Without consulting with Dionne Warwick and the Psychic Friends Network, it is impossible to know how the game between the Steelers and the Patriots in Week 1 will pan out. It is all but certain, however, that it will be one of the most heated and competitive games of the season with the Steelers heralding a new era after the retirement of many key players and the Patriots finding themselves even more hated (outside of New England) than in past seasons.
Let's look at some of the unknowns:
1) Will DeAngelo 'D-Will' Williams deliver?
DeAngelo has a huge chip on his shoulder and is eager to prove that he can fill in effectively for Le'Veon Bell. There is something to be said for optimism, and at this point, there is an element of self-fulfilling prophesy at play in addition to Williams' sheer drive, determination, and talent. A key to victory against the Patriots will be to establish an adequate run game, but Bell's absence will also be felt when it comes to quick screen plays and pass protection. (Let's not forget that Bell tallied over 850 receiving yards last season.) Bottom line is that Williams does not need to be Le'Veon Bell. He just needs to soften the blow of his absence and contribute as best he can-- which could be significantly.
2) Will the Steelers opt for more 2-point conversions now that the PAT rules have changed? And how accurate will Suisham be from the longer distance?
I would love to see more two-point conversions all around-- both the Steelers going for them, and squelching the Patriots' hope for two. During this first game, we should have some indication of how the PAT changes will affect the game. Missing from 33 is uncharacteristic for Suisham, but the extra point is definitely less than a freebie and a lot could end up depending on his accuracy.
3) Will Patriots' DE Chandler Jones be back on the field? What about Dont'a Hightower?
The Steelers aren't the only ones with lingering injuries. DE Chandler Jones played in the Super Bowl with a pretty serious hip injury that required offseason surgery. Linebacker Dont'a Hightower is also recovering from injury and is by no means a lock for September. We still have three months until the regular season, but injuries could certainly impact the game on both sides of the ball.
4) How will James Harrison contribute?
Will his contributions be on the field, or will his primary impact be a result of his offseason workouts and training regimen with younger players? Recently, Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier, and Vince Williams all praised the fitness phenom. How much will James Harrison's work ethic have rubbed off on the next generation by the time the Patriots game rolls around?
5) What will the state of the secondary be-- for both teams?
Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor have retired, while the Patriots lost Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner to free agency. Unlike the Steelers, the Patriots did not address lack of depth at cornerback until the final round. (I can't imagine the outcry if the Steelers had waited that long.) Both teams are facing questions about the composition of their secondaries and both may end up employing a mix-and-match strategy.
6) How will the Patriots weakness at RB play out?
The Patriots' 3.9 yards per carry was 11th worst in the NFL last year. With LaGarrette Blount sitting out the first game due to his suspension and no all-purpose running back on their depth chart as of right now, the Patriots will have to adopt a running-back-by-committee approach. Theoretically, it shouldn't be too hard for the Steelers to stop the Patriots run game, which, according to defensive line coach John Mitchell, is the key to generating more sacks. "When we stop the run we've got enough in our arsenal to put pressure on the quarterback," he said.
7) How will Big Ben perform against the Patriots defense?
With one of the best WR corps in the league, and the Patriots struggling at cornerback (and by struggling, I mean they might need to rehire the Deflator to play that position. It is really that dire for them), this could be a very high yardage game for Roethlisberger. The Patriots will need to move towards soft zone coverage in the absence of Revis and Browner, so this, too, could work in Roethlisberger's favor, especially with the weapons he has at his disposal in Brown, Bryant, Wheaton, and whichever of the new acquisitions happens to step up (Coates?)
And no for some more speculative speculation...
8) What will be the Steelers first huge play of the season?
There are so many options here, and this will obviously remain an unknown until it happens (barring time travel or clairvoyance.) I'd like to see a few rookies really step up on special teams and pave the way for an Antonio Brown kick off return during the Steelers first possession. If AB could hurdle some of the Patriots players in the process, it would be even better. I'd also be up for a huge defensive play involving one of the Steelers new ball hawks.
9) Will Tom Brady be on the field?
Given the severity of the accusations against Brady and the Patriots, the evidence described in the Wells Report, and the Patriots absolutely absurd rebuttal, it seemed like a given that Brady would be sitting out the first of four games on September 10. With Brady's appeal coming up in three weeks, there's a very real possibility that the suspension will be reduced -- or maybe even completely vacated. We should probably hold off analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of Brady-backup Garappolo until Goodell shows what he is made of. Meanwhile, fans should prepare for an unfair outcome.
10) Will Bill Belichick have figured out the purpose of his 'drone' program by then?
Hopefully he'll have a better answer than "I don't know." And hopefully the Steelers will be on high alert if unmanned flying objects are in the skies above the stadium.