5 things you have to know about Steelers

September 07, 2015 - 2:00 am
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[caption id="attachment_96835" align="alignright" width="350"]Ben Roethlisberger will lead the Steelers into Foxboro Thursday night. (Getty Images)Ben Roethlisberger will lead the Steelers into Foxboro Thursday night. (Gregory Shamus'Getty Images)[/caption] Five things you have to know about the Steelers, who will face the Patriots in the regular-season opener Thursday in Foxboro: 1. Even without Le'Veon Bell or Martavis Bryant for the opener, they have one of the better young offenses in the league. As has been the case for the last decade, the Pittsburgh offense will rise and fall on the right arm of Ben Roethlisberger (67 percent completion rate, an NFL-best 4,952 passing yards, 32 TDs, 9 INTs, 103.3 passer rating last year), but Roethlisberger has a young and talented nucleus around him. Seven of the 11 projected offensive starters are no older than 26 years of age. The good news for the Patriots is that they won't have to worry about game-planning for Bell or Bryant, both of whom are out with suspensions, which should make their job on defense a little easier. At the same time, Roethlisberger still has plenty of talented offensive options he can lean on: The Steelers have left themselves a little short at running back without Bell in the opener, but expect DeAngelo Williams (62 carries, 219 yards with Carolina last year) to get the bulk of the carries against the Patriots, as well as some Dri Archer. (Roethlisberger has joked about going empty backfield until Bell comes back. Well, it was probably a joke.) Wide receiver Antonio Brown (129 catches, 1,698 yards, 13 touchdowns last year) and veteran tight end Heath Miller (66 catches, 761 yards, three touchdowns last year) will serve as the primary targets in the passing game, while rookie Sammie Coates (who tied with Archer for the team-lead in preseason catches with 10) could also be called upon while Bryant is on the sidelines. It'll be interesting to see how the Patriots try and defend Brown; will they shadow him all game with Malcolm Butler and give him help over the top? Or will they keep Butler on the left side, as has been the case throughout the summer? 2. This is a whole new era on defense. Every year over the last decade-plus when talking about the Steelers, Patriots coach Bill Belichick has opened with the same sort of thought on the Pittsburgh defense: they do what they do. That's not a knock on the Steelers, as they have managed to trademark the black-and-blue approach that helped create one of the best defensive runs in recent NFL history. But they've been consistent in their style, approach and scheme, utilizing zone blitzes and their trademark physicality, daring you to beat them. Now, veteran defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is gone, replaced by former linebackers coach Keith Butler. In addition, old warhorses like Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and Brett Keisel are all gone, having departed a defense that ranked in the bottom half of the league in nearly every major statistical category in 2014. While there won't be wholesale philosophical changes, look for them to do a few things a little differently this time around. For one, the D is younger -- the Steelers did infuse their defense with some youth in the offseason with a group that included first-round pick linebacker Bud Dupree and new cornerback Brandon Boykin, who arrived in trade from Philly. (They also took cornerback Senquez Golson in the second, but Golson is out for the year with a shoulder injury.) If you're looking for positives, the Steelers' defensive strength is probably inside linebackers Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier (the former of whom has been limited with a toe issue as of late). There are still some familiar faces there, including James Harrison. But there's no question that the days of the old-school defense of Pittsburgh are done. 3. Given the state of the Steelers' secondary and the New England running game, expect Tom Brady to go right after the Pittsburgh pass defense. Following up on that second point, even with the Patriots a little short at the receiver position (at least until Brandon LaFell is healthy) and without presumed lead back LeGarrette Blount, expect New England to air it out against the Steelers. When it comes to the Pittsburgh pass defense, the preseason returns haven't been good -- in four preseason first halves, the Steelers have allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 80 percent of their passes while compiling an interception-free 122.3 quarterback rating. (In their preseason meeting with Pittsburgh, the Bills' offense finished with 542 yards on seven plays of 20 yards or longer.) This isn't exactly breaking news, but figure Brady and the New England passing will lean on the likes of Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman as the primary targets (as well as Scott Chandler in the red zone) and force Pittsburgh to try and adapt. 4. Without center Maurkice Pouncey, there is an exploitable weaknesses in the middle of Pittsburgh's offensive line. Pittsburgh lost one of the best young centers in the league when Pouncey went down with fractured fibula in the preseason against the Packers. In his place, Pittsburgh will go with Cody Wallace. Wallace has looked OK since stepping in for Pouncey, but the dropoff from a Pro Bowler in Pouncey to a journeyman in Wallace (who is on his fourth team in six seasons in the NFL) is palpable. With the rest of the Pittsburgh offensive line looking pretty stout, look for the Patriots to try and get pressure up the middle. 5. They are middle of the road at best when it comes to special teams. Having lost Shaun Suisham and Garrett Hartley to injury, the Steelers are already on their third kicker since the end of July. They have appeared to settle on Josh Scobee, a perfectly acceptable middle-of-the-road guy who converted 77 percent of his field-goal chances last season. Jordan Berry won the punters' job after edging out veteran Brad Wing after Berry averaged 49.8 yards on 10 punts in the preseason, with a 43.8 net average. As for the return game, there is some uncertainty there, but Mike Tomlin said Saturday that they would utilize Antonio Brown and Dri Archer as kick returners and Archer and Markus Wheaton as punt returners. Last season, Brown was a pretty good punt returner: he had a 71-yard touchdown return against the Bengals and finished the season with three 20-plus-yard returns (and one fumble) on 30 attempts. Meanwhile, Wheaton led the team in kick returns with 20 opportunities, and finished with an average of 24.7 yards per return. DraftKings Kick off this football season with the biggest fantasy football contest ever on DraftKings! Prizes worth $10 million are up for grabs, including $2 million for first AND $1 million for second! PLAY IN THE WEEK 1 MILLIONAIRE MAKER, CLICK HERE.