Scouting report: What you have to know about Steelers-Patriots

September 09, 2015 - 4:07 pm
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[caption id="attachment_97027" align="alignright" width="400"]Expect a shootout Thursday night in Foxboro.  (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images) Expect a shootout Thursday night in Foxboro when Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady meet. (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)[/caption] Here's what you have to know when it comes to Thursday's Steelers-Patriots regular-season opener at Gillette Stadium: WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN THE BALL There's so much unknown going into the opener, but when it comes to this matchup, the ground games really are wild cards. The Patriots do not have the two between-the-tackles backs who started the summer on their roster. (LeGarrette Blount is suspended for the opener, while Jonas Gray was cut and is in South Florida with the Dolphins.) Instead, there's Brandon Bolden, a backup who has made more of an impact on special teams the last few seasons, and three third-down backs in James White, Dion Lewis and Travaris Cadet, Given the fact that Cadet didn't play in the preseason, he'll likely be a non-factor as he continues to get up to speed. That leaves White, a youngster who still is finding his way in the NFL, Lewis and Bolden. Expect the latter two to get the bulk of the touches. (It'll be interesting to see if Bolden's work in the running game impacts his reps on special teams, where he's become a force over the last year-plus.) Lewis has six carries in the preseason and has had 36 total in his two-plus seasons in the NFL, so don't expect him to be banging it up in there on Thursday night. Ultimately, the game plan will be to run the ball just enough to keep the Steelers on their toes. If the Pats go to the ground more than 20 times on the night, it's only because they have a big lead and are looking to grind out the clock via a four-minute offense down the stretch. WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS THE BALL This is the most winnable matchup for New England. The Steelers were at or near the bottom of most major categories in pass defense last year, and despite a sizable defensive overhaul that saw them chase after a lot of younger defenders in free agency and the draft, the disparate parts are in the process of coming together at this point. (Bill Belichick indicated there's a slight shift in defensive philosophy in Pittsburgh, as it goes from Dick LeBeau's schemes to one impacted more by the background of head coach Mike Tomlin, more of a modified Tampa 2 scheme.) The early issues for a defense that has one of the league's worst pass rush/defensive back combos at this point, combined with the fact that the unquestioned strength of the New England offense heading into the season is the passing game, points to a pass-heavy attack for the Patriots. Expect lots of four-wide sets as New England will try to spread things out with short and intermediate passes to targets like Rob Gronkowski, Scott Chandler, Julian Edelman and Dion Lewis. As for the Steelers'€™ indication that they will attempt to jam Gronk off the line, the Patriots will rely on pre-snap movement and some different positioning (split him wide, ideally against a linebacker) to create situations where he might be able to avoid as much contact off the line as possible. One other guy who could be poised to make some noise is youngster Aaron Dobson. The Marshall product had the game of his life two years ago against the Steelers (five catches, 130 yards, two touchdowns), and given the fact that he's the only true deep threat on the roster and Pittsburgh yielded 11 pass plays of 20 yards or more in the preseason, he'€™ll likely be targeted a few times on the night by Brady. WHEN THE STEELERS RUN THE BALL The Patriots catch a massive break here, as do-everything back Le'Veon Bell will be sidelined for the opener because of a suspension. Bell wasn't only the second-best rusher in the league last season with 1,361 yards, he was one of two backs to finish with at least 80 carries and 80 catches. In his place, the Steelers will roll out DeAngelo Williams, who has had his moments in the league over the last few seasons but is nowhere near the overwhelming offensive presence Bell can be. (Williams had 62 carries for 219 yards with Carolina last year.) Scatback Dri Archer likely also will see some touches in a Swiss army knife sort of role, as the 5-foot-8, 173-pounder, who also is a special teamer, does well when he operates in space. With Bell, a game-changing threat who demands attention on every snap, on the sideline Thursday evening, the running game is not an area of strength for the Steelers. WHEN THE STEELERS PASS THE BALL Like the Patriots, this is where the Steelers will try to make up the difference. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is coming off one of the finest seasons of his career (67 percent completion rate, an NFL-best 4,952 passing yards, 32 TDs, nine INTs, 103.3 passer rating), and he will have a nice variety of options. Wide receiver Antonio Brown (129 catches, 1,698 yards, 13 touchdowns last year) can beat opponents on short, intermediate and deep routes, and will test the remade New England cornerback grouping of Malcolm Butler and Tarell Brown. You remember that deep ball stat from the preseason regarding the Steelers pass defense? It isn't much better in New England. While six of the pass plays for 20-plus yards came against the Saints when the Patriots were noodling with the idea of moving Devin McCourty to corner, New England yielded 15 pass plays of 20 yards or more in the preseason. (Brown has caught five-plus passes for 50-plus yards in a league-record 33 straight games. Yikes.) Tight end Heath Miller (66 catches, 761 yards, three touchdowns last year) is another Roethlisberger favorite, and given the Patriots' occasional struggles with talented pass-catching tight ends over the last few seasons, he will be an attractive option for the quarterback. Again, like the Patriots, perhaps the biggest question here is the state of the offensive line. Pittsburgh will be without starting center Maurkice Pouncey, and while the rest of the offensive line has been pretty stout, there could be some areas of weakness up front. If the Patriots are going to be able to get consistent pressure on Roethlisberger, it could come up the gut in the form of the A-gap blitzes that Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower executed so well last season, or pressure from the likes of defensive lineman Dominique Easley. SPECIAL TEAMS A positive for the Patriots. Pittsburgh is on its third kicker of the year, and the season hasn't even started yet. The Steelers have settled on Josh Scobee, a veteran who converted 77 percent of his field goal chances last season. Jordan Berry won the punter's job after edging out veteran Brad Wing in the preseason. Meanwhile, there's some uncertainty around the return game; as late as earlier this week Mike Tomlin was being coy about who was going to get the bulk of the work. (Our guess is some combination of Brown and Archer.) On the other side of the ball, the Patriots are established as one of the most consistent special teams units in the game. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski, punter Ryan Allen and returners Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman were at or near the top of the league in most major categories in 2014. A clear edge here for New England. THE PATRIOTS ARE IN TROUBLE IF ... the Steelers are able to get Brown cranked up for a big night, and if Pittsburgh can find a way to shut down Gronkowski. Brown is going to get the post-Revis era started with a bang in New England. One thing to keep an eye on is whether or not the Patriots utilize Malcolm Butler on one side (he was on the left all summer long) or if he ends up shadowing Brown in man coverage. Regardless, if the usual Belichick attitude of trying to shut down the opponent's No. 1 offensive option holds to form, look for New England to focus all its attention on slowing Brown. THE STEELERS ARE IN TROUBLE IF ... the Patriots can get Gronkowski cranked up for a big night and if New England can find a way to shut down Brown. (Notice a theme here?) One thing that really stands out about Gronkowski and his performances against the Steelers is his catch rate. In three career games against Pittsburgh he's been targeted 24 times and has come away with 21 catches. (That includes 309 passing yards and four touchdown catches.) Part of that has to do with a jaw-dropping catch radius, but it also speaks to some of the issues the Steelers have had in the past when it comes to trying to defend Gronkowski. BY THE NUMBERS: 23 -- When the Patriots have scored that many points under Bill Belichick, they are 160-12. That includes going 13-0 last year, including the playoffs. (Courtesy Ryan Hannable) UNDER-THE-RADAR PERFORMER: He's not the sort of guy the Patriots specifically game-plan to try to stop, but Miller has been pretty consistent when facing New England -- he's caught at least four balls in each of his last five games against the Patriots. Without Bell in the lineup and given the extensive background between Miller and Roethlisberger, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Steelers try to work him into the mix as early as possible. QUOTE OF NOTE: "It's time for me to do my job. Like I said, anything that's happened over the last seven months really wasn't my job. This is what my job is, is to go out there and try to be a great leader for our team, to try to go out and execute the plays that are called and execute them at a high level. That's where my focus is." -- Brady on his focus after seven months of enduring Deflategate drama PREDICTION: Despite the fact that each team is down a starting running back, there's going to be a lot of offense in this one. And while the Patriots secondary remains a sizable question mark -- particularly when it comes to trying to defend Brown -- there are even bigger issues on the Pittsburgh side of the ball. While the Steelers devoted considerable resources to trying to fix the secondary this past offseason, the three defensive backs they selected in the draft aren't expected to dress Thursday, and one of their biggest free agent pickups (cornerback Brandon Boykin) is struggling to crack the starting lineup. You put all this against a backdrop of a potentially vengeful Tom Brady facing a team he's had great success against in the past (the last three times Brady has faced Pittsburgh, he's put up an average of 37 points per game), and it could be a long night for the Steelers secondary. Pittsburgh will get its yards and points, but the Patriots are going to win the shootout. Our call: Patriots 35, Steelers 21. 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.