It's absolutely fitting that the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots face off on a Thursday night in Prime Time. Much like the Shonda Rhimes vehicles "Grey's Anatomy"and "Scandal" that air on ABC that night, both teams have been embroiled in an off-season drama of epic proportions that has thoroughly dominated water-cooler conversations from sea to shining sea.
It's time to hopefully shove aside the soap opera storylines of deflated balls, cannabis suspensions, bad drafting, participation trophies and much more to focus on nothing but the game of football.
Here are five key matchups to watch in the NFL season opener.
QB Ben Roethlisberger vs QB Tom Brady
Analysis: While these two men will not physically go mano-a-mano, the better of the two quarterbacks will most likely be the one sharing thoughts and insight with Michele Tafoya during the post-game interview. Because these two teams' top ball-carriers shared a bag of weed while driving to catch a flight to Philadelphia and got caught (I get it, the thought of Philly as a destination would probably even make the Pope want to blaze up a fatty. Stay tuned.), the emphasis will need to be more on the passing attack engineered by two potential Hall of Famers.
Tom Brady, with all of the controversy and scandal, will set aside the distractions once he steps between the white lines. Brady has virtually owned the Steelers during his career, going 5-2 with a completion percentage of 68.31-percent. He has 18 touchdowns versus three interceptions and has thrown for 2,316 yards against the Black-and-Gold. Brady doesn't have a wealth of receivers but he has made stars out of Troy Brown, David Patten, Wes Welker, Brandon LaFell and Julian Edelman. LaFell and his 74 catches and seven TDs are on Le Shelf. Edelman, with a team-leading 91 grabs and Danny Amendola will be Brady's top threats at wideout.
Brandon Bolden will shoulder the load at running back for the Pats, but he only caught two balls last year. Shane Vereen, who Bolden replaces, was Brady's main safety-valve out of the backfield with 52 catches, but he's now a Giant. Running Back Stevan Ridley also has departed via free agency. Jonas Gray never left Belichick's's doghouse and was cut. LeGarrette Blount, as mentioned, is suspended for lighting up blunts with Bell.
Where Brady will do the most damage is throwing to his tight ends. See matchup #2.
With Pittsburgh's defensive backfield supposedly in disarray, Brady could feast on the struggling unit. Cornerbacks Cortez Allen, William Gay, Brandon Boykin and Antwon Blake will need to be clicking on all cylinders and get help from safeties Mike Mitchell, Will Allen and Shamarko Thomas to halt Brady's history of dominance.
Roethlisberger had another stellar year last season, throwing for a career-high 4,952 yards and 33 touchdowns against nine picks. Big Ben tied with Drew Brees as the league's passing yardage champ. Rothlisberger is the kind of quarterback that can put the entire team on his shoulders. He is armed with the best receiver in the league, Antonio Brown, but Le'Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant will be in street clothes, along with their 136 catches and 1,498 yards.
Roethlisberger will rely heavily on Brown, but will look to safety-valve Heath Miller and wide receivers Markus Wheaton and Darius Heyward-Bey to move the chains.
This is sure to be a shootout between arguably two of the finest quarterbacks in the league today. The one who fires the best and most accurate shots will be Top Gun.
ILB Lawrence Timmons and ILB Ryan Shazier vs TE Rob Gronkowski and TE Scott Chandler
Analysis: Since coming into the league in 2010, Rob Gronkowski has been the Colonel Hogan to the Steelers' collective Colonel Klink and Sargeant Schultz, thwarting their containment and being a continual thorn in their side. And with the Steeler defensive corps of the 2015 preseason looking as bumbling as the fictional Nazis of Stalag 13, the concern is that Gronk will dominate Pittsburgh again.
In three contests against the Steelers, the Patriots' tight end has been targeted 24 times with 21 receptions (all delivered by Tom Brady) and four trips to end-zone glory. His 309 yards and 14.74 yards per reception have been a major factor in his team taking two of three from Pittsburgh, who have never really been able to subdue him. More troubling yet for the Steelers, Gronkowski is coming off of a 2014 season in which he caught 82 balls for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns. That's an entire career for most men at the position.
If Gronk wasn't troubling enough as a solo act, the Patriots are employing dual tight end sets. The man paired with the 6'6" TE is Scott Chandler, formerly of the Buffalo Bills. Chandler, standing at 6'7", hauled in 47 passes for 497 yards and three scores himself while playing in a offensive unit led by mediocre passers. But with Brady slinging the ball, the face and identity of the New England receiving game could very well be this tandem.
Enter Lawrence Timmons, the Pro Bowl linebacker and nine-year veteran who hasn't played a snap during the preseason due to a debilitating case of turf toe. If this layoff didn't cause rust, then "Law-Dog" will be counted on to neutralize these behemoths roaming the middle of the field, along with Shazier and some safety help too.
The inside-backers plan to jam Gronk up inside the legal, initial five-yard range to mess with his timing and attempt to throw him off of his game. Timmons has had success defending man-to-man and Shazier can hover capably in zone coverage. A mash-up of the two will be employed throughout to stop this crucial aspect of the Patriots' passing strategy,
LT Kelvin Beachum and RT Marcus Gilbert vs WLB Dont'a Hightower and SLB Jamie Collins
Analysis: Beachum, who many believe will be next-in-line for a contract extension, will see different Patriot defenders throughout the night attacking from various formations. In the base 4-3, Beachum will draw Hightower, the fourth-year pass rusher from Alabama. Coming off of a six-sack 2014, Hightower will attempt to pressure Ben's blind side early and often. Beachum, whose pass blocking skills are underrated, allowed three-and-a half sacks through the first four games of '14, but rebounded to surrender only two-and-a-half more the entire year.
A more-fit Marcus Gilbert has drawn the short straw to thwart the advances of Jamie Collins. The New England tackling leader had four sacks last year for the champs, while the five-year vet from Florida surrendered five in 13 games and has the reputation as a player with slow feet and who is susceptible to the bull rush.
With Bell and Bryant in street clothes, Roethlisberger needs to stay upright and unharmed to carry the team offensively. Thus, Beachum and Gilbert need to be on-point and impenetrable.
WR Antonio Brown vs CB Malcolm Butler and Company
Analysis: In the previous two seasons, Antonio Brown has proven to be the most dynamic receiver in the entire league with 239 receptions for 3,197 yards. Last year, the four-time Pro Bowler had the second-most catches during a single season in the history of the NFL, and he's looking to surpass that.
With The Doobie Brothers not there to draw attention away, Brown will be facing double coverage from Butler and possibly Devin McCourty or Patrick Chung at safety.
If there is any area of the Patriots' defense that seems suspect, it is the secondary. Gone are Revis Island and Brandon Browner, along with their 23 passes defensed and three interceptions. Butler, last year's Super Bowl savior, had only seven passes defensed in the regular season, but he came up huge with that title-winning pick. However, he could have trouble matching up with Brown and, if the safeties are needed elsewhere, it could be bad news for the Pats if Butler is left on an island.
Deangelo Williams vs the Patriot Front Seven
Analysis: The loss of Le'Veon Bell for the first two games of the season is monumental, due to hopefully his last dance with Mary Jane. But the addition of Deangelo Williams helps cushion the blow for the Steelers. In 2014, Williams rushed the ball for 219 yards on 62 carries for a 3.5-yard average in only six games, due to numerous injuries.
Since his arrival, the Panthers' all-time rushing leader has been known as a positive influence in the locker room and a solid performer in training camp. Williams is counted on to get the Steelers through Bell's absence. Based on four exhibition games, the 32-year-old back seems be running on fresh legs. He has tallied 63 yards on 13 carries for a 4.8-yard average and a touchdown. A balanced rushing attack will take the pressure of of Roethlisberger and make the offense multi-dimensional again.
Tabbed to stop Williams is a stout Patriot front seven, led by Jamie Collins and his 114 tackles. In 2014, New England allowed opponents an average of 104.3 yards-per-game rushing. Defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones have done well in setting the edge and closing running lanes for opposing rushers. But the loss of Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork's large body to clog up the middle and dominate the point-of-attack will loom large for New England. Currently making up the interior defensive line for the Pats are Sealvar Siliga and Alan Branch, not quite the force that Wilfork has been. Last year, the duo had only 45 tackles combined, compared to the 47 compiled by the big-bodied veteran.
The linebacking crew comprises Collins, Dont'a Hightower and Jerod Mayo. This trio has the propensity to play downhill, seek out ball carriers and attack with ferocity, instead of waiting for the plays to come to them.
Even though the Steelers took a huge hit when All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey went down with a broken fibula in the preseason, Cody Wallace has had previous success filling-in on a line that excels in run-blocking. If Williams is fresh enough to find those holes, a balanced attack can be established and help to keep a struggling defense off of the field.