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Thursday Night Football Preview: Christmas in September

What do the Patriots and Steelers have in store for us in their 2015 opening night matchup?

"It's the most wonderful time of the year."

Regular season NFL action is finally upon us, and while the preseason was a nice appetizer giving us  glimpses of what might be this year, nothing beats games with real implications on the line.

And there's no one more excited to kick off Week 1 of the 2015 season with the Thursday Night Football game than this guy.

In last week's ruling on the "Deflategate" saga, Federal District Court Judge Richard M. Berman of Manhattan gave Tom Brady the gift of the first four games of the season back that Grinch Commissioner Roger Goodell tried taking away from him.

And hell hath no fury like a quarterback scorned.

With many predicting Belichick and the Patriots running wild on the rest of the league once Brady returned from his suspension -- thanks to Judge Berman -- the "Tom Brady Revenge Tour" gets a head start against Pittsburgh this Thursday night.

So what can we expect when the Steel City meets the Evil Empire?

The Pre-Game Rundown

A busy offseason of injuries, suspensions, and roster moves for both New England and Pittsburgh have shaped both sides of the football for this contest.

The Patriots have lost their starting trio in the secondary, with Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner leaving in free agency for the Jets and Saints, respectively, and Kyle Arrington being released early this offseason. In their place is former-Raider Tarell Brown, who ended the year on the IR with a foot injury last year, and former-Eagle Bradley Fletcher, who was best known for giving up big plays on a consistent basis.

On offense, New England also let their two key tailbacks, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, move onto New York as well, with Ridley signing with the Jets and Vereen joining the Giants. And in one of the biggest surprises of last Saturday's NFL cut-down day, the Patriots released Jonas Gray, who likely never left Belichick's doghouse. This leaves a suspended LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden, James White, Dion Lewis, and newcomer Travaris Cadet to earn reps in this backfield.

For the Steelers, the team lost two stalwarts defense in safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor. In an attempt to shore-up their weakened secondary, Pittsburgh sent a conditional 2016 fifth-round draft pick to the Eagles to acquire slot cornerback Brandon Boykin.

To make matter worse, in an unexpected turn of events, five-year veteran Jason Worilds also joined Polamalu and Taylor in retirement. Worilds -- who was one of the league's top edge rushers as the 11th-ranked 3-4 outside linebacker according to Pro Football Focus last season -- leaves a big hole in what was already a subpar unit with his departure.

In an attempt to replace Worilds' production, the team drafted athletic linebacker Bud Dupree. However, though many in Pittsburgh hoped that Dupree would slide right into the vacant pass rusher role left by Worilds departure. However, the first round rookie has failed to impress this preseason and has yet to crack the starting rotation in what is still a position of need for the Steelers.

Despite all these free agency moves, perhaps the biggest factor effecting Thursday's opening night matchup are the suspensions for both teams. The Patriots will be playing without their lead tailback LeGarrette Blount as he serves a one-game suspension, while the Steelers will be without their 2014 Pro Bowl running back Le'Veon Bell and game-changing wideout Martavis Bryant.

On the injury front, while Rob Gronkowski is enjoying his healthiest offseason in years, the same can't be said for his receiving teammates Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell. While Edelman's injury isn't expected to keep him out of Thursday's contest, LaFell will be forced to miss the beginning of the year on the PUP list.

For the Steelers -- already without Bell -- their running game suffered another blow losing their four-time Pro Bowler and starting center Maurkice Pouncey to a fractured left ankle.

All this sets a very interesting stage when the Steelers meet the Patriots to open the season at Foxborough.

The Patriots Game Script

The last time Brady faced the Steelers was in Week 9 of the 2013 season. In that game, Brady poured on the yards and touchdowns in an efficient showing, throwing for 432 yards and 4 touchdowns on just 33 attempts. Brady spread the wealth in that game, with three of his pass catchers -- Gronkowski, Aaron Dobson, and Danny Amendola -- each crossing the century mark and hauling in at least one touchdown.

Expect more of the same in their next meeting on Thursday night.

The Steelers pass defense is actually in worse shape than when they last played New England. Last season they were the seventh-least efficient defense against the pass according to our Defensive Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per play when adjusted for strength of schedule.

For those unfamiliar with NEP, it's our signature metric which measures the impact of each play on a team's chances of scoring. If a play increases a team's chances of scoring, a positive mark is given, and vice-versa for the opposite. To learn more about it, check out our  glossary.

So with that being said, the Steelers' pass defense gave up a little over a point on every 6.7 pass attempts last year, which was nearly half the league-wide average of one point given up every 12.5 pass attempts.

Look for the Patriots to exploit these weaknesses all game long, with Belichick keeping his foot on the pedal for all four quarters in what might be a statement game to the rest of the NFL.

With plenty of time to carve up the weak Steelers secondary, look for Brady to hone in on his top target in the passing game Gronkowski early and often. And with Pittsburgh ranking 28th in passing touchdowns allowed, Gronkowski should find success against the Steelers particularly in the red zone. Last season, Gronkowski managed 11 receptions and 9 touchdowns on 17 targets inside the opponent's 20-yard line, and is nearly a sure bet for a touchdown with  our projections giving him a 75% chance at a score this Thursday.

In the Steelers' secondary, joining underwhelming starters William Gay and Cortez Allen is the newly acquired Boykin. An aggressive playmaker capable of playing both on the outside and in the slot, Boykin will likely line up primarily against Edelman in this contest.

Thought Edelman is a capable playmaker himself, if Boykin can indeed win the starting slot corner job, this will be a tough matchup for him; in 2013, Boykin managed six interceptions playing on just a little over half of the team's defensive snaps and, in 2014, ranked as a top slot cornerback, forcing a quarterback rating of 78.2 on all plays in which he was targeted.

This might provide extra opportunity in the passing game for Amendola and Dobson, who find themselves in potentially profitable roles on this offense with LaFell starting the season on the PUP list due to a mysterious foot ailment. However, after being responsible for two of Brady's interceptions this preseason, Dobson has his work cut out for him if he wants to get on the same page as his All-Pro quarterback.

In terms of the running game, the Patriots' efficiency in the passing game should benefit the backfield. As our Editor-In-Chief JJ Zachariason found over a five-year study, the top-tier passing offenses had far more rushing touchdown opportunities than the lower-ranked teams. Consistent with this idea, in Brady's 400-plus yard game against the Steelers, Ridley, Blount and Brandon Bolden combined for 198 yards and 3 touchdowns on the ground on just 34 carries.

Bolden, Travaris Cadet, Dion Lewis, and James White will form the committee that holds down the fort while Blount serves his one-game suspension. The early favorite to handle the workload in this unit is Bolden, who split time with Gray this season as Blount's backup. But following the surprise cut of Gray -- who was the most efficient back in the league among all those with at least 75 carries last year in terms of Rushing NEP per carry (0.19) and Success Rate (56.7%) -- it's anybody's guess how the tailbacks will be utilized.

Of all the tailbacks on the roster, the wildcard may be Lewis -- whose agility as evidenced by his 3-cone drill (6.90) and 20-yard short shuttle (4.18) times -- makes him a nice change of pace option in this backfield.

All in all, everything is pointing toward a high scoring affair for the Patriots side of the ball in this Thursday's game. Will the Steelers be able to keep up?

The Steelers Game Script

As the saying goes, "When in Rome..."

Already a pass-heavy offense with the sixth most passing plays per game (40.4) in 2014, expect that number to go up when they face the Patriots.

As we've just discussed, it's unlikely that the Steelers defense will be able to slow down New England's aerial attack. And with Bell on the shelf for the first two weeks of the season, and DeAngelo Williams being little more than a replacement-level talent in the twilight of his career, the only hope the Steelers will have to stand toe-to-toe with Brady and company will be to air it out.

If New England starts the game with their foot on the pedal and the Steelers fall behind early, expect Ben Roethlisberger to rely heavily on Antonio Brown as the Steelers try to keep pace. Leading the league in receptions (129), receiving yards (1,698) and finishing second in targets (182) last season, since the turn of the century, Brown's 2014 season was second only to Randy Moss. And there's little reason to believe that Brown won't continue this high level of success against a depleted New England secondary.

After losing all three of their starting cornerbacks from Super Bowl XLIX, the team must now rely on a crew of Malcolm Butler, a former-Raider coming off foot surgery in Tarell Brown, and Fletcher. Fletcher in particular was horrendous in coverage last season, ranking 92nd out of 108 cornerbacks according to Pro Footbal Focus and giving up 1,072 yards (worst in the league) and 9 touchdowns (second-worst) on the year.

This all bodes very well for Markus Wheaton, who will be thrust into an important role starting opposite Brown thanks to Bryant's four-game suspension. While his Reception NEP per target of 0.64 last season was right around the leaguewide average of 0.67 for all wideouts with at least 50 targets, the combination of the Pats' burnable secondary, his 4.45 40-time, and a pass-heavy game script for Pittsburgh makes him a threat to score on a deep pass in this contest.

As for the run game, it's an uphill battle for the Steelers. Already running behind an offensive line without their Pro Bowl center in Pouncey, Williams and Dri Archer are facing a stout Patriots front-seven rotation that includes Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Dont'a Hightower, Jerod Mayo, and Jamie Collins. Playing shorthanded without Mayo and Hightower last season, this defensive unit put up an Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP of 0.00 per attempt, which was above the leaguewide average of 0.04 per carry.

Fantasy Football Implications

Typically, you want to avoid the passing games in the Thursday Night Football contests. Our own Matt Goodwin, using data over a three-year study from 2011 to 2013, found that  on average quarterbacks and wideouts fare worse in Thursday games than they do in Sunday or Monday games by a statistically significant margin.

But this isn't your typical Thursday Night Football game, and it's not being played on a short week of rest.

In what should be a high-scoring shootout (our list of strongest predictors, or games that have happened in history that compare favorably to this game, features a number of high scoring affairs), expect plenty of Brady to Gronkowski and Roethlisberger to Brown in this contest, making all these players fine starts both in season-long and daily fantasy football.

And if the Patriots can come out to a big lead as expected through their passing game, if Bolden can win the lion's share of the carries in this backfield, he could be a darkhorse candidate to have an exceptional night as the Steelers defense focuses on stopping the Brady and company.

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