The Steelers' Vince Williams tackles the Panthers' Cameron Artis-Payne during the final preseason game Thursday at Heinz Field. Sylvester Washington Jr./The Times
PITTSBURGH — The question is no longer who the Steelers will face in next week's season opener at New England. Thanks to the ruling of Judge Richard M. Berman, the Steelers will indeed see Tom Brady in Foxborough.
Perhaps the bigger question is this: What Steelers defense will Brady face?
"What better way to start the season than to play Brady?" said defensive end Cam Heyward.
Through six long weeks of this most eventful preseason, even the Steelers -- if they're being honest -- aren't quite exactly sure who they are or what they will be on defense. Certainly they can't like too much of what they've seen.
Throw away Thursday's meaningless fifth preseason game, a Walking Dead II 23-6 loss to the Carolina Panthers. Throw away the fact that the biggest gaffe against the Panthers was made by safety Shamarko Thomas, one of just two defensive starters to play Thursday.
No, take into account all of what we've seen this preseason from the start of training camp when second-round pick Senquez Golson went on the PUP list -- and since on IR -- to last week's loss at Buffalo in the so-called dress rehearsal.
Ask yourself this: Do you feel better about the Steelers defense than you did six weeks ago?
"I'm not as concerned as you might imagine," coach Mike Tomlin said. "We will get ready to play ball on Thursday and then see where we are at. I acknowledge there was negativity out there (Thursday night) in terms of big plays."
Entering Thursday, the Steelers were surrendering 328 passing yards per game, 94 rushing yards and 25 points in four preseasons games. Against the Panthers, the Steelers coughed up another 228 in the air and a grotesque 226 on the ground. Not exactly inspiring.
Yes, it's "just the preseason" and there are the normal growing pains that come with assimilating new starters at key spots and a new system --- including a cover-2 zone -- under new coordinator, Keith Butler.
As problematic as the shoddy tackling, the giving up of big plays early and the lack of a consistent pass rush, save for the first half against Green Bay, those are problems that should be fixable. Of greater concern is the health of the defense.
"Obviously, there were some mistakes but going forward we're going to approach this thing, we're going to clean some things up," said Heyward. "We're using this time to get healthy so we can have all 11 out there and move forward."
They have yet to dress all 11 in the preseason and have gotten little work in together during camp. Stephon Tuitt's ankle, Lawrence Timmons' toe and Mike Mitchell's ankle could be as damaging to the Steelers early in 2015 as the suspensions to Le'Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant.
As they have done throughout the Deflategate drama, the Steelers have said all the right things about how they want to face Brady. How they want to take the Patriots' best shot.
Well, ready or not, they're about to get their chance.
"It's full go," said cornerback Cortez Allen. "No more tune-up games. No more warm-up. Everything now counts."
The guess here is that the defense, as it did last year, will improve over the course of the season. Players will return to health and corrections will be made. That's good news for the Steelers.
And good news for Tom Brady in Week 1. The Patriots QB has never lost to the Steelers in Foxborough.
If the Steelers don't improve over what they've shown the last six weeks, Brady will beat them worse than he did Roger Goodell.