Steelers-Patriots Preview

BY foxsports • September 8, 2015

Tom Brady will be under center. The New England Patriots will raise their fourth Super Bowl banner.

On Thursday night, all will finally seem normal in Foxborough.

After the seemingly endless offseason drama surrounding "Deflategate," the Patriots begin defense of their championship led by their superstar quarterback - a circumstance that was in doubt until just a week ago - when they host the Pittsburgh Steelers to open the NFL season.

Brady's four-game suspension was erased last Thursday by a federal judge, who ruled that Commissioner Roger Goodell had dispensed ''his own brand of industrial justice'' in finding that Brady played a role in the deflating of footballs below the allowable limit for last season's AFC championship game. Brady has insisted he played no role in any conspiracy to do so, and the judge ruled that Goodell went ''far beyond'' the investigative conclusions of attorney Ted Wells.

The quarterback's lawsuit against the league appeared to put an end to the matter for the foreseeable future, though the NFL has promised to appeal.

''Everything that's happened over the past seven months, obviously I have a lot of personal feelings, but I really don't care to share many of those,'' Brady said Sunday.

''I really care to think about what I need to do going forward. We've got a lot of guys in this locker room who worked really hard to get to this point, and so have I, and I'm excited to be able to go out there and do it.''

That could be bad news for opponents that hope the saga has distracted Brady from his preparation to play. In fact, "Deflategate" might only leave him more motivated. After the Patriots were penalized for illegally videotaping opponents in 2007, they ran off a perfect record in the regular season before losing in the Super Bowl to blow their chance at the NFL's first 19-0 season.

New England (15-4), of course, finished the job last season, with Brady rallying the Patriots from 10 points down in the fourth quarter against Seattle's fearsome defense to win 28-24 and capture their first title since the 2004 season.

With Brady set to throw to healthy star tight end Rob Gronkowski (82 catches, 1,124 yards, 12 touchdowns) and Julian Edelman (92 receptions, 972 yards), he'll have some familiar weapons at his disposal as his team chases another Lombardi Trophy.

The Patriots, though, won't have Brandon LaFell (74 catches, 953 yards, seven TDs) until at least Week 8 after he was placed on the reserve-physically unable to perform list. Also, the addition of veteran receiver Reggie Wayne didn't work, as he was among the team's final cuts.

A bigger loss was the departure of star cornerback Darrelle Revis for the New York Jets. Their other starting cornerback, Brandon Browner, signed with New Orleans.

However, New England's defensive backfield still includes Malcolm Butler, who intercepted Russell Wilson at the goal line to clinch the Super Bowl victory, and safety Devin McCourty, who was coveted throughout the league but re-signed for five years with the Patriots.

Longtime starting defensive tackle Vince Wilfork also left, signing with Houston after 11 years in New England.

Personnel change, though, has hardly fazed coach Bill Belichick over the years.

"There's turnover at every position on our roster, just like there is with every team in the league," Belichick said. "Every team has got that, maybe not at every position, but some positions. Every year starts all over again for everybody. ... It's part of training camp. It's part of building your team from the beginning of the season to getting them ready for regular-season games."

He'll face a challenge in managing that turnover in the backfield. Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley were lost to free agency and Jonas Gray, the team leader with five rushing touchdowns in 2014, was released. LeGarrette Blount won't be available Thursday as he was suspended one game for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.

Fourth-year player Brandon Bolden will start at running back, with second-year man James White and Dion Lewis also in the mix.

The Steelers (11-6) are faced with an even bigger hole in their backfield, albeit a temporary one, as 1,300-yard rusher Le'Veon Bell was suspended two games for a violation of the substance-abuse policy. Bell also caught 83 passes for 854 yards last season - tops among NFL running backs.

Receiver Martavis Bryant will also have to sit out a month for violating the substance-abuse policy, and All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey is out until at least November with an ankle injury.

Veteran DeAngelo Williams, who signed a two-year contract with Pittsburgh after nine seasons with Carolina, will start at running back.

That means the Steelers will have to lean even more heavily on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who got a new contract worth close to $100 million in the offseason after turning in his best season in 2014; star receiver Antonio Brown (league-high 1,698 yards, 13 TDs) and tight end Heath Miller (761 yards). Pittsburgh averaged 411.1 yards last year - 0.3 behind the NFL-leading Saints.

Visiting Foxborough, though, hasn't gone well for Pittsburgh no matter who has played. The Steelers have never beaten Brady at home, losing three times by an average of 20 points, including a 55-31 rout in the most recent one in November 2013.

The Patriots have put up at least 30 points in each of Brady's wins against the Steelers at Foxborough. New England has averaged 458 yards and Brady passed for an average of 375 yards in those contests.

''We're not going to say this is more important than any other game,'' Pittsburgh defensive end Cam Heyward said. ''It's the first game. We're just looking to put it all together on Thursday.''

That kind of approach will be needed for the Steelers, who face the toughest schedule in the league as they attempt to end a four-year streak without a playoff win.

''It's a hostile environment that truly loves their team,'' Heyward said. ''We want to be able to go on the road and win games like that, so this is a great test for our team.''

The defense will receive the biggest test, given its problems at Gillette Stadium and the fact that it allowed a mediocre 353.4 yards per game last season - its worst effort in nearly a quarter century. Pittsburgh responded by promoting Keith Butler to replace longtime defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and quietly urging now-retired veterans Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor to depart.

The preseason, though, didn't indicate immediate improvement is on the horizon. Though all 11 defensive starters weren't on the field at the same time, the Steelers allowed 353 yards per game and 5.6 per play in going 1-4.

''We've got some good players, there's no sense in changing most of this stuff,'' Butler said. ''We think there are some adjustments we can make that can help our guys go and be aggressive.''

They'll need to be against the Super Bowl champions, whose quarterback's focus is finally exclusively on the field.

''It's time for me to do my job,'' Brady said. ''Anything that's happened over the last seven months wasn't really my job.''