The Patriots are favored to win the season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers. There are a few key factors, however, that could put the Steelers on top when all is said and done.
1) Both Teams' Secondary
Darrelle Revis is back with the Jets. Brandon Browner is now with the New Orleans Saints. The Pats secondary was already weak, but the absence of these players will make matters worse. While Pats apologists call it a "work in progress," that is merely code language for, "our secondary is in trouble. Malcom Butler and Tarell Brown will likely be starting at cornerback. Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty will be starting at safety. Antonio Brown and Marcus Wheaton will be hard to cover, and Heath Miller is still a viable target. Moreover, even though Le'Veon Bell will be serving his suspension, the Steelers should be able to establish a run game with DeAngelo Williams. What does this mean for the Patriots secondary? They could have trouble stopping the Steelers.
The Steelers secondary is also struggling. Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu have both retired, and so far, aside from the addition of CB Brandon Boykin, there have not been standouts in terms of promising new talent. Instead, the Steelers will be starting familiar faces Cortez Allen and William Gay at cornerback and Mike Mitchell and either Shamarko Thomas or Will Allen at safety. (The Pittsburgh depth chart still shows Thomas as a starter despite statements from the team that Allen would be starting). Mitchell has been unhealthy for most of the preseason and also struggled with injury last year. One of the major issues at safety in the preseason was the lack of synergy between players. That could continue to be a problem in the season opener on Thursday. Cortez Allen and William Gay are veteran players who have often disappointed fans with a style of play that is less than spectacular. Furthermore, the Steelers secondary has had a tough time adjusting to Cover 2 in the preseason.
Like the Steelers, the Patriots have a very strong offense, so the Steelers secondary will surely be tested in Thursday night's game. This could be a very high scoring match up.
Things could be much worse, though. In 2014 the Patriots racked up 1216 yards in penalties.
2) The Steelers Offense
Without RB Le'Veon Bell, WR Martavis Bryant, and C Maurkice Pouncey, the Steelers are missing several extremely important offensive weapons. How will Big Ben manage without this talent? Vince Wilfork has moved on to the Texans, so he will not be on the Patriots defense menacing our offensive line and other key offensive players. On the other hand, if the Steelers cannot establish a consistent running game, their passing game will also be less effective. If center Cody Wallace and running back DeAngelo Williams and fill in adequately for their injured and suspended teammates, the Steelers offense should be very effective and difficult to stop. If the offensive line does not hold up and DeAngelo Williams cannot hit stride, then the Patriots defense could pick a part the much-hyped Steelers offense.
The Steelers cannot afford to give up yards on avoidable penalties. Sure, sometimes a pass interference penalty is better than the alternative (a touchdown), but the Steelers will not be able to win this game with stupid mistakes. In 2014 the Steelers gave up 948 yards in the regular season to penalties. In the penultimate week against the Cincinnati Bengals, however, they only gave up 10 yards. The team has the capacity to be very disciplined. The can also be sloppy. In 2014 they had 14 penalties for false starts. Comepare that to 2013 when the team only gave up 648 yards in penalties. Only nine penalties that year were for false starts.