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Week 1 Preview: Steelers (0-0) at Patriots (0-0)

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The Sports Xchange

Pittsburgh Steelers (0-0) at New England Patriots (0-0)

Thursday, 8:30 p.m. ET, at Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass. – TV: NBC

*TV announcers: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya

*Keys to the game: The Steelers tilt their gameplan toward QB Ben Roethlisberger and the passing game without two of their top run game performers, C Maurkice Pouncey (leg) and RB Le’Veon Bell (suspension). It will be a trial by fire for the Steelers’ offensive line, but the same applies to the Patriots’ secondary without CB Darrelle Revis, who joined the Jets in free agency. It is imperative that the Steelers throw the ball effectively and CBs Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler are likely to get help with WR Antonio Brown.

Perhaps more important is Roethlisberger protecting his defense with long and time-consuming drives. The defense lacks any identity to embrace on the heels of myriad offseason changes – defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor are all gone.

A return to the field for QB Tom Brady following his rocky offseason battling the NFL over Deflategate punishment is likely to have the home crowd jazzed for the team’s Super Bowl banner ceremony. Brady, prone to early jitters, must manage his adrenaline after kickoff. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels cannot count on LeGarrette Blount (suspended) but entrusts Brady and WR Julian Edelman to attack the Steelers’ zone with TE Rob Gronkowski playing the role of No. 1 target. RB Brandon Bolden graduates from special-teamer to starter with Blount out.

*Matchup to watch – Patriots DLs Alan Branch and Malcom Brown vs. Steelers C Cody Wallace: Wallace is quick but light and not as athletic or tenacious as Pouncey. To compensate, offensive coordinator Todd Haley is sure to employ two- and three-tight end sets in an attempt to control the line of scrimmage. With Brown, a first-round pick in April, at the heart of an underrated and deep front seven, the Steelers could be forced to run to the edges.

*Player spotlight – Steelers S Will Allen: Shamarko Thomas was slated to start but the Steelers are leaning toward going with the veteran. Allen is more reliable and trustworthy but he’s no match for Gronkowski when the Patriots opt to split him out wide as a receiver. McDaniels will find ways to isolate Gronkowski on defensive backs.

*Fast facts: Of quarterbacks with 10 season-opening starts the past 50 years, Brady’s 11-2 record gives him the best winning percentage (.846). … Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s 13 wins on Kickoff Weekend are the most among active head coaches. … Brown is one of four players with back-to-back seasons with 110-plus catches. He led the NFL with 129 last season.

WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

The defense won’t rest on either side in this one. Tom Brady releases some pent up frustration on the Steelers by chopping up a secondary absent established playmakers, but Ben Roethlisberger does his best to keep it close until late.

*Our pick: Patriots 34-23


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