The long-awaited opening night of the 2015 NFL season is finally here, with the Pittsburgh Steelers going to Foxborough to take on the defending champion New England Patriots. It has been nothing but controversy for the Pats entering this season, with the “Deflategate” scandal and Tom Brady’s suspension being the biggest off-season storylines. All eyes will be on Bill Belichick and Brady as they look to be the first team to repeat as champions since they did it in the 2003 and 2004 seasons.
While Brady’s four-game suspension being reduced to zero games grabbed all the off-season headlines, the Steelers have big-time suspension issues as well. Pittsburgh will be missing two of their best offensive weapons in the opener against the Patriots, with LeVeon Bell and Martavis Bryant serving two- and four-game suspensions respectively. Luckily for the Steelers, Bell’s suspension from his DUI charge before last season was reduced from two to three games, but he will still be greatly missed in this marquee Week 1 match-up.
Bryant’s suspension for a violation of the league’s substance abuse policy came as a bit of a surprise to people outside of the organization, but the front office had seen it coming. Bryant had a breakout rookie year, scoring eight touchdowns in only 10 games played on his way to becoming a very legitimate deep threat. His development during his rookie year and his strong training camp moved Bryant up to second on the depth chart at receiver, which is probably the Steelers’ strongest and deepest position group.
The Steelers offense is expected to put up huge numbers again this year following the success of last season. At the skill positions, Pittsburgh is extremely talented, and Ben Roethlisberger reminded everyone last season just how great of a quarterback he is when he tied for the most passing yards in the NFL. Their offense has the potential to be one of the best in the NFL, but only if their offensive line can hold up – a valid question considering the significant injury to their Pro Bowl center, Maurkice Pouncey. Last season, Pittsburgh had the good fortune of being one of the least-injured teams in the NFL, and realistically they cannot expect to repeat that, so their lack of depth, especially on the O-line, will be a big factor in their success.
Antonio Brown and Bell were two of the best players at their positions in the NFL last season, and if Pittsburgh wants to repeat as AFC North Champs, they will need a repeat of that success. The Steelers picked up veteran running back Deangelo Williams to help with Bell’s absence in the first two games, and once he comes back, he will give Bell a legitimate running mate who knows how to fight for yards in the league. Bryant’s suspension will hurt the receiving core, but with Brown, Markus Wheaton, and the addition of another big, deep threat in rookie Sammie Coates, they should be able to still pass for a lot of yards.
The problem for the Steelers this season will not be on the offensive side of the ball, but on the defense. Their defense has gone through wholesale changes in the off-season, highlighted by the departure of Hall of Fame coordinator Dick Labeau. Longtime linebackers coach Keith Butler will take over a defense that is full of youth and inexperience. The retirements of Steeler stalwarts Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu will hurt from a leadership perspective, but in terms of play, their absence may be a positive.
The secondary will definitely face growing pains and will again be the weakness of the Steelers defense, but the front seven has the potential to be better than expected. Defensive end Cameron Heyward had his best season last year and was rewarded with a big contract extension. His presence, along with vets James Harrison and Lawrence Timmons, will give the front seven a good amount of experience. If young linebackers Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier can improve, and first-round draft pick Bud Dupree lives up to his potential, their linebacker group could be very formidable. There is no doubt the defense will struggle early as they learn how to play together with a new coordinator, but if they can continue to improve throughout the year, they may become a decent defense by years end.
With all the coverage being focused on Deflategate and Brady’s court appearances, it feels as if the public has almost forgotten that the Patriots are coming off of a championship season. During the Belichick era, the Patriots have been by far the most consistent franchise in the NFL, and there is no doubt that will continue into this season. Brady not having to miss any games will mean that the offense is likely to be its normal self right off the bat; continuing to be dominant and putting up points.
A huge understated advantage for the Patriots offense coming into this season is the fact that, for maybe the first time in his NFL career, Rob Gronkowski is not coming off an injury from the year before. The Arizona product has proven himself to be the best tight end in the NFL, along with being Brady’s favorite target. Gronk’s healthy start, along with Brady not having to miss any games, will help the Patriots try to avoid their typical slow start to the season.
Much like the Steelers, the Patriots defense has gone through big changes this off-season; losing both Darelle Revis and Vince Wilfork. Revis’ return to form as one of the best corners in the NFL last season was a huge factor in the Patriots’ Super Bowl victory. His loss will be thoroughly felt in the secondary, just as Wilfork’s will be felt on the defensive line. Wilfork is one of the best interior linemen in the NFL and had been with the Patriots since 2004. While New England’s defensive changes have not been to the level of the Steelers, much like Pittsburgh, it will most likely take them a while to become the unit they would like to be come play-off time.
Because of the changes and the departures of high-profile players that both the Steelers and the Patriots have faced this off-season, their Thursday night opener will likely be a shootout. It may not be an extremely high scoring affair, although it could turn into that, but this game will likely come down to which team has the ball last. Pittsburgh will travel to Foxborough as seven-point underdogs, which seems like a realistic point spread for two of the AFC’s expected powers. Both teams will be play-off contenders, and even though this is only the first game of the season, by the end of the year it could come into play in play-off seeding.
Finally, the NFL is back for the 2015 season with the Pittsburgh Steelers traveling to New England to face the defending champion Patriots. As is usually the case in the NFL, the opening Thursday night game is a great match-up that could come down to the very last play of the game. After all of the controversy that surrounded the Patriots during the off-season, it will be a welcome change to see some actual meaningful football that can be broken down and discussed – rather than a court case.
Commentary by Max Petkevicius
Boston Herald: Tom Brady Owns the Steelers
Sports Illustrated: In Defending the Patriots, Pittsburgh Could Struggle
ESPN: Steelers vs. Patriots Preview
Image By Bernard Gagnon Courtesy of Wikimedia: Creative Commons License