Here we are at last, only a few days away from the NFL opening game between the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers. To fans of the NFL, this day is one of the most precious and anticipated events on the NFL calendar, and this year we have a cracking match-up.
The Patriots versus the Steelers seems like a match made in heaven for fans of high-scoring games. The Patriots are without the services of star cornerback Darelle Revis and a whole host of other veteran cornerbacks, whilst the Steelers are in the midst of transitioning to a new defensive scheme under a new coordinator. Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger must be licking their chops.
Now, there would be nothing more pleasing to Steelers’ fans worldwide and nothing more deflating to Patriots fans for the Steelers to run away with a win on opening day against the reigning Superbowl Champs. So, let's discuss what the Steelers will need to do in order to steal the Patriots’ thunder come Thursday.
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It's All On Big Ben!
The Steelers' signal caller will have to be on top of his game on Thursday, not only will he be attempting to take advantage of a weak Patriots secondary but he will also be covering for a weak, in-flux, Steeler defense.
Ben Roethlisberger will likely have the blessed task of consistently putting up points, as I don't see the Steelers' defense shutting down Brady all too often. Roethlisberger has to get the ball out quickly to playmakers Antonio Brown and Markus Wheaton in order to avoid the Patriots’ stellar pass rush.
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With Maurkice Pouncey out of the game, on the line signals will also be an added responsibility for Roethlisberger. If the Steelers’ offense fails to consistently outscore the Patriots I don't see them winning this game so, unfortunately, this is a season the Steelers cannot afford to start off slow. Ben Roethlisberger has to get this offense off to a red-hot start early, and keep it that way until Brady solemnly shuffles off to his losing locker room.
Covering Gronk & Putting Brady on the Floor
There are only two things I want to see the Steelers defense do on Thursday, and these two things, if done, will lead to a Steeler victory: Cover Rob Gronkowski and sack Tom Brady!
Rob Gronkowski is a man amongst boys when he is fired up, and I'm pretty sure hosting opening day in Foxboro after winning the Super Bowl will have him fired up plenty. This delivers a difficult challenge to the Steelers, and it’s a challenge they have fallen victim to way too often, covering the tight end.
Leaving a fired up Rob Gronkowski wide open in ways they did with Julius Thomas, Charles Clay, and Clay Harbour during the pre-season, is not going to win them any games, especially not this one. Rob Gronkowski must be covered at all costs. I don't care if you double or triple cover him, he must be eliminated from the Patriots’ offense sooner rather than later because he can take it to the house on any given play, not with his speed, but with his strength.
In my opinion, I would have Ryan Shazier shadow Gronkowski throughout the game, a huge challenge for the young linebacker, but he has the speed and agility to keep up with Gronkowski and make plays on any passes coming his way. A combination of Ryan Shazier and Mike Mitchell could do the trick in stopping the machine known as Rob Gronkowski.
Now, sacking Tom Brady is just as challenging as covering Gronkowski, and not just because of Brady's lighting speed (ha ha). No, in all seriousness though, sacking Tom Brady is a huge challenge.
The four-time Super Bowl winner may not move like Michael Vick, but he does have the awareness and smarts to shift around the pocket and avoid pressure. He also has one of the fastest releases in the league, meaning he knows where he wants to throw the ball and he's going to do it quickly.
So, if the rare occurrence happens that the Steelers’ secondary covers the receivers well enough, and Brady has not zipped the ball out of his hand instantly and is left there dancing, I want to see black and gold jerseys swarm him. Think of any big games Brady has lost in his career, it’s because of the pass rush; if you hit Brady his game takes a hit too (example: Kansas City game last year).
If the Steelers’ defense can get to Tom Brady and lay some hits on him as well as covering Rob Gronkowski, then the chances of beating the Superbowl Champs increases big time.
Antonio Brown aka Sticky Bun
I had to throw in that nickname from the Madden advert because it's hilarious. Anyway, yes, Antonio Brown needs to bring his A-game to this match, not only to prove all those doubters who think he isn't the best receiver in the league wrong, but also because that Patriots’ secondary is begging to be run wild on.
Antonio Brown has yet to be shut down by an NFL secondary, he has 32 consecutive games with five catches for 50-yards... I'm not making that up. I doubt the Patriots will, or can, stop him, so it's not crazy for me to want Antonio Brown to have ten catches for over 100 yards and a pair of TD's. If he shows up and has a game close or even better than what I'm asking for, it will surely put the Steelers in a position to win.
Hold The Line
As I mentioned earlier, the Patriots boast a stellar pass rush. It may not be due to a single elite rusher, but the Patriots’ front seven all have the ability to get at the quarterback. Bill Belichik uses the athleticism and versatility of his linebackers to create numerous blitz packages that come from multiple formations. Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones are particularly skilled players that must be accounted for at all times.
This brings me to the Steelers’ offensive line. These guys need to work together to keep Ben Roethlisberger protected, this is a difficult task but one that, if accomplished, will lead to a Steeler victory. We saw what can happen when Roethlisberger is protected well, the Colts game was a fine example of this. Granted Maurkice Pouncey was playing that game, but I think new starter Cody Wallace has worked with the first team line long enough to hold the line well in this one.
In a game surrounded by emotion and celebration for the Patriots, the Steelers are trying to play the part of the party-pooper. With Tom Brady's suspension nullified and the Patriots winning their fourth Superbowl a few months back, the Steelers are most definitely going into hostile territory. In the past, Mike Tomlin has always prepared his team brilliantly for the toughest opponents and he needs to do the same for this game.
If the Steelers can go into Foxboro, sack Tom Brady, cover Rob Gronkowski, protect Ben Roethlisberger and allow him to torch the Patriots’ defense along with Antonio Brown, I see no reason why the Steelers can't win this one.
In no way am I saying this game will be easy, because it's not going to be (arguably this could be the Steelers toughest game all year), but if they can accomplish what I set out and beat the Patriots, they will have some serious momentum that will carry with them for the rest of the season. There will be no greater feeling than stealing this one from the Patriots. Oh, and one final thing...
Here We Go Steelers!