While the Pittsburgh Steelers knew coming into the regular season that they would be without their starting center, Maurkice Pouncey, after he suffered a fractured fibula during a running play early in the preseason, the New England Patriots will now also be starting their 2015 campaign without their starting center, Bryan Stork, as well.
Stork, in fact, was placed on injured reserve with a return designation, as was Pouncey, meaning that he will miss at least half of the regular season. The second-year center was diagnosed with a concussion, and this may be the first case in the NFL of a player receiving the return designation due to a concussion.
In the meantime, the Patriots will have to make do with the offensive linemen that they have in-house in order to fill that void, as have the Steelers in their case with the loss of Pouncey. For Pittsburgh, it was a simpler decision, but in the case of New England, there are more variables.
Listed as Stork’s backup is starting right guard Ryan Wendell, which may ultimately prove to be the scenario that ends up taking place, but in order to do so, that will likely result in the Patriots starting a rookie, or even a pair of rookies, at the guard positions.
Shaq Mason has played well during the preseason, and will likely occupy a spot somewhere along the line. Josh Kline is listed as the starting left guard, but is also the backup at right guard. If Wendell starts at center, would the Patriots move Kline to right guard and start either Mason or fellow rookie Tre Jackson at the other guard position?
The Patriots are being vague at the moment. In fact, on their team website’s depth chart, Wendell is listed as the starter at both right guard and center. For reasons that need not be explained, that would be a difficult task to accomplish for any lineman throughout history.
That would be a lot of moving parts, especially for an opening game, and the point is that this should present the Steelers with a prime opportunity to exploit this area of instability and find a way to generate pressure up the middle, which is the best way to disrupt Tom Brady’s precision and timing.
With a new philosophy predicated upon one-gapping from the defensive line with defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, as well as nose tackle Steve McLendon, the front seven should be able to scheme pressure by using stunts and twists to take advantage of the Patriots’ lack of cohesion after lacking significant playing time working in this alignment.
This would also be an ideal opportunity to show a variety of blitzes and utilize the speed and explosiveness of some of the Steelers’ other young athletes behind them, particularly second-year inside linebacker Ryan Shazier. Safety Mike Mitchell was successful as a blitzer during his time with Carolina, but has had few opportunities so far in Pittsburgh. Being aggressive in this way may be the Steelers’ best chance of slowing down the Patriots offense and keeping themselves in the game.