When the Pittsburgh Steelers play the New England Patriots this Thursday to kick off the 2015 NFL regular season, there are a myriad of questions surrounding the game. Will Tom Brady be able to keep playing at this high of a level for much longer? Will the Steelers offense score enough points to cover up their inadequacies on defense? What about the Steelers offense scares the Patriots?
BTSC was able to sit down with Rich Hill from Pats Pulpit (SB Nation's Patriots website) to ask some intriguing questions from the other side of the fence to get a better glimpse of the prime time matchup from the oppoent's standpoint. Take a look at the Q & A session, and for all things Patriots leading up the Thursday night, be sure to check out Pat's Pulpit's incredible coverage.
The entire planet knew what was going on with the Deflategate scandal. No need to re-hash those specific any further, but what is one storyline for the Patriots (positive or negative), which hasn't gotten the publicity it would otherwise have gotten without the scandal, fans should be paying attention to?
Buried in the news of the DeflateGate saga is the fact that Bill Belichick has re-found his mojo when it comes to drafting players. Between 2006 and 2008, Belichick wasn't a great impact drafter. His best three players were linebacker Jerod Mayo, kicker Stephen Gostkowski, and special teamer Matthew Slater. It's a definite reason for the Patriots relatively weak success in 2009 and 2010. Since 2009, Belichick has found at least 3 key players in every draft to bolster and reload the roster. Of the AFC teams in the 2014 playoffs, the Patriots enter 2015 with the youngest roster.
Belichick's generally had success rebuilding on the fly, but he's definitely improved as of late.
Brandon LaFell was placed on the PUP list to start the season. How will this impact the Patriots offense, their depth and their game plan going into the game vs. the Steelers?
LaFell has been battling a foot injury this offseason and hasn't been able to practice. It's very easy to say that the wide receiver position isn't want the team was expecting, with Reggie Wayne asking to be released, LaFell heading to the PUP list, and nearly every impactful preseason receiver (Brandon Gibson, Brian Tyms, Josh Boyce, Jonathan Krause) heading to the injured reserve. For the first six weeks of the season, Aaron Dobson (5 receptions, 130 yards, 2 touchdowns as a rookie in 2013 against the Steelers) will be the team's top sideline receiver.
It's more than likely that Dobson won't be a major factor, though. The Patriots signed former Bills tight end Scott Chandler to pair up with Rob Gronkowski and the Patriots are likely reverting back to a two-tight end package until LaFell's return. The two tight ends will set up with Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and a running back for much of the early season.
The clear fall out is the Patriots lack of an intermediate deep threat. Edelman and Amendola will be great on the short passes, and Gronkowski and Chandler will play up the middle, but it definitely shrinks the field for opposing defenses to manage.
Tom Brady is 38 years old, and looks as good as ever. Are Patriots fans at the point where they are waiting for his play to plateau and start to drop off? And if not, when do you see that natural decline to start to take place?
Patriots fans are crossing their fingers that he's plateaued because his fourth quarter in the Super Bowl against the Seattle Seahawks (13/15, 124 yards, 2 touchdowns in crunch time) was the best Brady's been in a couple years. But seriously, Brady's working on his scrambling ability because he wants to keep up with the skill sets of players like Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson. That sounds like a really bad joke, but he's actually trying at his advanced age and the results have seriously helped.
The fact that Brady is trying to add new skills at the age of 38 is a great sign for his longevity. If he gets injured, maybe that will change his plans, but he wants to be around until he's 45. His short game is as great as ever because so much hinges upon pre-snap dissection of defenses and less on physical ability. His deep sideline ball has plateaued at a below-league average level, but it's his passes up the seam that are dangerous and keep defenses honest.
Once Brady stops hitting those seam routes, it'll be the beginning of the end for him. So long as he's throwing to Rob Gronkowski, he'll have a greater major for error on those passes, and his career will march on.
The Patriots defense had a lot of turnover from their championship team in 2014. What is the biggest concern for the defense heading into 2015?
The defense is definitely weaker in the secondary. Any time a team loses a player like Darrelle Revis (to the Jets, no less), it's going to hurt. He's been replaced by Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler who has looked good during the preseason, but he lacks Revis's savvy. Where Revis would deter quarterbacks from throwing his direction, Butler has to use his athleticism to swat away passes in his direction.
Beyond the Revis to Butler drop, though, the rest of the secondary is pretty flat. Devin McCourty is back at free safety. Pat Chung is back at strong safety. And veteran Tarell Brown will be lining up across from Butler. Brown and 2014's Brandon Browner are two very different players, but a lot of Browner's value was related to Revis' ability to blanket opposing #1 receivers. With Revis gone, Browner's value to the team changed, so it's hard to make a 1-to-1 comparison with what Browner brought and what Brown will bring.
But losing Revis hurts. The defensive front is going to have to make up for that loss.
The Steelers are missing some big names on the offensive side of the football: Le'Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant and Maurkice Pouncey. Even with a depleted offensive unit, what scares you (if anything) about the upcoming matchup Thursday night in Foxborough?
There's no question that this would be a very different game if it took place mid-season. Bill Belichick is going to focus the majority of his defensive assets to removing Antonio Brown from the equation and forcing the Steelers to win with DeAngelo Williams, Markus Wheaton, and Darrius Heyward-Bey. If the Patriots new secondary can't slow down DHB, then that's a bad sign for the upcoming season.
The biggest concern is how the Patriots match up against defensive lineman Cameron Heyward. He's developed into a core player and he'll be lining up against left tackle Nate Solder and rookie offensive guard Shaq Mason. Mason comes from the triple option attack at Georgia Tech so he's, shall we say, raw with his pass blocking attack. There are times where Mason's arms and legs are not in sync and that can leave the pocket exposed.
If Heyward aligns at the 4-tech between the tackle and the guard (which teams like the Ravens and Jets have done to great success), it will isolate Heyward against the rookie Mason and Heyward will win more often than not and disrupt the Patriots offense. That's what will sink the Patriots in the opener.