The Patriots 2015 season kicks off with a Thursday night prime time match-up against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The will be televised nationally by NBC with Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth on the call and Michelle Tafoya handling sideline duties. Kickoff is slated for 8:30 p.m.
The Steelers (11-5) have one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL. QB Ben Roethlisberger set career records for attempts (608), completions (408), yards with 4952 and tied his touchdown record with 32 in 2014. His 106-52 record as a starting quarterback is fourth best among active QBs putting in the company of Brady, Manning and Rodgers. His start on Thursday will make him the all-time leader in QB starts in franchise history.
The defense is going through a transition period with the departures of long-time defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, as well as long-time Steelers Troy Polamalu, Brett Keisel and Ike Taylor. The onus now by new coordinator Keith Butler will be on fast, athletic players and having their defensive linemen tee off and come after the quarterback. It may take them time to gel as a unit with so many changes in both personnel and philosophy.
Here are our Five First Impressions of the Steelers:
Bell, Brown and Ben Cornerstones of the Offense: The Steelers have arguably the best offensive trio of QB, WR and RB of any team in the NFL, led by RB Le’Veon Bell, Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown.
They mark a very impressive trio that vaulted the Steelers to the #2 offense in the NFL last season. Bell won’t play on Thursday, having to serve a three-game suspension for a DUI arrest and drug possession charges. Although he’ll be missed, former Panther DeAngelo Williams and Dri Archer still give them a formidable duo.
Brown’s 129 catches last season were the second most in NFL history for a single season. He’s Roethlisberger’s go-to guy and with Markus Wheaton and newcomer Sammie Coates, the Steelers have plenty of speed outside. The venerable Heath Miller returns for an 11th season, providing Roethlisberger with a reliable safety valve.
Allen Replaces Thomas At Safety: Pittsburgh announced that 12-year vet Will Allen will replace Shamarko Thomas at strong safety this week and play opposite free safety Mike Mitchell. Thomas, the 3rd year safety was originally drafted to replace Polamalu but has struggled this preseason.
He allowed a 31-yard scoring play against the Jaguars, as well as a 67-yard scoring play against the Bills and a 49-yard touchdown run versus Carolina where he missed a key tackle. He still may see the field in some sub-packages on Thursday.
Allen and Mitchell will be tasked with stopping the Patriots tight end tandem of Gronkowski and Chandler which will be one area of interest to watch in this week’s game.
Offensive Line, Once a Weakness, Now a Position of Strength: The Steelers offensive line for years took a lot of flak, some of it deservedly so for their play in protecting Roethlisberger. But part of the reason was that the big QB would hold the ball for incredibly long stretches trying to allow plays to develop. While many big plays developed, Roethlisberger also took a terrific beating.
Now with an improved offensive line, perhaps the best in his time in Pittsburgh and a passing game of OC Todd Haley that is keyed on his getting the ball out quicker, the offense has thrived.
Maurkice Pouncey anchors the line at center, although he’s hurt now and will miss the first eight weeks of the season. But Big Ben’s blindside is firmly protected by left tackle Kelvin Beachum and left guard Ramon Foster. Beachum is a good story, a 7th round pick who worked his way into a job and has been steadily improving. The right side is held down by T Marcus Gilbert and G David DeCastro.
This is a very solid unit and will provide a great test for the Patriots new improved front seven this week.
Change in Philosophy on Defense Still Working Out Kinks: The zone blitzes of the Steelers defense under Dick LeBeau was known as Blitzburg. But he’s gone, now in Tennessee and former LB coach Keith Butler has had to retool on the fly.
Instead of the two-gap responsibilities of the past, this Steelers defensive line will probably get after the quarterback in a more aggressive style.Cameron Heyward had a breakout season last year and Stephon Tuitt will have to fill big shoes with Keisel retiring. Steve McClendon leads a group of large bodies in the interior with Daniel McCullers, Clifton Geathers and Cam Thomas.
The linebacking group will have to pick up the slack in the pass rush department with James Harrison, Arthur Moats, Lawrence Timmons, Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier and newcomer Bud Dupree.
The Steelers secondary was a problem, compounded by a weaker pass rush in 2014. They’re most probably going to use a Cover-2/Tampa-2 system to cut down on the big plays that they gave up last season. In the Tampa-2, the safeties and MLB drop and cover the deeper part of the field to take away the deep ball, but against New England with a shorter passing game, which is very effective against that, we may see some other looks. But the secondary of Cortez Allen, William Gay, Mitchell and Allen will be under the microscope early this season.
Feel Good Story, Army Ranger Villanueva Makes Roster: The Steeler have a big offensive lineman that made the roster this season. Huge 6’9, 335 pound Alejandro Villanueva made the initial 53-man roster out of training camp.
Villanueva is a West Point graduate and served in the 1st Ranger Bn at Hunter Army Airfield as well as in the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division. He earned a Bronze Star for Valor while rushing to the aid of pinned down fellow soldiers under fire in Afghanistan.
He gained 90 pounds from his military weight of 245 due to a strict workout and his wife’s cooking. He’s a versatile player who can play multiple positions and has impressed the Pittsburgh coaches with his work ethic and professionalism, hallmarks of a military officer.
He was signed to the Steelers practice squad last August and earned his way onto the 53-man roster this season. Note to the Patriots coaches….there ARE other services other than the Navy…