Countdown to kickoff: Steelers at Patriots

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Pittsburgh Steelers (0-0) vs. New England Patriots (0-0)
Thursday, Sept. 10, 2014
Gillette Stadium
8:30 p.m.
NBC

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A look at images from our 33-10 win over New England on November 30, 2008 in Foxborough.

SERIES HISTORY:** Steelers lead, 14-9, regular season (Patriots lead, 3-1, postseason).

LAST MEETING: Patriots 55, Steelers 31, Nov. 3, 2013, Gillette Stadium. New England led 27-24 entering the fourth quarter and then blew the game open with four touchdowns in the final 15 minutes. The Patriots wound up gaining 610 total yards and finished with a 100-yard rusher (RB Stevan Ridley, 115), three 100-yard receivers (TE Rob Gronkowski, 143; WR Aaron Dobson, 130; and WR Danny Amendola, 122) and a 400-yard passer (QB Tom Brady, 432). The Patriots achieved three 100-yard receivers in a game for the first time in franchise history. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger had 400 yards passing and matched Brady with four TD passes but also threw two interceptions. The Patriots outrushed the Steelers, 197-108, and won takeaway-giveaway, 3-1.

LAST WEEK: The Steelers completed a 1-4 preseason with a 23-6 loss to Carolina at Heinz Field. The Patriots finished up a 2-2 preseason with a 12-9 loss to the New York Football Giants at Gillette.

WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL: They'll likely do what they've seemingly always done, allow Brady to either exploit mismatches or take advantage of perceived weaknesses in the defense. When in doubt the ball is still going to Gronkowski or WR Julian Edelman, especially in Gronkowski's case when a big play is necessary. But the Patriots will be content to dink and dunk as long as it's practical to do so.

RB LeGarrette Blount (suspended for one game) won't play, which should leave the majority of the chores in a revamped backfield to the likes of RB Brandon Bolden and RB Dion Lewis. The latter will likely assume the third-down/passing-down role once defined by RB Kevin Faulk.

New England will attack a Steelers defense that's in a state of transition in terms of personnel and scheme under first-year coordinator Keith Butler. The Steelers can be expected to try a village collectively in coverage against Gronkowski and they'll do their best to get to Brady, something that's rarely accomplished but a tactic that's historically proven to be effective when executed (ask the New York Football Giants).

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WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL:** They'll be without C Maurkice Pouncey (injured), RB Le'Veon Bell (suspended for two games) and WR Martavis Bryant (suspended for four games). Enough weapons remain, starting with Roethlisberger, for the Steelers to continue to embrace high expectations despite the deletions from their offensive lineup.

They'll confront a defense that's invested heavily in the front seven in terms of high draft picks and free-agent acquisitions. The Patriots want to get after the passer and they want to do it from either a 4-3 or a 3-4 look and by relying upon a number of situational substitutes, as head coach Bill Belichick has always done. In the secondary the Patriots are going with two new starters at cornerback, Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler being one of them. Neither will be asked to chase an elite receiver all over the field or lock down one side of the field, as Aqib Talib or Darrelle Revis used to with regularity.

The Steelers will need contributions from RB DeAngelo Williams on the ground and in the passing game in Bell's absence. Much of the offseason/preseason work was also devoted to coaxing yards after the catch from WR Markus Wheaton, which might come in especially handy in Bryant's absence. Possessing the ball as much as possible might also prove advantageous against Brady.

SPECIAL-TEAMS HEADLINERS: Patriots K Stephen Gostkowski has led the NFL in scoring in each of the last three seasons (four times overall). New England LS Joe Cardona is a rookie fifth-round pick. The Patriots blocked four field goals and one punt in 2014 and returned two of the blocked field goals for touchdowns. Edelman was third in the NFL in punt returns in 2014 (12.0 per, one TD).

Steelers K Josh Scobee spent the last 11 seasons with Jacksonville. Pittsburgh P Jordan Berry is new to the team and the league this season. Steelers WR Antonio Brown was eighth in the NFL in punt returns in 2014 (10.6 per, one TD).

THE X-FACTOR: The home stadium of the defending champs has traditionally become a cauldron of emotion for the NFL's opening-night event. But what effect might the offseason the Patriots and Brady endured have, particularly on Brady? Specifically, will he have a maniacal determination to prove a point, and will that impact his performance? Patriots fans will no doubt be foaming at the mouth, will the Patriots? And how will the Steelers handle a hostile environment the likes of which not many if any in their ranks may have experienced previously?

THEY SAID IT: "We have a job to do. You're going to lose people along the way, whether it's disciplinary reasons or injury, that's part of football. Part of team is making the necessary adjustments and understanding the standard's not going to change, and I think that's something that they all embrace." _ Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin on forging ahead minus Pouncey, Bell and Bryant.

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