Patriots’ Improved Pass Rush Among Five Things To Watch Vs. Steelers

Discard your overlong legal documents. Real football finally is upon us.

The New England Patriots kick off the NFL season Thursday at 8:30 p.m. ET against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Patriots are instructing fans to be in their seats by 8 p.m. to watch the Super Bowl banner unveiling ceremony, and of course, to cheer on their embattled quarterback, Tom Brady.

After that, it’s officially on to 2015 for the Patriots. Here are five storylines to watch in Thursday night’s game:

1. Who covers Antonio Brown?
Malcolm Butler is expected to start at left cornerback with Tarell Brown on the right side in the “regular” defense. When the Patriots play nickel, Bradley Fletcher likely will take over on the right side, kicking Brown over to the slot.

The Patriots have three options on how to cover Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown:

1. Have Butler, their No. 1 cornerback, follow Brown around the field.

2. Have Tarell Brown and Fletcher follow Antonio Brown around the field, with help from free safety Devin McCourty.

3. Allow the Steelers to dictate the matchup by where they line up Brown. If Brown takes off deep, then McCourty can serve as a security blanket.

No. 3 looks like the best option for the Patriots, unless their confidence in Butler is sky high. Brown is one of the best wide receivers in the league. He can do damage over the flat and with the deep ball.

Martavis Bryant is out because of a four-game suspension, and Markus Wheaton, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Sammie Coates aren’t nearly as dangerous as the Steelers’ usual No. 2 receiver, so McCourty’s main focus should be Brown.

2. Who starts on the offensive line?
This was a complicated question even before starting center Bryan Stork was placed on injured reserve/designated to return. Now the situation has one additional question mark.

Nate Solder will start at left tackle, and Sebastian Vollmer will be positioned at right tackle. Rookie Tre’ Flowers likely will draw the start at right guard.

Left guard should be manned by Josh Kline, but Ryan Wendell also could start there — if he isn’t playing center. Rookie David Andrews would play center if Wendell doesn’t start in that role.

Rookie Shaq Mason could start at left guard, too, though that’s looking unlikely after the preseason.

My best guess? The Patriots’ offense line looks like this from left to right: Solder-Kline-Wendell-Jackson-Vollmer. Don’t be shocked if Andrews is in there, though.

3. Who takes the majority of third-down back reps?
Dion Lewis and James White each had strong preseasons, while Travaris Cadet sat out all four games with a hamstring injury.

Lewis slightly outplayed White, so he’s my best guess to start Thursday’s game in the pass-catching back role. Don’t be surprised, however, if White, Cadet and Brandon Bolden all get significant reps in shotgun next to Brady.

Bolden likely will start the game as the Patriots’ early down back, and he has experience in the third-down role, so he’s the back with the most guaranteed reps.

The third-down role is all about trust for the Patriots, not only to serve as a security blanket for Brady but also to protect him from the pass rush. The most dependable option likely will see the majority of reps this season, regardless of upside or all-around talent.

4. How does Scott Chandler fit in next to Rob Gronkowski?
Until wide receiver Brandon LaFell comes off the PUP list, tight end Scott Chandler likely will be a pseudo starter in the Patriots’ offense.

Bill Belichick likes to play his best 11 players on offense, and Chandler is more talented than the Patriots’ No. 3 wide receiver options, Aaron Dobson and Chris Harper.

It will be tough for an opposing defense to cover both Rob Gronkowski and Chandler, especially in the red zone. Athletic linebacker Ryan Shazier likely will take on one of the Patriots’ tight ends, but the other player could be a major mismatch for the Steelers.

5. How does Bill Belichick mix in all of his talented pass rushers?
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger could be under siege against the Patriots, who added Jabaal Sheard, Trey Flowers, Geneo Grissom, Rufus Johnson and Eric Martin to their edge-rushing corps, which features starters Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich.

Patriots defensive tackle Dominique Easley also is an explosive pass rusher, and starters Dont’a Hightower, Jerod Mayo and Jamie Collins are top-tier blitzing linebackers.

The Patriots can’t play them all at once, however, so it will be interesting to see how Sheard, especially, is mixed into the defense. The Patriots could elect to only play him on third down, kicking Jones over to defensive tackle, or they also could mix him in on early downs, giving the starters some much needed rest.

Sheard is a great run defender, so it seems like a waste to only use him in obvious pass-rushing situations.

Thumbnail photo via Stew Milne/USA TODAY Sports Images

Thumbnail photo via Dec 8, 2013; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones (95) and defensive end Rob Ninkovich (50) during the second quarter against the Cleveland Browns at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

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