Finally, after months and months and months of waiting, the regular season is in sight. While I'm hesitant to wish away the last few weeks of summer, the football drought has gone on far too long.
The Steelers first game is against the New England Patriots in Foxboro on September 10. It's a Thursday night game, and I'm willing to be that viewership will be absolutely insane, especially considering the fierce rivalry with the backdrop of the Pats Super Bowl victory and the distracting Deflategate scandal.
What should fans keep an eye on as we anticipate week 1?
1) Tom Brady
Will Patriots QB Tom Brady be on the field or not? Brady is considering admitting lack of cooperation, while denying knowledge of the scheme to deflate gameday footballs to provide him an advantage. It is hard to imagine that a settlement that includes this admission would not include some sort of suspension. Since the Patriots face off against the Steelers in week 1, it is a fairly safe bet that he will not be on the field for that game.
Is there value in facing the Patriots with their star quarterback at the helm? Certainly. Might it be an easier game with backup Jimmy Garoppolo at the helm? Obviously.
2) Running backs
Other suspensions for week 1 include Patriots RB LeGarrette Blount and Steelers RB Le'Veon Bell. How will the Steelers fare with out their star? My prediction is that they will be fine. DeAngelo Williams is extremely motivated to prove his worth to the team. So far in the preseason, he has performed effectively. Likewise, the offensive line is on fire, so that will also work to his benefit.
The preseason has also shown that Dri Archer brings a lot to the field in terms of speed, agility, and drive. He could be a secret weapon in week 1 that will help offset the loss of Bell.
3) Special teams
Kicker Shaun Suisham obliterated his ACL in the Hall of Fame game on a sub-standard field while attempting to make an entirely useless tackle. Can Garrett Hartley fill in adequately? While some have questioned the strength of his leg when it comes to kickoffs, he has proved to be accurate for field goals and extra points.
As for the rest of special teams: They need to look less like a litter of 7-week-old puppies responding to the mealtime call. Seriously, check out a youtube video of puppies scrambling to eat, and then look at some special teams clips from the past two preseason games. You'll see what I mean.
4) Steelers defense
The Steelers defense has shown flashed of brilliance including Deebo's sack during the Jacksonville Jaguars game, Ryan Shazier's speed and ubiquity on the field, and some strong players in the secondary. On the other hand, there have been some troubling deficiencies to iron out during the rest of the preseason. A few of these include tackling, pass rush, run defense, and adjustment to Cover 2.
5) Steelers offense
I'll end on a positive note: The Steelers offense. Not much more needs to be said, and even with Bell sidelined for the first game, Ben Roethlisberger has many weapons to choose from along with a very effective offensive line. (Thanks be to Mike Munchak.) We saw a sneak preview during the opening drive of the Jacksonville Jaguars game, and I can't wait to see more. The Patriots secondary is as weak as ours (if not weaker), so this could be an incredibly high-scoring game with the Steelers coming out on top.