We finally made it!
The dark days of the offseason are finally behind us and as was pointed out on Twitter by multiple people, there are now no more weekends without football left in the decade. Of course those are both things that were known well ahead of time, but the one thing that changed this year: your defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots do not play in the opening Thursday game, with the NFL instead opting to showcase them on Sunday night.
As the Patriots prepare for the game against the Steelers, it is important to remember this is the first game and there may be some rust. As we know the Patriots are more vulnerable in the first four or so games of the season, but even so are by no means easy to beat.
Here are some things to watch for in Week 1:
1st Down: Going into this year there is some uncertainty in the Patriots’ offense with the loss of Rob Gronkowski. Although he was huge in the passing game do not underestimate his impact on the running game and the fact his presence on the field could still result in a run because of his superior blocking. That being said, I would still expect the run game to be a big part of the team this year, but no more than usual. Sony Michel is due for a big year after another year in the system and should catch more passes too.
On the other side the Steelers should again rely heavily on their passing game with Ben Roethlisberger still under center. They also should get another big year from tailback James Conner who looks a step quicker this year as he prepares for another heavy workload. Conner plays behind what is easily a top 10 offensive line and should be a big factor in every game both on the ground and in the air. Look for Benny Snell to eventually get some run to spell Conner as well though, as Snell has some power to his game and is a good runner between the tackles.
2nd Down: Despite both teams valuing the run game, both teams love to attack through the air. The Steelers last season were 2nd in the entire league in passing yards per game, but lose Antonio Brown. There is a solid chance that they actually improve even losing the far superior player considering all the off field baggage Brown brought. Juju Smith-Schuster is a definite number one, but how will he fair with offseason pickup Donte Moncrief on the other side as opposed to Antonio Brown, who you always had to double? I’d bet the Patriots place Gilmore on Moncrief and double Smith-Schuster with McCourty and help over the top as they sometimes do.
On the other side the Patriots offense which lacked wideouts at the start of camp now looks to be in good shape with Julian Edelman healthy, Josh Gordon back from suspension and Demariyus Thomas looking good in the last preseason game. Tom Brady does not have Gronk, but that trio is good enough and they should get a lot from their backs in the passing game. Last year the Patriots were 8th in the NFL in passing yards per game and similar production is not out of reach. I expect Michel to have a big year in the passing game, Rex Burkhead should see a little run, and of course the best third down back in the business James White is also there. The Steelers defense is fast (more on that later), but I’d expect the Patriots offense to come out flying and being very physical at the point of attack.
3rd Down: Although offense is important, we know both clubs will be good offensively. The real question is how the defenses will perform. The Patriots should be among the tops in the game with an extremely deep secondary, an athletic and fast linebacking core, and a defensive line and edge group that can pressure the quarterback at will. Michael Bennett is the big acquisition meant to try and replace the production of Trey Flowers, but John Simon, Chase Winovich, Danny Shelton, and Jamie Collins are guys I am looking at that are not big in name, but could really make a difference even in limited snaps in this defense. Shelton in particular is a guy who came into camp in great shape and won a spot with his ability to get up field.
On the other side the Steelers possess a much faster and more athletic linebacking crew with the addition of Mark Barron and Devin Bush, who is my co-favorite to win Defensive Rookie of the Year (along with Josh Allen from Jacksonville). Both should add a lot over the middle of the field in both the run and pass, as well as a level of physicality that will challenge the crossers, option routes, and yards after catch the Patriots to tap into.
Along that same though the Steelers should also be able to generate a good amount of pressure and the Patriots need to be ready for that. TJ Watt is ready to explode and could finish somewhere around 15 sacks if he takes the next step, Cam Heyward is brutal to block without doubling and especially stout against the run, and Stephon Tuitt is a force at the point of attack. The Patriots need to run the ball early and get their offensive line in the game with some physicality against a tough front seven. If they can do that, the play action should be open later, but either way it’ll buy Brady some time and the Steelers secondary is their weak point. Look for Brady to attack newcomer Steven Nelson and Artie Burns routinely no matter who they draw.
4th Down: Don’t overlook the special teams of both these teams. The kicking game especially as Chris Boswell is a potential weak link. Boswell missed seven field goals and five extra points last year, while Stephen Gostkowski missed just five field goals and one extra point. The Steelers also struggled with their punt unit finishing 26th in net yardage, something the Patriots could take advantage of with Julian Edelman back as returner.
Prediction: Patriots 27 – Steelers 17
Patriots get the home win to start the season on the back of a power run game and a stout defense as they collect two turnovers and celebrate their new banner in style.
–David Albiani is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @david_albiani