Labriola On

Labriola on Sept. 10, DBs, backup RBs

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Ready or not, here it comes:*

  • Buffalo, Miami, New York Jets, Jacksonville, Tennessee, Philadelphia, Washington. Those are seven of the eight teams that the defending champion New England Patriots will be hosting in 2015 at Gillette Stadium.
  • Because the Steelers are the eighth is why I see Steelers-Patriots on Thursday, Sept. 10 to open the 2015 NFL season as being close to a foregone conclusion.
  • A foregone conclusion, especially given the provision that the teams appearing on the opening Thursday night telecast are then available to be scheduled for an additional Thursday night telecast later in the season. With the exception of the two participants on Sept. 10, each team will have just one Thursday night game in 2015. The Patriots, and the Steelers if selected as the opponent for Sept. 10, would be eligible for two Thursday night appearances next season.
  • There also is some historical precedence for that very matchup.
  • Back in 2002, the NFL had yet to decide on having the defending champion open the regular season schedule on that first Thursday night, and so when the Steelers served as the opening weekend opponent for the defending champion New England Patriots, it was the opener for Monday Night Football. That game also served to christen Gillette Stadium while serving as a rematch of the 2001 AFC Championship Game, which had been held at Heinz Field.
  • That 2002 opener also was the game in which the Patriots showed the rest of the NFL the way to defeat that version of the Steelers 3-4 defense. In 2001, the Steelers' defense was a dominant unit. It led the NFL with 55 sacks, ranked first in total yards allowed, first in rushing yards allowed, fourth in passing yards allowed, and third in points allowed. It had 28 takeaways and allowed 24 touchdowns in 16 games.
  • What the Patriots did in the 2002 opener was line up in regular offensive personnel, but they put their running backs on each end of the formation, with the wide receivers inside them, which had Steelers cornerbacks on running backs and safeties or linebackers on wide receivers. The quarterback was in an empty set, and it was pass, pass, pass. From the middle of the first quarter of a 7-7 game until the middle of the third quarter when the Patriots had a 24-7 lead, New England attempted 31 passes and only four runs.
  • The following week – against the Raiders at Heinz Field – the Steelers faced a similar game plan. In the first half alone, the Raiders called 44 passes and attempted only five runs. By the end of what was a 30-17 Oakland win, the Raiders attempted 17 running plays and called 70 pass plays.
  • The secondary had gotten too old and couldn't run and cover – Brent Alexander and Mike Logan and Lee Flowers and Dewayne Washington – and the Steelers responded to that reality by putting together a concerted effort to re-make the unit by drafting Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor in 2003, Ricardo Colclough in 2004, Bryant McFadden in 2005, and Anthony Smith in 2006. The cost to add those players was one No. 1, two No. 2s, and one No. 3, for a total of five premium picks over a four-season span.
  • A similar type of commitment could be needed now, because Colclough and Smith were busts, and McFadden was just OK and for only a short time at that.
  • And the draft is the way to go for a team looking to re-make its secondary, because difference-makers along the back end of a defense rarely come available on the open market, and when they do come available the price tag all too often is prohibitive.
  • The issue these Steelers should consider using free agency to address is backup running back.
  • Not because there is an especially attractive group of running backs who could come available when free agency opens on March 10, but because the Steelers most pressing need for a quality backup to Le'Veon Bell could come in the first two weekends of the 2015 season.
  • About a week ago, Bell was admitted into a court program that, if completed successfully, will lead to the marijuana charges filed against him last summer being dismissed. Bell was admitted into the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program, which is for first-time offenders of nonviolent crimes, where charges can be dismissed and expunged if the defendant fulfills certain requirements. The 15-month probationary program will require Bell to abstain from drugs and alcohol, complete all recommended treatment, pay a $100 fee and court costs and complete a safe driving class. In addition, his driver's license will be suspended for 60 days. Bell now faces possible league sanctions, which under the new substance-abuse policy calls for a two-game suspension for players found legally responsible for driving under the influence.
  • The assumption is that Bell's suspension from the NFL, when handed down, will sideline him at the start of the 2015 season, and that assumption is based on what has been done in similar situations in the recent past.
  • "It's an unknown. We don't know what the league will do," said General Manager Kevin Colbert about Bell's looming suspension. "The policy has been spelled out, at least in terms of this is what it is. How (the league) will interpret it, we have no idea. We won't get any kind of lead time on that. We will have to adjust. We have to be prepared for that."
  • No Le'Veon Bell for the first game or two of 2015 means the Steelers are going to need somebody there who has some NFL experience that goes beyond a couple of preseason games. At least that would be my preference.
  • Especially on Sept. 10 at New England.
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