The offseason is finally behind us Patriots fans, and we can get back to watching football that actually matters. With quarterback Tom Brady shedding his four-game suspension the way Ben Roethlisberger sheds tacklers, I am interested to see how much fire the Patriots play with tonight. That said, here are some concerns moving ahead for New England that everyone will be looking for this evening.
Thank god running back Le’Veon Bell is suspended for this contest, or this Patriots’ defense might have had their hands as full on the ground as they will through the air. Wide receiver Antonio Brown tallied career highs in catches, receiving yards, and touchdowns last season (129 grabs for 1,698 yards and 13 touchdowns) and I expect he will be a huge part of Pittsburgh’s game plan tonight. The new starting cornerbacks for the Patriots are Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan, with either Bradley Fletcher or Tarell Brown seeing time in the slot. With safety Devin McCourty signing a new contract this offseason, he will need to earn every dollar tonight against a passing attack that was one of the league’s best last season.
2. Who will step up in the passing game?
Everyone knows that Julian Edelman is New England’s number one wide receiver and Rob Gronkowski is the best tight end in the NFL. Brandon LaFell, however, will be inactive tonight with a nagging foot injury. On paper, the Steelers’ secondary looks very exploitable, but one of the Danny Amendola/Aaron Dobson combo will have to be accountable and take some of the attention of Pittsburgh’s defensive backs. I’m interested to see who steps up for the Pats tonight, as Amendola was huge for the Patriots in the playoffs, catching 11 passes for 137 yards and three touchdowns.
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3. How big of a factor will the running game be?
With the loss of LaFell, hopefully running back Brandon Bolden can take some of the pressure off of Brady and find some space within the Steelers front seven to carve out yards. Bolden is not going to be LeGarrette Blount, who’s suspended for the opener, and that’s okay. He doesn’t have to tally 100 yards and two touchdowns to be successful, but he needs force Pittsburgh’s linebackers to at least respect the ground game, so that pass rushers like Jarvis Jones and Arthur Moats cannot simply pin their ears back and come after Brady.
4. How will the offensive line hold up?
According to the Patriots’ unofficial depth chart on their website, with Bryan Stork out, Ryan Wendell is listed as both the starting center and right guard. While this would be nice, Wendell simply cannot fill two positions. That means either David Andrews will need to step in and start at center, or Josh Kline will take Wendell’s spot at right guard. The offensive line is a huge key to success for the Patriots, as Brady needs time to look for receivers downfield, and Bolden needs some holes to open up in the ground attack.
5. What will the pass rush look like for the Patriots?
Last season, defensive end Chandler Jones missed six regular season games for the Pats, before returning and helping them win a Super Bowl. After a full offseason of recovery time, hopefully Jones can come back and be the force up front that he was in 2013, when he recorded 11.5 sacks. Also, will the two first-round selections of Malcom Brown and Dominique Easley see playing time tonight? With Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey out with an ankle injury, the interior of that offensive line might be able to be exploited.
All-in-all, I think a very motivated Pats team that is looking to put a cluttered offseason behind them beats the Steelers by 10 points, 35-25. I am particularly interested in seeing our front seven in action, as its been rare to have Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins on the field at the same time. Regardless, I think New England picks up its first W of the season tonight.