The Pittsburgh Steelers opened the 2015 season with a 28-21 loss to the New England Patriots, a team that had been defending its Super Bowl title from one season prior. In that game, Rob Gronkowski, New England's All-Pro tight end, caught three touchdown passes.
Gronk was, in every sense of the term, a difference-maker in that contest.
For the second year in a row, the Steelers will be tasked with defending one of the best tight ends in the NFL in their first game of the season. Jordan Reed, despite lacking Gronkowski's extensive accolades, is by far the most valuable offensive weapon on Washington's roster.
In 2015, Reed ranked second among all tight ends in catches (87), fifth in yards (952) and first in both first downs (54) and touchdowns (tied with Gronkowski with 11). Remarkably, he missed out on the Pro Bowl.
Like Gronkowski, Reed is a deadly vertical threat who has the ability to exploit one-on-one matchups with linebackers and defensive backs. Pittsburgh, who ranked 30th in the NFL in pass defense in 2015, didn't add much to the secondary in 2016, save for some unproven rookies and Justin Gilbert, a former draft bust from the Cleveland Browns.
Naturally, this has Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler slightly concerned.
"I don't think you're ever going to completely shut him (Reed) out. You just have to try to keep him from killing us, you know what I mean?" Butler told reporters on Thursday.
In the opening game of 2015, Gronkowski scored two touchdowns in which he was completely uncovered. This, for example, was Gronk's first score:
His third score, a one-yard nail in the coffin at the nine-minute mark of the fourth quarter, was also the result of a minor miscommunication on the part of Pittsburgh's defense.
To avoid a similar scenario on Monday, Butler is hoping to mitigate these breakdowns in coverage.
"We can handle that (the speed of Reed and Washington's offense). We just have to make sure we have the right personnel in the game at the right time," said Butler.
Fortunately for Pittsburgh, the tape from last season's New England game should yield some important anti-Reed strategies. From a personnel standpoint, Ryan Shazier, one of the most athletic interior linebackers in the NFL, is a strong candidate to shadow Reed on Monday. Pittsburgh ranked in the top-five in the NFL in run defense last season, while Washington's rushing attack ranked just 20th in the league in yards per game, so it's fair to expect Washington head coach Jay Gruden, one of the pass-happiest coaches in the NFL, to call plenty of air plays. Kirk Cousins attempted 40 or more passes in six games last season, and I expect him to open his season by attempting 40-plus passes. If this is indeed the case, Reed, who was the fourth-most targeted tight end in the league last season, should get plenty of looks.
Pittsburgh's young secondary will be in for a long night against Washington's passing attack, but if they minimize Reed's presence, the Steelers should be 1-0 by Tuesday morning.