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TNF – Steelers at Patriots
By Tony Mejia
Although there were times this summer where it looked impossible, Tom Brady will lead his New England Patriots out of the huddle on their first offensive possession when the NFL regular season opens on Thursday night.
The defending champs are a seven-point favorite at most books, while the projected total hovers around 52. The announcement that Brady’s suspension had been revoked by a New York federal judge last week saw this spread jump from New England laying a field goal at home to a full touchdown or more.
“Deflategate,” amusing diversion for the insane and annoying distraction to everyone else, still has at least one more chapter left. Fortunately, what’s left to be written no longer ominously hangs above the 2015 opener like a dark cloud. Regardless of whether you believe the Patriots have been unjustly persecuted or just got away with their latest crime of the century, it’s undeniable that the judicial decision to revoke Brady’s four-game suspension makes for a much better show.
This pairing, which could very well repeat itself in late January as the AFC Championship, already lost some of its luster with Pittsburgh running back Le’Veon Bell serving the first of a two-game suspension. Instead of second-year pro Jimmy Garoppolo taking snaps, Brady will duel with Ben Roethlisberger in a matchup of two of the game’s best passers. The showdown salvages a season opener that was headed down the road where we’d all be preoccupied by the missing, lamenting what should have been.
For the Patriots, the band is back together, albeit missing a few pieces. Deep threat Brandon LaFell opens the season on the PUP list, sidelined at least the first six games with a foot injury. RB LeGarrette Blount will serve a one-game suspension for a substance-abuse violation, but both are replaceable.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski, among the NFL’s most unique and explosive offensive weapons, is 100 percent after missing the entire preseason to stay fresh. Julian Edelman, banged up early last month and throughout training camp, is ready to go as Brady’s No. 1 receiver. There are new toys like 6-foot-7 tight end Scott Chandler and undrafted rookie Chris Harper, who could also be asked to make an impact in the return game. Veteran Danny Amendola, in addition to young options Matthew Slater and Aaron Dobson, give the Patriots plenty of threats.
New England’s most significant injury concern, center Bryan Stork, remains mired in the NFL’s concussion protocol and may not play after missing three consecutive practices entering Wednesday. The Patriots are 13-3 in his starts when you include the postseason. If he can’t go, veteran Ryan Wendell, still working his way back from offseason shoulder surgery, would be an option to step in. Undrafted rookie David Andrews out of Georgia would be another way to go. Neither is likely to be as effective Stork, who won a national title at Florida State and a Super Bowl in a 13-month span in addition to a Rimington Trophy as the nation’s top college center while snapping to redshirt freshman Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston.
Compounding his potential absence is the fact Brady will be getting a look at the first Steelers defense to be run by someone other than Dick LeBeau in 11 years. The veteran coordinator is in Tennessee now, giving way to protégé Keith Butler, the team’s long-time linebackers coach. Since he may have a wrinkle or three in place, Brady will have to be wary as a guinea pig of sorts given how little Pittsburgh gave away in the preseason in terms of blitz packages and disguised coverages. This defense will be hungry to establish a new identity given the retirement of long-time mainstays Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and Jason Worilds. Young playmakers Ryan Shazier, Cam Heyward and Bud Dupree will be tasked with making contributions on the road at Gillette Stadium.
The Patriots have won eight of the last 11 meetings between these teams, including five of the last seven over the last decade. Roethlisberger won the first head-to-head meeting with Brady in 2004, snapping the Patriots amazing 21-game winning streak. The Steelers went 15-1 that year, but lost the AFC Championship at home to New England, which went on to win another Super Bowl.
These teams go way back. Brady and Roethlisberger do too. Both are highly complimentary of one another, so even during a week where many are again questioning how large a role cheating has played during this era of dominance, don’t expect any bulletin board material from the Steelers quarterback, who Brady called “an incredible player” earlier this week. Roethlisberger has never beaten a Brady-led team in New England, but Bill Belichick was also effusive in his praise of Roethlisberger, breaking from his typically tight-lipped character to proclaim that his Patriots won’t see a better quarterback on the schedule all season.
Roethlisberger’s task is made no easier by the absence of Bell, perhaps the most dynamic option out of the backfield in the entire league. Also missing is emerging receiving threat Martavis Bryant, a burner who scored eight touchdowns on just 26 receptions as a rookie last season. He’s suspended for four games, but Pittsburgh is confidence that Darrius Heyward-Bey, Markus Wheaton, Dri Archer and rookie Sammie Coates will ensure no drastic dropoff alongside superstar Antonio Brown. The same can’t be realistically expected of Bell’s replacement, new acquisition DeAngelo Williams, the long-time Carolina starter. He’s not the blocker or receiving threat out of the backfield that Bell is, but his experience is reassuring given the circumstances.
The Steelers also have uncertainty in play at the center spot, having lost four-time Pro Bowler Maurkice Pouncey to a broken fibula on Aug. 23. It’s no coinicdence that the last time the Steelers lost his services for the season, they manged to go just 8-8, tied for the worst mark of Mike Tomlin’s head coaching tenure. Pouncey isn’t eligible to return until Week 9 at the earliest, leaving snapping duties to Cody Wallace and potentially veteran Doug Legursky. Both are serviceable, but neither is of Pouncey’s caliber.
Evening thunderstorms are a possibility in the weather forecast, so keep tabs on that. NBC will have the broadcast with Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth on the call.