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Patriots-Steelers Matchups: Protect Brady

WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN: 

It shouldn't come as a surprise if the Patriots run into some trouble trying to move the ball on the ground against the Steelers. New England will be without top running back LeGarrette Blount, who will be serving a one-game suspension for violating the NFL's player conduct policy. Blount rushed for 281 yards and three touchdowns on 60 carries (4.7 per carry) in his five regular-season games with the Patriots last season. His absence could mean the Patriots will spread the carries among several backs. New England will also be without fullback James Develin, who broke his right tibia in the fourth quarter of a 17-16 preseason victory over Carolina and will miss the entire 2015 season (injured reserve). Pittsburgh ranked sixth among NFL teams against the run last season. Advantage: Steelers

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WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS:

The Patriots should have a decided edge in this matchup, provided they can protect Tom Brady. Pittsburgh's secondary was among the worst in the NFL last season. The Steelers ranked 27th in pass defense and 25th in interceptions in 2014. Pittsburgh used three draft picks to help give the secondary a facelift in the offseason, but cornerback Senquez Golson, a second-round pick out of Mississippi, suffered a shoulder injury during the preseason and was placed on injured reserve. The Steelers also drafted cornerback Doran Grant out of Ohio State (fourth round) and safety Gerod Holliman out of Louisville (seventh round) this year. It could be a big night for New England tight end Rob Gronkowski, who didn't play during the preseason.  Advantage: Patriots

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WHEN THE STEELERS RUN:

Like the Patriots, the Steelers will be without their top running back for the opener. Le'Veon Bell received a three-game suspension (later reduced to two games) for violating terms of the NFL player conduct policy after being arrested on charges of marijuana possession and driving under the influence while he was with Blount in 2014. Bell led the AFC in rushing last season (1,361 yards). Without Bell the Steelers will likely turn to veteran DeAngelo Williams, who they acquired as a free agent in the offseason. Williams averaged at least 4.1 yards per carry for eight consecutive seasons with Carolina before injuries limited him to six games last season. Pittsburgh will also be without center Maurkice Pouncey (ankle). Advantage: Patriots

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WHEN THE STEELERS PASS:

Offense, more than anything else, carried the Steelers to an 11-5 record last season. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had one of the most productive seasons of his NFL career in 2014, when the Steelers ranked second in passing yards per game (301.6) and third in passing yards per play (7.88). A four-game suspension to wide receiver Martavis Bryant has taken a bite out of Pittsburgh's passing attack for this contest, however. Bryant caught 26 passes (eight for touchdowns) in 10 games last season, when he averaged 21.1 yards per reception. The Steelers are banking on production from former Auburn standout Sammie Coates while Bryant is out of the lineup. Pittsburgh selected Coates in the third round of this year's draft. Advantage: Steelers

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SPECIAL TEAMS:

It was a nightmarish preseason for the Steelers in terms of kickers. Pittsburgh sent a sixth-round pick to Jacksonville in exchange for Josh Scobee on Aug. 31 after the Steelers lost two kickers to season-ending injuries after training camp started. Pittsburgh's problems at that position began when Shaun Suisham suffered a torn ACL in the Hall of Fame Game against Minnesota, then Garrett Hartley went down with a hamstring injury during a 43-19 preseason loss to Buffalo. Scobee, 33, had been with the Jaguars since 2004. He has made 80.8 percent of his field goal attempts during his NFL career. Suisham had been Pittsburgh's placekicker since 2010. Advantage: Patriots

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OTHER FACTORS:

It's hard to envision a bigger wave of emotion in an NFL stadium than the one that will be at Gillette Stadium on Thursday night. The home fans will have the chance to cheer on the defending Super Bowl champions in their NFL opener, and they will undoubtedly raise the decibel level when they show their appreciation for quarterback Tom Brady as well. Brady's offseason legal battle with the league has been well-chronicled. Brady has played well against the Steelers for most of his career. Including playoff games, New England is 7-2 against Pittsburgh with Brady at quarterback. Brady passed for 20 touchdowns and was intercepted three times in those nine games. Defending Super Bowl champions are 32-15-1 in their season opener. Advantage: Patriots

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