The New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers kick off the 2015 NFL season on Thursday night in Foxboro; the game will be broadcast on NBC with Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth and Michelle Tafoya on the call.
Kickoff is slated for 8:30 p.m. and advanced weather forecasts call for periods of heavy rain with some lightning possible.
The Patriots will drop the Super Bowl banner prior to the game and coupled with the fact that Tom Brady’s suspension was vacated in Deflategate, the atmosphere in Gillette is expected to be electric.
Here are three players from each team to watch in Thursday night’s game:
Tom Brady: With all that he’s gone thru both in the lead-up to and following the Super Bowl during the off-season with Deflategate, the toll it had to take on him was enormous. Now he can focus on just football and attempting to defend the Super Bowl title.
His friends and those close to him say that he’s ticked off and ready to prove naysayers wrong once again. One constant through the years has been that a ticked off Brady is a motivated and sharp one. This will be an interesting game to watch unfold.
Rob Gronkowski: The big man is entering this season as healthy as he’s been in the last several. Pittsburgh has already gone on record as stating that he will be their focus in trying to stop the Patriots offense.
Gronkowski is by far the best overall tight end in the game today, and he’ll be putting pressure on the Steelers secondary, who will attempt to chip him and play physical at the line to try to slow him down and throw off the timing between him and Brady.
Gronk could be in line for a big game on the national stage on Thursday night.
Malcolm Butler: Butler has had quite the year; he went from an UDFA from West Alabama to making the team out of training camp to being a Super Bowl hero. Now with Darrelle Revis gone, he’s moving into Revis’ spot at left cornerback for the Patriots.
While no one can replace a Revis, the comparisons are going to be made all season and Butler will be firmly under the microscope. Every pass completion will be dissected closely and he’ll be scrutinized like no other 2nd year player as he attempts now to become an every down solid cornerback.
He had a fantastic summer but now the games are for real and he’s facing one of the biggest threats in the league in Antonio Brown. This is his first test and it is a major one. But after watching him for the past 14 months, our bets are on him being just fine.
Antonio Brown: Brown had a phenomenal year in 2014, catching 129 passes for 1698 yards and 13 touchdowns from QB Ben Roethlisberger. The duo was one of the top combinations in the NFL and Brown has become Big Ben’s go-to guy.
Brown can do it all; from bubble screens and shallow crossing routes underneath to intermediate plays along the sideline and across the intermediate area in the middle of the field to the deep ball. He seems to always time his leap on the deep jump ball perfectly belying his height of 5’10, making him seem much taller.
The Patriots defensive philosophy is always to take away the opponent’s best offensive weapon and make them beat you with complimentary players. With Brown that will be easier said than done. But expect the Patriots to give him plenty of attention on the field with Butler and some over the top help.
Ryan Shazier: The 2nd year linebacker from Ohio State may be tasked with covering Gronkowski at times for the Steelers defense. Shazier, 6’2, 229 is a slightly undersized but very athletic linebacker in the remade Steelers defense.
Shazier should be a big focal point in the Steelers defense against New England this week, as he’ll be asked to use his athleticism to cover a lot of ground underneath where the Patriots like to attack.
“He’s a huge guy with a great catch radius and he knows how to make plays,” said Shazier to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, on Gronkowski. “Brady and he have been playing together for years and they have amazing chemistry. He’s just a really good player with a great quarterback.”
Cody Wallace: The Steelers back-up center will have some big shoes to fill in replacing starting center Maurkice Pouncey who had ankle surgery and will be out until Week 9. Wallace bounced around a bit before finding a home in Pittsburgh and has had starts at center and guard since arriving in 2013.
He’ll have to not only try to replace the physical Pouncey ‘s production but in calling out the signals for the offensive line and maintaining the communication in the blocking schemes. Look for Bill Belichick to test him with some delayed A-gap blitzes from both Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins this week.
Stay tuned to PatsFans.com and we’ll have post-game analysis of the opener as well as transcripts from Bill Belichick’s press conference immediately after the game.
Posted Under: Patriots Commentary
Tags: 2015 NFL Preseason 2015 NFL Season Antonio Brown Ben Roethlisberger Chandler Jones Cody Wallace Malcolm Butler New England Patriots Patriots Patriots edge rushers Pittsburgh Steelers Rob Gronkowski Ryan Shazier Tom Brady