By Gregory Hunt
After an off-season that was dominated by the deflategate controversy, the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots will finally get to work this week on defending their title. It all starts Thursday night when the Patriots host the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium. The two franchises have combined for 16 Super Bowl appearances and 10 Super Bowl championships.
Pittsburgh finished the 2014 season in 1st place in the AFC North with an 11-5 record. As the #3 seed in the AFC playoffs, the Steelers hosted the 6th-seeded Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field in the Wild Card round but fell to the Ravens 30-17. Pittsburgh star running back Le’Veon Bell missed that game after hyperextending his right knee in the final week of the regular season. It was the first time the Steelers had lost a playoff game to a division rival since the NFL/AFL merger in 1970.
The Patriots and Steelers last faced each other on November 3, 2013, with New England coming away with a 55-31 victory at Gillette Stadium. Pittsburgh’s rivalry with New England dates back the 1970 merger, when the NFL Steelers, Baltimore Colts and Cleveland Browns joined the 10 former AFL teams, including the then-Boston Patriots, to create the AFC.
The Steelers lead the all-time series 14-9 in the regular season, although the Patriots hold a 3-1 advantage in the postseason. Pittsburgh’s last win over the Patriots came on October 30, 2011, with a 25-17 victory at Heinz Field.
Steelers on Offense
At age 33, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is coming off possibly the best season of his career. He passed for 4952 yards while throwing 32 touchdowns against only nine interceptions. He was remarkably efficient, completing 67.1 percent of his passes. His quarterback rating of 103.3 was his highest since 2007. His favorite target, Antonio Brown, caught 129 passes for 1698 yards and 13 touchdowns. Brown is also particularly dangerous on punt returns.
Prior to hurting his knee, the aforementioned Bell had a breakout season in his second year in the NFL, averaging 4.7 yards per rush on his way to gaining 1361 yards, but Bell will not start against the Patriots as he is serving a two-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Starting wide receiver Martavis Bryant will also miss the game due to a four-game suspension for violating the same policy.
Steelers on Defense
Historically, the Steelers are known for having strong defenses, but this year’s defense is in transition. Future hall of fame safety Troy Polamalu has retired after 12 outstanding seasons, and former linebackers coach Keith Butler is taking over as defensive coordinator for Dick LeBeau, who has retired after spending the last 11 seasons at that position.
Pittsburgh’s defensive secondary is questionable, particular at cornerback, where second-round draft pick Senquez Golson will start. Another rookie cornerback, Doran Grant, was taken in the fourth round, but he will miss the season with a shoulder injury. At age 37, linebacker James Harrison is expected to lead the front seven until some younger teammates develop, but he’ll have help from fellow veteran linebacker Lawrence Timmons, who is coming off a Pro Bowl season.
Players to Watch
The Steelers will be missing two of their major offensive weapons in Bell and Bryant, so Brown will probably carry the load for the Steelers offense. It’s possible that the Patriots secondary may double-team Brown to force Roethlisberger to throw elsewhere.
After the early retirement of linebacker Jason Worilds at age 27, Pittsburgh’s leading returning pass rusher is defensive end Cameron Heyward, who notched a career-high 7.5 sacks last season. The New England first-team offense showed some protection problems during the preseason, so it will need to be aware of Heyward.
This has to potential to be a high-scoring game, but with Roethlisberger missing his two of his weapons, the Patriots should come out ahead. Even if Patriots stumble out of the gate, that won’t do too much damage to their Super Bowl aspirations. Last year, they lost 33-30 in Week One to the division rival Miami Dolphins, but they recovered to win the AFC East title easily before moving on to win the franchise’s fourth Super Bowl.
Gregory Hunt is a Boston native and a life-long fan of the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics. He’s also particularly fond of lacrosse, IndyCar racing and women’s college basketball. He currently works for Examiner.com where he serves as the Senior Manager of Content and Media Access. He also writes for Examiner.com as the New England Patriots Examiner. His work can be found on aExaminer.com.