As the Pittsburgh Steelers embark on their 2015 campaign, they do so against the defending Super Bowl champions, the New England Patriots, against whom they have had little success over the course of the past 15 years. Many have already penciled in a loss for this game, and while that may well be likely, it is never a guarantee.
The Steelers are relying upon a high-powered offense in order to compensate for a new defense that is adjusting and growing into its young talent, and the fact that they will be without three starters is certainly not of benefit.
With Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant serving suspensions and Maurkice Pouncey on injured reserve with a return designation, the performance of their replacements will go a long way in determining how far this offense can go on opening night.
Replacing Bell is DeAngelo Williams, who showed a little bit of everything during the season, but must show it for a full game now. Cody Wallace will fill in for Pouncey, and while he has his deficiencies, his surrounding cast should help him turn in a serviceable performance.
The primary replacement for Bryant will be Darrius Heyward-Bey, who has not been a significant offensive contributor since early in the 2013 season with the Colts before he was demoted. He had just three receptions in his first year with the Steelers in 2014, but depending on how things go tonight, he may well have to match or surpass that in just one game.
Antonio Brown was pretty limited during the preseason, but he will be unleashed tonight as he continues his quest to prove that he is the best wide receiver in the game. He figures to keep his streak of five-reception, 50-yard games intact as he becomes the focal point of the offense, especially with Bell and Bryant off the field.
As a curiosity, watch to see if first-year fullback Roosevelt Nix gets any playing time in the backfield as a lead blocker in short-yardage situations. He is on the roster for special teams purposes, which means that he figures to be active anyway.
Whether or not rookie Sammie Coates receives any playing time, or is even active, should be an indication of how they intend to use him during Bryant’s suspension. He could at least be called upon to run a couple of vertical routes.
On defense, we still must learn who is starting at strong safety and at the left cornerback spot. The depth chart says one thing, but reports during the week have said another. Is this serious tinkering, or perhaps some gamesmanship with the master gamesman manning the opposite sideline?
I will be quite curious to see how the outside linebacker rotation works. The Steelers are two-deep with players that they purportedly intend to use a fair amount on both sides. Will they utilize that depth to keep fresh legs on the field late it the game? It would be particularly prudent to get James Harrison rushing off the defensive right edge in key passing situations.
The Patriots have experiences a bit of turnover in the middle of their offensive line with their center out with a concussion. This would be an ideal time to take advantage of that instability by using stunts and blitzes to create pressure up the middle of the defense.
In general, it will be interesting to see how much we have seen and heard about with this defense actually surfaces in the regular season, as well as that which we have not heard and seen about. How much will they use Cover 2, and will they consistently drop an outside linebacker off the line in a 4-3 look against two tight end sets? There are several storylines of this sort to monitor.