SERIES MEMORABLE MOMENT
Patriots 34, Steelers 13
Dec. 9, 2007: Gillette Stadium
There have been many more important games between these two teams than this one, but this one, the Anthony Smith Game, was as highly charged for New England fans as I expect tonight's to be. Tom Brady, Randy Moss and even Jabar Gaffney had their way with the Steelers secondary that day. Smith, of course, had guaranteed a win over the last undefeated team in NFL regular-season history. Mike Tomlin must have this one on his mind, too, because he's tightening up his secondary with Will Allen and Antwon Blake starting instead of Shamarko Thomas and Cortez Allen.
HEAD TO HEAD
Can we expect the Steelers defense to wilt at Gillette Stadium?
Matt Steel: I expect it. The score that comes to mind is 37-19. Two-gap, one gap, 3-4, 4-3, cover 3, cover 2; the concern here is that trying to be so multiple will produce a jack-of-all-trades but masters-of-none defense. At least that is how I expect it to appear early in the season. Too many question marks throughout the defense and too much learning of new techniques and coverages for me to think otherwise.
Jim Wexell: Well, I suppose I can bandy a contrarian point-of-view about here, although it's difficult because we've all watched the Steelers defense play so poorly this preseason and we've all watched Brady carve them up time and again. But that was Dick LeBeau's cover-3 defense with the big cushions. Brady was born to pick that apart. So let's give the new coordinator an edge just on mystery alone. Throw in the fact that New England has three rookies on its O-line, no running backs of whom to speak, and receiver Brandon LaFell (and perhaps Julian Edelman) is injured, and that the Steelers have Batman, James Harrison, to make right a terrible wrong that's been foisted upon the fans of this nation by the cheating Patriots, Roger Goodell and the league's owners. James, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
Can the Steelers get to Tom Brady?
Are you kidding? Brady gets rid of the ball in 2.1 seconds. Well, not all of the time. In fact, in the Steelers' only two wins in nine attempts against Brady, the Steelers sacked him four and three times. They caused him to fumble in each of the 2004 and 2011 regular-season games at Heinz Field. But I'm not so sure the sacks will come off the edge, though. The Patriots are better at tackle than they are inside, presumably, because they're expected to start three rookies -- Shaq Mason, David Andrews and Tre Jackson -- along the interior of their line. That could mean good eatin' for Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, and, hey, new defensive coordinator Keith Butler's trying his best to get his boys there with four anyway. Could be a great storyline if the two tackles get to Brady. Ryan Shazier is a dart coming up the middle, too, so those rookies will have plenty to figure out.
THREE QUESTIONS: With QB Ben Roethlisberger
Q: What will be the key to executing in that jacked-up environment?
BR: "I think the biggest thing is to control your emotion, because there is going to be a lot of emotion flowing. The nerves will be flying around, even for guys like myself that have done it for a long time will be nervous. It’s how fast can you get rid of the jitters and nerves and just play football."
Q: What have you seen on tape from their defense?
BR: "Compared to last year it’s different because of their cornerbacks. Last year, Darrelle Revis had 'Revis Island' and this year they’ve been doing some different things."
Q: Early in camp you predicted great things for Markus Wheaton. But he seems like the forgotten No. 2 receiver. Why are you so high on him?
BR: "He’s our slot receiver when we go three-wide. Obviously when we go two-wide he is our number two. But he is a big part of this offense and a guy that I take pride -- and he takes pride -- in every day with that extra work, the mental work, the extra physical stuff. I like to put more and more on his plate because he not only needs it but wants it."
What to look for from the Steelers tonight against New England:
The Steelers are without Le'Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant yet all seem to expect a prolific performance anyway. Yes, DeAngelo Williams has looked like his old studly self at training camp and in preseason games. Yes, Darrius Heyward-Bey is a legitimate deep threat who'll drop as many as he catches. But free safeties don't know which will occur, so "Hey-Bay" still opens up the field, and he does have his hot stretches. Heath Miller is still Heath Miller and Antonio Brown is still A.B., so Roethlisberger will have his weapons. But this Patriots defense -- if it can replace those Super Bowl corners -- will be a very rugged bunch. We hear about the alleged soft middle but I remember Dominique Easley as a tremendous pass-rusher as a NT at Florida. An injury crushed his draft stock and the Patriots let him sit his rookie year, but he and this year's first-round pick, Malcom Brown, are a talented young duo in place of the departed Vince Wilfork. They'll also move Chandler Jones inside on pass downs. The Pats also have MLB Jerod Mayo back, are thick with safeties, and added pass-rushers Jabaal Sheard and Trey Flowers in the offseason. The Steelers will need laser focus from Roethlisberger and his weapons, and hope they have a sound game plan bereft of gadgets and third-down pass-blocking appearances by Dri Archer.
Butler promises we'll see something new, but how about something that indicates a direction or plan? The Steelers seem caught in the middle of their 3-4 zone blitz, cover-3 staples of the Bill Cowher/Dick LeBeau era and then the Chuck Noll-2 they want to run in the future. They want to get to the QB with four defensive linemen, but they continue bringing in 5-techs and 3-4 outside linebackers. So the start of the Butler/Tomlin new defensive direction begins tonight. And yes it's just the beginning of the evolution. In the meantime, the talent must overcome the lack of cohesion, and the talent is there in Shazier, Tuitt, Heyward, Harrison and Lawrence Timmons. Can the safeties come anywhere close to keeping Brady in check? That's the big question. Mike Mitchell, it's time to show why they brought you here in 2014. And the corners, well, same as last year. Sometimes that was good enough. Sometimes it needed a better pass rush. Tonight, it will need a better pass rush.
One of the top radio men in town, David Todd, had an interesting tweet the other day: "You wanna get out there and show your contrarian nature? Take the Steelers and the under vs Pats." That's definitely a contrarian stance because the obvious notion is that the defending home champ -- which in the NFL has never lost a Thursday night home opener, and averages an 11-point winning margin -- will squash a team with defensive issues. And particularly when that home champ has Brady and he's picking apart not only a Steelers defense but a young Steelers defense that's transitioning with a new coordinator. In three previous games at Gillette Stadium, Brady has beaten the Steelers all three times by an average score of 40-19. And he's really, really mad now. But nothing's that easy. Vegas didn't build those massive casinos by giving money away, so, without any good handicapping evidence -- and I promise that will change once we get some statistics under our belts -- I'm calling it close and low-scoring. Patriots, 26-23.
BY THE NUMBERS
40: The average number of points Brady hangs on the Steelers at Gillete Stadium, in case you missed it in the prediction.
159: The number of starts Roethlisberger will have made with the Steelers after tonight's first snap. He and Terry Bradshaw currently share the team record with 158.
5: The number of Kent State players on the combined team rosters tonight. Yes, the mighty Golden Flashes take the prize in this opening-night showdown of marquee NFL teams. The Steelers have Harrison, Archer and first-year fullback Roosevelt Nix. The Patriots have WR/PR Edelman and guard Josh Kline.
50: The number of years since a Steelers run defense allowed more than the 4.36 yards per carry last year's run defense allowed. (And folks are worried about the Steelers pass defense?)
* One of the Steelers' special-team gunners, Ross Ventrone, has been the focus of Patriots special-teams assistant coach Ray Ventrone this week. Yes, they are brothers. Ray, or "Bubba," was a record-setting track man at Chartiers Valley High School as well as a three-time all-conference football player. Ross, or "Rusty," didn't play football at Chartiers Valley until his senior year and took the long, hard route to the NFL, but after setting a Patriots record for most transactions (cut, signed, cut, signed, etc.) he landed with the Steelers last year and has become a core member of their special teams.
* The aforementioned Lewis is the fourth all-time leading rusher in Pitt history with 2,860 yards. He attended Pitt from 2009-10. As a freshman, Lewis became the first player since Michael Vick (Virginia Tech, 1999) to earn Big East Offensive Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year honors in the same season after rushing 325 times for 1,799 yards (5.5 avg.) and 18 total touchdowns.
* The Patriots picked up another Pitt alumnus this offseason. Sheard, who played very well for the Patriots this preseason as a rotational pass-rusher, started 38 games at Pitt (2007-10) and compiled 142 tackles, 19.5 sacks, five forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. In his final season, Sheard was named consensus first-team All-America, first-team All-Big East and the Big East Conference Defensive Player of the Year. And the Steelers, in need of pass-rushing help, didn't give him as much as a sniff in free agency.
* Steelers fans who watched new kicker Josh Scobee pound all seven of his kickoffs into or out of the end zone in two preseason games are probably expecting every Patriots possession to start at the 20-yard line tonight. And they could be right. But Scobee had 59 percent of his kickoffs downed last season to rank seventh in the NFL. That means there's a 41 percent chance Danny Amendola will return any particular kickoff. Amendola averaged 24.1 per return last year. His counterpart with the Steelers, Archer, averaged 17.9.
* This will be the third time the Steelers have opened the season against the Patriots, and all have been/will be prime-time games. In 1979, the defending champion Steelers beat the Patriots, 16-13, in overtime on a Monday night. On a Monday night in 2002, the Patriots had the Steelers' defensive signals -- according to Patriots fullback Marc Edwards -- and beat the Steelers, 30-14.
* The bloggers this past weekend feasted on the following quote from Shazier about how to stop Rob Gronkowski: "You just have to jam him up a little bit. You mess up their timing. They're really timing-oriented. You mess up their timing and get in their face with pressure. I feel we can slow them down like that."
They wanted to make Shazier out to be some kind of a cocky loudmouth. But Shazier was far from that throughout that interview:
Q: What can you do to Brady?
A: "I don't know if I can tell you anything that we're going to do to Brady. You don't know who watches these press conferences."
Q: What are they showing?
A: "We've been watching some of the preseason. We just have to keep looking at the film."
Q: You wouldn't expect much of a running game from them, right?
A: "You may not know the guys but they always have a pretty solid running game."
And then he must've looked around at the yawning reporters when he was asked about stopping Gronkowski.
After the typically vanilla preseason showing, Butler, the new defensive coordinator, said about tonight's defensive plan, "We are doing some different things. Schematically, we will be different."
He was pressed and said, "You have seen some of it, yes."
Half of it? Some of it? Most of it?
"Some of it."