by Jeff Kane
Follow Jeff on Twitter @BostonFatGuy
Thursday night at roughly 8:40 eastern time, the New England Patriots will kick off the defense of their Super Bowl 49 title against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Patriots have had a crazy off-season, from free agency and having to rebuild a secondary, to the deflategate saga. Now its time to turn the page to 2015.
Thursday’s game versus the Steelers, pits two of last years best offenses against each other. Both defenses are under some serious change, the Steelers with Dick Lebeau being replaced and the Patriots with the secondary overhaul. The championship banner will be raised and then kickoff and the Patriots and Steelers will start their run to Super Bowl XL.
Bill Belichick vs Mike Tomlin.
Belichick is arguably the best coach in the NFL, perhaps the best of all time. Four Lombardi trophies tie him with Chuck Knoll for most all time. Tomlin has been to two Super Bowls himself, winning one and losing another. All season long the Patriots should have the edge.
When the Patriots Pass
Tom Brady will start the season after winning his appeal of his four game suspension. Brady should have that chip on his shoulder that he has had since being picked in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL Draft. The Patriots return stalwarts Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, which helped New England end a ten season championship drought. They will be joined by Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson and new comer Scott Chandler to form a very good passing team. The issues with the team could be at the X reciever where Dobson will try to develop a chemistry with Brady, that Brandon LaFell had during last season’s run. The offensive line will also be without second year center Bryan Stork. Stork was able to help solidify the Pats line last season and his placement on injured reserve with a designation to return hurts the team. Losing pass catching back Shane Vereen could hurt, Dion Lewis and James White will need to be up to the task for the offense to move freely. In 2014 the Steelers ranked 27 in the NFL in passing yards against giving up 253 per game. The secondary remains the same minus Troy Polamalu who retired following last season. In the past the Patriots have spread out the Steelers and given their 3-4 defense fits. While the coaching on Pitts defense has changed the basic principles remain the same.
When the Steelers Pass.
Ben Roethlisberger had a great 2014 season and is very underrated in some NFL circles. Wide Receiver Antonio Brown had a breakout season in 2013 catching 110 passes from Big Ben. He followed it up with 129 last season. Marcus Wheaton will be the second wide out for the Steelers and he is no slouch catching 53 passes last year. Ageless wonder Heath Miller continues to be a viable option at tight end. An injury to Marcus Pouncey robs Pittsburgh of its best offensive lineman. The key match-up will be Brown versus Super Bowl Hero Malcolm Butler. Brown was dynamic last season as his 129 catches for 1698 yards and 13 scores can attest. Butler hopes to build on his Super Bowl and become a true great corner. The other corners for the Patriots Brown and Bradley Fletcher will need to play solid against the other pass catchers so that the Patriots can give Butler help over the top.
When the Patriots Run
No Legarrette Blount will be a problem for the Patriots trying to run the ball. However as stated above the Patriots will most likely throw the ball. When they do try and run the Patriots will have a mixed bag. Brandon Bolden will most likely get the first down carries, when the Patriots are in traditional run sets. Bolden is a great special teams player but a fringe running back at best. With James White and Dion Lewis also getting carries the Patriots will compliment the short passing game with the run. The issue may be the offensive line. Without Stork things will get moved around. Ryan Wendall could see time at center or guard. Shaq Mason played well in the run game this preseason at left guard but it may be too early to push him into the fire. If Wendall is at guard, it will be David Andrews starting at center, with Tre Jackson at right guard. The Steelers were sixth in the league in rush defense last year, allowing 100.3 yards per game, however they allowed 4.4 yards per rush. The Patriots wont try to run much but when they do the Steelers will be ready to slow them down.
When the Steelers Run
There is a reason that Blount will not be lining up for the Patriots this week, and that reason is Le’Veon Bell. Bell and Blount got in a bit of trouble last year and are both suspended. With Bell out former Panthers running back D’Angelo Williams will carry most of the load with Dre Archer backing him up. At 32 Williams is on the downside of his career. The Steelers like the Patriots will most likely try and pass to a victory. The Patriots revamped their front seven in hopes of helping their secondary. The run defense should be solid with youngsters Easley and Brown as defensive tackles with Jabaal Sheard Chandler Jones and Rob Nickovich setting the Edge. With a healthy Jerod Mayo, Jamie Collins and Donta Hightower at linebacker the front seven will be aggressive against the pass and run.
The Patriots will be opening at home with a ruckus crowd fired up by the return of Tom Brady and the rasing of the Championship banner. It will be very hard for the Steelers to match the Patriots intensity on Thursday. Final score prediction Patriots 42, Steelers 24. For more on this game you can listen to my podcast Patriots Beat.