Due to the absence of several big name stars including running backs Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount and quarterback Tom Brady, the season opener will lack some of the flash and star power that last season’s opener between Green Bay and Seattle possessed but it will still be a can’t miss game nonetheless.
Featuring elite level players from both teams including Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Rob Gronkowski or budding star Jamie Collins, this game offers more to the viewer than Deflategate, it offers a head-to-head featuring two of the AFC powers that could be important come playoff seeding time in January.
As Bell will be out for the first few games, depending on the outcome of his appeal, the Steelers will turn to DeAngelo Williams to carry the bulk of the load, while sprinkling in Josh Harris, Dri Archer or perhaps the versatile Will Johnson to take some carries. Williams is not Bell by any means, but considering the minimum wear and tear on his body and not focusing so much on his age, he can adequately do many of the things that make Bell great.
The offensive line isn’t as big a question mark as it was entering last season, so it should be a pillar of strength in this game. Also, the team is lacking the element of surprise when it comes to missing Bell, as it likely saw him carrying them deep into the AFC playoffs last season, then had the misfortune of seeing him ultimately go down for the year in the season finale versus the Bengals.
With the running game in question, the team’s aerial attack will be at the fore front, with Roethlisberger throwing to arguably the best receiving corps he’s ever had at his disposal.
If the team can establish a dominance on the ground, it will open up the play-action game, and wouldn’t be surprising to see a yards-per-catch average north of 20 yards for deep threat Martavis Bryant. Minus the shut down talents of Darrelle Revis, who fled to New York, the secondary could be at a major disadvantage, considering the weapons Ben has. With his Patriots’ counterpart being the second-year rookie and first-time starter, Jimmy Garoppolo, mistakes are bound to happen, and the game could get out of hand quickly if the Steelers can mount an early lead.
A must for the Steelers defense, other than harassing Garoppolo into mistakes will be the monumental task of keeping arguably the best tight end in the game, Gronkowski, in-check. Despite facing constant double or triple teams devoted to slowing him down, he continues to pile up numbers, but there’s an asterisk to that as he’s only ever played with one quarterback, that being Brady. In this contest, the “Gronk” will more than likely be Garoppolo’s best friend, and after losing versatile running back Shane Vereen in free agency, coupled with Blount sitting the bench, the Pats’ running back stable offers perhaps more question marks than that of Pittsburgh. This places even more of the offensive load on the giant shoulders of Gronkowski and how efficient Garoppolo is at getting him the ball.
Of course, the Steelers will have to do their part too in covering him, which will fall on the shoulders of defensive coordinator Keith Butler in finding an effective way, whether it’s shared by the speedy Ryan Shazier, Shamarko Thomas on the back end or a mixture of players. The case in point though is that the man throwing the ball to Gronkowski is not anything close to Brady. He may eventually be a starting caliber player and a worthy one, but he’s not a future Hall Of Famer, and the last thing Bill Belichick wants to see is his team, led by a quarterback making his first NFL start, on the brightest of stages and see him get into a shootout with arguably the best offense in the league.