Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: Week 1 - Steelers at Patriots

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After another offseason spent in the afterglow of a Super Bowl championship, the Patriots will raise a sixth banner and then kick off the 2019 season against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night.

As is always the case, the Patriots look different than the team that lost to the Steelers in Week 15 last season and then didn’t lose again en route to raising the Lombardi Trophy. The Steelers have a different flair as well, jettisoning Antonio Brown and LeVeon Bell in the offseason and revamping some key spots on their defense.

But what hasn’t changed is that these are two of the most respected franchises in the NFL. Two teams that have consistently won football games over the last two decades and have met in three AFC Championships over that time. While Week 1 is never a great barometer for any team’s championship aspirations, both squads will be looking to get off on the right foot and put themselves atop the conference favorites list.

Here are the Keys to the Starting Lineup for what the Patriots need to do to get a win and get the 2019 victory train rolling.

Patriots.com's Mike Dussault shares his players to watch during the Patriots Week 1 matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, September 8, 2019.

Linebackers Unleashed

Last year we wondered how the team would manage with just two proven three-down linebackers entering the season. Now, with the return of Jamie Collins and Ja’whaun Bentley to go with Dont'a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and John Simon, with Chase Winovich waiting in the wings, the linebacker corps now appears to be a point of strength, giving the coaching staff the kind of versatility to play with that they haven’t had since the mid-2000’s.

Former linebacker Jerod Mayo has a lot to work with and how the linebackers will be deployed is anybody’s guess. This will put enormous pressure on Ben Roethlisberger and his protection as they try to decipher who might be blitzing and who might be dropping into coverage. The top trio of Hightower, Van Noy and Collins can do it all and should be the players making the biggest impact.

Power Run Game

As discussed in Do Your Job 3, the Patriots tacked from a spread offense to a power running one late in the 2018 season and it sparked their Super Bowl run. But without Trent Brown, Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen, all key point-of-attack blockers, can the offense reproduce that effective tactic? Sony Michel and James Develin are two big pieces, but can Isaiah Wynn, Korey Cunningham and Ryan Izzo open the same kind of holes? The athleticism and technical wizardry of Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney, along with the steadiness of Marcus Cannon, will certainly help.

The passing offense is often a work-in-progress early in the season and nothing would make it easier on Brady, the receivers and tight ends than an effective run game will. The running backs are the deepest and most versatile offensive position group and the team must find a way to make them a focal point, even if means throwing to them more and less of last year’s power focus.

Clean, Fundamental Football

Early-season contests are often sloppy, marred by bad fundamentals and an excess of penalties. If there’s a simplest key to victory, it’s just playing clean – avoiding penalties, holding on to the ball and not missing tackles. The Patriots struggled with the former in the preseason, logging 42 penalties in four preseason games, many of which were avoidable mental mistakes. That kind of sloppy football can get you beat in Week 1 and must be avoided at all costs. The team that makes fewer mistakes will win this one.

Protect Brady

The Patriots will have two new offensive lineman starting – Isaiah Wynn at left tackle and Ted Karras at center, but the transition will be aided by legendary coach Dante Scarnecchia and Tom Brady’s ability to get the ball out quickly. However, if there’s one tried and true way to beat the Patriots it’s get to Brady early and never let him get comfortable in the pocket.

An effective run game can help prevent that, but if the game unfolds in an unexpected fashion and forces the team to lean more on their passing offense, it could put a lot of pressure on an area of the team that is currently a work-in-progress. Keeping Brady clean early and often will pay dividends no matter how the passing offense might sputter early on.

Defense Leads the Way

The great equalizer? A dominant defense that has experience and depth at every position. While there are questions about the offense, the only question for the defense is whether or not they live up to expectations. There’s simply no more effective method to winning football games than keeping opponents out of the end zone. If the Pats can contain Big Ben, JuJu Smith-Shuster and James Connor, they’ll give their own offense some breathing room and the ability to stay balanced. A return to the kind of winning the team did in 2003 and 2004, with a shutdown defense and an offense that was mercilessly effective, could be in the cards this season.

Prediction

The Patriots ride their defense to a hard-fought season-opening victory, 17-13.

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