It's amazing the difference that one federal judge's decision can make on the feelings about an upcoming game.
Actually, it's not so amazing when you consider that Tom Brady will now be going up against a defense that finished 27th against the pass a year ago. That alone would be enough to make the Patriots a seven-point favorite, as they open the 2015 NFL season on Thursday by hosting the Steelers at Gillette Stadium.
Along with Brady, there will be pomp, circumstance and no doubt a fired up home crowd in Foxbourgh. Unfortunately, there won't be Le'Veon Bell, Maurkice Pouncey or Martavis Bryant. Now what seemed like a game Pittsburgh could certainly win, suddenly feels like a game it really won't. And Vegas quickly agreed, as the point spread for Thursday's affair quickly shot up from three points (the home team generally gets that many) to the aforementioned touchdown.
The Steelers defense seems pretty compromised right now, especially after such a dreadful end to the preseason, when it allowed a combined 996 yards and many big plays over the final two games. Sure, these were exhibition games and the defensive starters didn't really play all that much. However, the performances of the subs and camp hopefuls clearly mirrored previous ones put on by the starters and established personnel during the last two regular seasons.
But again, it was just the preseason, and much like the defensive starters, nobody who the team will be counting on to climb that stairway to seven played a ton in August and early September. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger played the equivalent of maybe a quarter over the five exhibition games, and he didn't even suit up for two of them. However, what he did show in his short spurts of action was quite promising and perhaps a glimpse of what he can do during the regular season. It's too bad two of his main horses will be out of action for two weeks and one of them will be out for a month, thanks to a combo of drug-related suspensions. But Roethlisberger is one of the top five quarterbacks in the entire world, a man who just signed a five year, $99 million contract extension in March, so much is still expected of him, regardless of who his substitute horses are. Besides, he may not have Bryant, but he has Antonio Brown, who at last count was the most productive receiver in the NFL over the past two seasons. And while Markus Wheaton may not have the physical tools of a Bryant, people were pretty darn excited about him coming out of college two years ago.
Roethlisberger once won a Super Bowl with Antwaan Randle El and Cedrick Wilson as his second and third receivers; it's safe to say he can make do for a little while with Darrius Heyward-Bey and/or Sammie Coates replacing Bryant as his third receiver and deep threat.
Also, while Pouncey's absence for a least half of the regular season due to a severe ankle injury is a bit deflating (no reference to Deflategate intended), the offensive line, overall, is worlds better than it was the last time the Steelers won a Super Bowl in 2008 (no insult to Justin Hartwig intended). By all accounts, David DeCastro has settled in as a solid and dependable right guard, something Ramon Foster has been for quite some time over on the left side. Kelvin Beachum has emerged as one of the game's best young tackles, which is important considering he's protecting No. 7's blind side. As for right tackle Marcus Gilbert, while he's never been a fan favorite, he's been serviceable enough to start 46 games so far since 2011--not bad for a non-favorite.
In other words, Roethlisberger could do a lot worse than his current line--even without a Pro Bowl center.
As for the defense, that's obviously the huge question mark. While words like "vanilla" often got thrown around to describe new defensive coordinator Keith Butler's approach to the just concluded preseason, other words such as "uncertain," "unproven," and "unknown" were also thrown around with almost as much ease as opposing third string quarterbacks were slinging the ball up and down football fields all summer.
But hope does spring eternal. Maybe inside linebacker Ryan Shazier will pull a Troy Polamalu and make a legendary leap from his first year to his second and be the team's most dynamic defender (my prediction) and make highlight worthy plays the entire season. Maybe Cam Heyward will take advantage of the team's new one-gap approach for its defensive linemen and become even more disruptive than he's already been.
Another word thrown around about Keith Butler this summer was "wrinkles," as in new wrinkles for the defense. Hopefully, those wrinkles will be on full-display starting Thursday night and will fluster Brady and Bill Belichick, both of whom, one would assume, won't be able to rely on spying or deflating.
Other words that are getting thrown around about Thursday's game are "doubters" and "haters." Those words are coming from Steelers fans, who often throw them around as easily as those opposing third string quarterbacks threw passes this summer. At least now those words have merit, because there certainly are a lot of doubters and haters regarding the Steelers chances at New England on Thursday.
Let's hope those words are thrown around with much glee Friday morning.
Here's to a Super Steelers season.