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Friday, September 11, 2015

It's a New Season (2015) but The Patriots Still Own the Steelers

Our long national nightmare is over: that debacle which shall not be named has passed and the 2015 NFL regular season finally began tonight at Gillette Stadium as the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots beat the Steelers 28-21. Typical of an opener, there were plenty of highlights for both teams but also a boatload of mistakes and things to correct in the weeks to come. New England (1-0) used a near flawless performance by Tom Brady (25 of 32 for 288 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs) to propel them past Ben Roethlisberger (26 of 38 for 351 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) and Pittsburgh (0-1).

Brady passed Brett Favre for the most wins as the QB of one team (161). Rob Gronkowski tied his career-high with three touchdown catches as he picked up where he left off: he's scored in seven straight games (including playoffs) dating back to last season. For whatever reason, New England typically shreds Pittsburgh's defense and this was no different despite the fact that Dick LeBeau left and former assistant Keith Butler took over as the defensive coordinator. Cheech (LeVeon Bell) & Chong (LeGarrette Blount) each missed the game for their weed infraction last season while Martavis Bryant sat for the first of his four-game suspension for a similar sticky icky icky offense. DeAngelo Williams surprisingly was very effective, gaining 127 yards on 21 carries for Pittsburgh. Each club was also shorthanded on the offensive line since centers Maurkice Pouncey and Bryan Stork were out with injuries.

One of the newest Patriots Dion Lewis (15 carries, 69 yards; 4 catches, 51 yards) took advantage of his temporarily expanded role with Blount out. James White never saw the field and Brandon Bolden (5 carries, 1 yard; 1 catch, 12 yards) might as well have stayed home too because this game belonged to Lewis when it came to the patchwork running backs for the Pats. He is listed at 5-foot-8 but he's probably closer to 5-foot-6, regardless he looks shifty and hard to take down despite his small size. He won't get nearly the same touches with Blount back next week at Buffalo but he could become Shane Vereen's replacement at least when it comes to the short passing game that Brady loves to utilize. Lewis even fumbled in the fourth quarter near the goal-line after making a 19-yard catch but head coach Bill Belichick didn't put him in the doghouse like you'd expect (his hand might have been forced by the lack of depth).

The biggest weakness of New England this season figures to be their secondary. Malcolm Butler theoretically looks ready to be a No. 1 corner but it is scary with no real dependable guy beside him (veteran castoffs Tarell Brown and Bradley Fletcher could have sizable roles). Antonio Brown is perhaps the toughest wide receiver to cover in the NFL so Butler had a real test right out of the gate. Brown had nine catches for 133 yards and a touchdown but those numbers are slightly misleading since he caught an 11-yard touchdown with two seconds left in the contest. You know that the Patriots offense will put points on the board so all they need from the defense is the occasional stop and timely turnovers. Tonight they had three sacks and an interception by Duron Harmon after Roethlisberger threw into double coverage in the fourth quarter when the Steelers trailed by 14 points.

After a scoreless first quarter, New England went up 14-0 in the second quarter on a pair of touchdown catches by Gronk (16 yards and 6 yards respectively). Josh Scobee had a rough first half in his Pittsburgh debut: he missed two field goals before hitting a 44-yard kick with three seconds left in the second quarter. Scott Chandler's first catch as a Patriot was a 1-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter making it 21-3. Pittsburgh cut it to a two-score game with a 1-yard run by something named Will Johnson while Markus Wheaton caught the two-point conversion. The Steelers got stuffed in the red zone early in the fourth quarter and settled for a 24-yard field goal which cut it to 21-14. Gronk's hat trick was completed with a one-yard touchdown catch on the ensuing drive.

The Patriots get a few extra days to rest and prepare for the Bills next Sunday (1, CBS) in Orchard Park, NY. Buffalo hosts Indianapolis this Sunday in what should be an interesting matchup. Say what you will about Rex Ryan but he always seemed to get the most out of the Jets and they usually gave the Patriots tough games. On the other side, the Steelers will host the 49ers next Sunday in their home opener. Unless their defense improves drastically (which I can't see happening), I don't think that the Pats will see Pittsburgh again this season. Actually, I hope that they meet in the playoffs since I think I know how that will turn out (in New England's favor of course).

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