NFL-record 33-game streak of at least five catches and 50 yards.  In truth, the Patriots' goal is to prevent the league's most prolific receiver from taking over the game.

    Rob Gronkowski vs. Ryan Shazier and Mike Mitchell

    If Brown is Pittsburgh's offensive trump card, Gronkowski represents an equally terrifying proposition on New England's offense.  No one has ever had a real answer for a healthy Gronk, and Pittsburgh's porous pass defense is hardly brimming with solutions to that problem.  Based on Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, the Steelers ranked 28th in defending tight ends last year, allowing opposing players at the position to garner a DVOA 17.4 percent above the league average.

    However, Patriots fans shouldn't necessarily pencil in a dominant game from the All-Pro tight end.  Gronkowski didn't play at all in the preseason, which suggests that Bill Belichick prefers to have him use the start of the regular season as a de facto tuneup.  While that approach preserves the fragile tight end for games that actually count, it potentially limits his efficacy at the start of the year.

    Indeed, during last September's offensive malaise, Gronkowski averaged just six targets, 3.3 catches and 36.8 receiving yards per game.  He will surely get situational work on third downs and in the red zone, but keep an eye on his snap count against an exploitable Steelers back seven.

    Dominique Easley vs. Ramon Foster and Cody Wallace

    The Patriots clearly shifted from a coverage-oriented defense to a pressure-reliant one this offseason.  And while the depth at edge-rusher is the most intriguing part of New England's defense, the development of the second-year 3-technique Easley could provide the extra juice that puts the unit over the top.

    After impressing during the preseason, Easley receives a relatively soft first matchup.  Assuming he plays most of his snaps on the interior weak side, he'll likely square off against left guard Foster and center Wallace.  Foster is a stable vet who has started all but five games the past four years for Pittsburgh, but Wallace is a big downgrade from All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey, who is out until midseason with a fractured ankle.

    Finishing rushes is critical against Roethlisberger, who was the league's best quarterback against pressure last season, according to Football Outsiders.  In other words, merely penetrating the pocket hasn't necessarily deterred Roethlisberger, who escapes sacks better than nearly any other quarterback in the league.  Easley might possess the most favorable matchup of New England's rushers on Thursday night, so he'll have an opportunity to make a strong first impression after a disappointing rookie season.

Matchup X-Factors

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Patriots X-Factor of the Week: Brandon Bolden

    In recent years, Belichick has wreaked havoc on myriad fantasy lineups with his indecipherable running back usage patterns.  It seems he's doubled down on that strategy in 2015, as the identity of New England's primary running back this week is wholly unclear with LeGarrette Blount suspended.

    While the Pats will use a highly egalitarian committee, fourth-year pro Brandon Bolden seems likely to get the first crack at the early-down carries.  A special teams ace who has been more of a pinch hitter on offense throughout his career, Bolden is nonetheless the most experienced back on the roster by a wide margin.  At least one Patriots writer sees Bolden as the clear-cut favorite to start versus Pittsburgh:

    I'd bet that Brandon Bolden is the Patriots starting RB come Week 1. He'll be backed up by Dion Lewis, Travaris Cadet and James White.

    — Mark Daniels (@MarkDanielsPJ) September 5, 2015

    His 139 career carries dwarfs the combined 56 carries that New England's other three backs—James White, Dion Lewis and Travaris Cadet—have compiled their entire careers.  The demise of Pittsburgh's defense last season stemmed mostly from the passing game, so Bolden and the rest of the Patriots' callow backfield will need to find some running lanes to keep the offense balanced.

    Steelers X-Factor of the Week: Cameron Heyward

    As miserable as the Steelers secondary appears on paper, Pittsburgh has quietly assembled an intriguing group of pass-rushers.  Most of that talent plays on the edge in the form of outside linebackers James Harrison, Bud Dupree, Jarvis Jones and Arthur Moats, but the team's best individual defender might be Heyward.

    Recently voted a team captain, the fifth-year pro is the most versatile defensive lineman on Pittsburgh's roster.  Despite being asked to two-gap rather frequently in Dick LeBeau's system, Heyward still compiled a career-high 7.5 sacks in 2014.  No other returning Pittsburgh defender had more than 5.5 sacks last year, which makes Heyward the focal point of a talented but unproven pass rush.

    Watch for him to rush from an interior technique against New England's unsettled interior offensive line.  Strong pass protection should mean fireworks for the Patriots offense, but Heyward is the Steelers defender most capable of wrecking those plans.

Prediction: Patriots 32, Steelers 27

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    Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    After 10 consecutive wins from 2002 to 2011, the season-opener traditionally hosted by the defending champions has gone to the spoiler in two of the past three seasons.  That obviously doesn't have any direct bearing on Thursday night's result, but even with Brady back in tow, Pats fans can't afford to treat the night like a coronation and celebration of last February.

    The good news is that Brady has traditionally owned Pittsburgh's defense, even during its heyday in the late-2000s.  Including the postseason, the Patriots have gone 7-2 against the Steelers behind Brady, averaging a robust 31.4 points per game in those contests.  Brady has posted a career 109.7 quarterback rating versus Pittsburgh, his third-highest rating against any team (trailing only the Titans and Falcons).

    Thus, we can almost certainly expect fireworks at Gillette, even with both sides missing offensive starters.  The quarterbacks remain the ultimate trump card in this matchup, especially considering the secondary turnover on both sides. 

    Still, it's hard to bet against the Patriots at home on what will surely be an emotional night given the offseason turmoil surrounding the organization.  After months of listening to the opinions and assertions of others, the Patriots will finally get a chance to respond on the field, the only venue that truly matters. 

    Prediction: Patriots 32, Steelers 27