Week 1: At New England Patriots, Gillette Stadium (66,829)
Tonight, 8:30 p.m., (NBC)
Radio: WDVE-FM (102.5), WBVP-AM (1230), WMBA-AM (1460)
Steelers 33, Patriots 10
Nov. 30, 2008
Perhaps the most impressive thing the Steelers did in the 2008 season wasn't winning the Super Bowl. They had done that five times in franchise history, including one just three years earlier. In Week 14, the Steelers did something they hadn't done since 1997: Win a game at Foxborough. It came with one caveat, of course, there was no Tom Brady, who was out for the season with a torn ACL. Tied 10-10 at the half, the Steelers' top-ranked defense forced five turnovers sacked Matt Cassel, Brady's successor, four times over the final 30 minutes. Hines Ward scored on an 11-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger in the third quarter to break the game open and Jeff Reed kicked four field goals. The Steelers improved to 9-3 but haven't won in New England in three games since.
Can the Steelers defense hold New England under 30?
If the Steelers are to crash the Patriots' party in Foxborough, they might have to. En route to their fourth Super Bowl championship last season, they averaged 29.2 per game. If Stephon Tuitt and Lawrence Timmons are healthy as presumed, the Steelers' front seven should be formidable. The questions surrounding the back end, however, are more than a little bit troubling. Two of the players the Steelers were counting on to bounce back this season -- cornerback Cortez Allen and safety Shamarko Thomas -- are coming off less than impressive preseasons and may not even start.
When the Steelers have the ball
The Steelers will need to manage the clock and find a way to sustain drives to keep Tom Brady and New England’s offense off the field. They can do that by establishing the run with DeAngelo Williams, who will start in place of suspended Le’Veon Bell. Even with Bell out, the Steelers know Williams, a 10-year veteran, can get the job done. “He’s a proven veteran that has been in this league a long time,” QB Ben Roethlisberger said. “He runs hard. He’s smart. He knows the system already.” The Steelers will also need to find a way to contain the Patriots’ two edge rushers, Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones, when the Steelers are forced into third down passing situations. Ninkovich lead the Patriots with eight sacks in 2014, and Jones had six.
When the Patriots have the ball
No Patriots’ running back had more than 100 carries in 2014, so the Steelers will see plenty of passes come their way Thursday night. With the Patriots’ up-tempo offense designed to get the ball out of Brady’s hands as fast as possible, the Steelers may have a hard time getting pressure on Brady. But if they can be physical at the line of scrimmage with New England’s receivers, it can throw off their timing with Brady. When they do run the ball, the Steelers will need to neutralize it, keeping the Patriots in unfavorable down and distances and giving the Steelers a chance to blitz and get after Brady.
The key matchip: Antonio Brown vs. Patriots secondary
It really doesn’t matter who or how many defenders cover Steelers WR Antonio Brown. He’s going to get his yards. But he may need to have a huge game in order for the Steelers to win. With Martavis Bryant out, he’ll likely see double coverage most of the night. With Brandon Browner and Darrelle Revis gone from last year’s team, Brown will likely be covered by Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan, along with seeing help over the top from safeties Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty. If Brown can take advantage of the matchup, it’ll play into the Steelers favor. If not, it could be a long night for them.
Q&A: With DE CAM HEYWARD
As told to Times Steelers Writer Chris Bradford
CB: What was it like growing up around the game with your dad (former NFL star, the late Craig "Ironhead" Hewyard)? Do you remember him playing?
CH: "Basically, from when I was born I was headed to football games. My mom (Charlotte) was taking me to games when I was two weeks old. Growing up in it, seeing that side of the game, you appreciate it, understand the sacrifices these guys make. I understood it form an early age. I just remember being in the locker room with guys, I was fortunate. I have a son on the way. I want to be able to bring him in the locker room as well and understand how much I care about him and how much I want to succeed for him."
CB: Did you get your athleticism from your dad?
CH: "I got it from my mom. She wasn't the greatest athlete but she's a fighter. You don't want to see her on the basketball court (laughs). We give her crap about it but she'll give you a couple elbows to knock you off."
CB: Your dad never wanted you to play running back or fullback?
"High school, I think there was one game, we had some injuries and they asked me to play running back and my dad shot that down real quick. I was already taller than him. He was like. 'You're going to get cut down, you're a tree. That's not your position. Stay where your at, you're going to have a lot more success."
* Mike Tomlin joked this week that DeAngelo Williams was a 6,000 yard rusher in college at the University of Memphis and that "if you listen, he'll tell you about it." On Sunday, Williams told everyone about it. "The athletes and the best coaches and the best students are at the University of Memphis, but I could be a little biased," said a smiling Williams. Tomlin once served as a grad assistant at Memphis, his second coaching job, in 1996. Williams' personality is starting to show through more daily. On Monday he confessed that for fun he liked to needle his new teammates, including the ornery James Harrison. "Short fuse. Really funny," said Williams. "He gets that aggressive talk going and I'm just like, 'Yeah, um, OK. All right.'"
* The Steelers voted on team captains for the 2015 season on Sunday, and LB Lawrence Timmons wasn’t among them. But make no mistake, Timmons’ leadership doesn’t go unnoticed, especially amongst his fellow linebackers. “It’s definitely Lawrence’s room,” Ryan Shazier said. “He’s the leader, so we look up to him. We all play around every day, but at the end of the day he’s the leader in the room.” It’s hard to imagine that Timmons, a Pro Bowler in 2014, could be taken for granted by the rest of the NFL, but Timmons doesn’t quite get the credit he should despite being one of the most consistent linebackers over the course of his nine-year career. Shazier says that if other teams don’t recognize what Timmons can do, they’ll find out soon enough. “He can make any play on the field,” Shazier said. “He’s a fast linebacker, he’ll hit you right in the face. They definitely take him for granted and they’re going to see how well he plays again this year. That’s why he made the Pro Bowl last year. He really deserved it.”
* Patriots’ defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich aren’t in the category of elite pass rushers in the NFL, but the two could still present problems for Steelers’ tackles Marcus Gilbert and Kelvin Beachum. Ninkovich lead the Patriots with eight sacks in 2014, with Jones not far behind with six. “Great defensively, we’re going to have to be on our game every single play,” Beachum said. “Chandler is a little slippery, and Ninkovich is a guy that’s going to go all the way to the end of the whistle.”
* With New England likely to test the Steelers' secondary, S Robert Golden could get some playing time in sub-packages. "If that's what the coaches want to play but every week is important in the National Football League," he said. "Everybody is good, Tom Brady is just one of the elites. We just have to be prepared." In his three seasons, the 24-year-old has made a name and a roster spot for himself on special teams, where he serves as a captain, but is eager to show he can do more. "Every day I come to work and try and come and get better," he said. "That' s what I want to do."
* How does on improve upon a career year and one of the most proficient seasons in NFL history? Antonio Brown is about to find out. "We'll see," he said. "There's always new standards, new mountains to climb, just looking forward to getting it started." In 2014, the Steelers WR led the NFL in receiving yards and had the second-most receptions in a single season. With Martavis Bryant suspended, defenses can key on Brown even more.
* The clock is ticking on Kelvin Beachum. The Steelers have until kickoff until their self-imposed deadline to extend their starting left tackle begins. The Steelers do not negotiate contracts in-season, meaning that Beachum could be headed to free agency.
Even if the Steelers had their full complement of weapons, this figured to be a difficult game. Without Bell, Pouncey and Bryant, this has the feel of a Harlem Globetrotters game and the Steelers are playing the role of the Washington Generals. With all that has gone on this off-season, this should be a coronation for the champs and a triumphant return for Tom Brady against a defense that is still, to be generous, a work in progress. ... Patriots 41, Steelers 20
BY THE NUMBERS
2-0: Record of Steelers and Patriots in NFL Kickoff Games
9-2: Record of defending Super Bowl champions in NFL Kickoff Game. Only New York Giants (2012) and Baltimore (2013) have lost.
9: Combined Super Bowl appearances for Brady and Roethlisberger, the most of any regular season meeting in NFL history
12: Jersey number of Tom Brady and the percent of all Super Bowls that the New England quarterbacks has played in (6).
47: Percent of touchdowns over the last 10 games of 2014 the Steelers will be missing in Martavis Bryant (eight TD's) and Le'Veon Bell (seven TD's)
14-9: Steelers' all-time record against New England
"You never know who's watching these press conferences. They might be watching to find out what we do and change it up. Those are some smart guys."
Ryan Shazier, LB, not revealing the Steelers' game plan against New England during media scrum
"I feel like I'm a starter whether I'm a backup or not. ... That's how I go into the season. You never know when you're number is going to be called. Someone gets hurt you have to go out and perform. I've always been in that position in the past."
Will Allen, strong safety, who could start tonight in place of Shamarko Thomas
"You can't really be looking at him. He's not going to just look at a receiver and throw the ball to him. He might look away and throw it to the opposite field. Just kind of knowing where your guy is, your assignment is."
Brandon Boykin, CB, on facing Tom Brady