The Patriots begin defending their championship Thursday night when they open the 2015 NFL season against a depleted Steelers roster.
Pittsburgh started slow last year with a 3-3 record in its first six games, but finished the 2014 campaign with eight wins in the final 10 contests (7-3 ATS) to earn a playoff berth.
While the team’s high-powered offense (411 YPG, 2nd in NFL) remains mostly intact, some key pieces will be missing on Thursday in superstar RB Le’Veon Bell (suspended), All-Pro C Maurkice Pouncey (ankle), speedy WR Martavis Bryant (suspended) and K Shaun Suisham (knee). However, QB Ben Roethlisberger and WR Antonio Bryant, who connected on 129 passes last season, are both ready to go and will give fits to a subpar New England secondary.
With QB Tom Brady’s Deflategate suspension overturned, the Pats are in good shape to build on their 12-4 SU (9-7 ATS) from last season. They won’t have top RB LeGarrette Blount (suspension), but Brady has elite passing weapons with TE Rob Gronkowski and top WR Julian Edelman, who has been slowed by an injured ankle, but is listed as probable for Thursday.
These clubs did not meet last season, but when they last collided on Nov. 3, 2013, the Patriots rolled to a 55-31 victory behind Brady’s 432 passing yards and four touchdown tosses.
Pittsburgh has a solid 19-13 ATS mark (59%) in the underdog role under Mike Tomlin, but New England is 11-3 ATS (79%) at home in the past two seasons where the total is at least 45.5 points.
The Steelers were an average rushing team last season with 109.5 YPG on 4.1 YPC, which both ranked 16th in the 32-team NFL. RB Le’Veon Bell (1,361 rush yds, 4.7 YPC, 8 TD) is the workhorse, but with his suspension, new RB DeAngelo Williams (219 rush yds, 3.5 YPC, 0 TD with Carolina) will be the main ball carrier.
But Pittsburgh’s best chance to pull off the upset is by throwing the football. QB Ben Roethlisberger (4,952 pass yds, 32 TD, 9 INT) is coming off a monster season thanks in large part to WR Antonio Brown (1,698 rec yds, 13.2 avg, 13 TD) who caught 129 of his 182 targets last season. With Dick LeBeau having departed for Tennessee, the Steelers have a new defensive coordinator for the first time since 2004.
The retirements of SS Troy Polamalu and CB Ike Taylor leave an inexperienced secondary for new coordinator Keith Butler, who had been Pittsburgh’s linebackers coach since 2003. The Steelers were not a great defense last year though, allowing 23.0 PPG and 353 total YPG, which both ranked 18th in the league. The 6.0 yards per play Pittsburgh allowed ranked third-worst in the NFL. The weakest area of the unit was the secondary which surrendered 253 passing YPG (6th-most in league).
New England is also known for its air attack that gained 258 passing YPG (11th in NFL) and helped the club post 29.3 PPG (4th in NFL). QB Tom Brady (4,109 pass yds, 7.1 YPA, 33 TD, 9 INT) efficiently operates the modified spread attack that uses stack formations and pick plays to turn short passes into long gainers.
WR Julian Edelman (972 rec yds, 4 TD) led the team in both targets (135) and receptions (92), while TE Rob Gronkowski (130 targets, 82 catches) led the offense in receiving yards (1,124), receiving touchdowns (12) and 20-yard gains (19).
With the Pats having lost DT Vince Wilfork and CBs Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner to free agency, younger players like DE Chandler Jones and LBs Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower will be counted on to help lead the defense that held teams to 19.6 PPG (8th in NFL) and 344 YPG (13th in NFL).
It’s the secondary that appears to be the most glaring weakness, but the numbers were average last year with 240 passing YPG allowed (17th in NFL) on 6.7 YPA (14th in NFL).