FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said he never had any doubt. As Deflategate swirled throughout the offseason, he had "a feeling, an inkling" that by the time Sept. 10 rolled around, his counterpart, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, would be on the field for the NFL opener.
"It's the way NFL football should start," he said. "And maybe it's one of the reasons I knew that Tom would be out there."
Roethlisberger versus Brady.
Steelers versus Patriots.
In a season in which Super Bowl 50 is being celebrated, it's somewhat fitting that two clubs with a combined 10 Super Bowl titles between them (Steelers 6, Patriots 4) square off in the opener.
ESPN reporters Jeremy Fowler (Steelers) and Mike Reiss (Patriots) help us break it down:
Fowler:After months of Deflategate, what do you expect from Tom Brady -- from his demeanor to his pocket presence?
Reiss: Jeremy, Brady will obviously be fired up, but he knows the importance of keeping those emotions in check and not getting caught up in the moment. He played 43 snaps over three preseason games and it didn't always look good, and part of that was because he wasn't throwing to tight end Rob Gronkowski or receiver Julian Edelman. Both will be there for him Thursday night. As for pocket presence, the Patriots have questions on the interior of the offensive line, with starting center Bryan Stork landing on injured reserve with a designation to return, so that bears watching. Brady's mobility and pocket presence seems to be improving with age (he turned 38 on Aug. 3).
On the Steelers' side, what were the top storylines surrounding the team that fans of any opposing team should know?
Fowler: The most prominent preseason storyline for any opposing team is undoubtedly the new-look defense. Dick LeBeau, Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, Brett Keisel -- the Steelers have moved on from all of them in an effort to upgrade speed. But does this defense know what it is? What's the identity? We're about to find out. The Steelers want to return to their run-stopping ways after slippage in 2014. Since 2011, the franchise has invested five first-round picks and a second-round pick into the defensive front seven. If this plan doesn't work, that's a flawed draft road map. But it very well could. Cam Heyward, Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier are among players who should have big years. The defensive backfield is still a question mark. Does the team have at least three starting-caliber corners? They think they do. Thursday night will help provide clarity there.
In recent years, what defensive strategies have you noticed can be effective when trying to contain Brady?
Reiss: Teams that can get to Brady with the four-man rush generally have success. Also, those that spin the dial in terms of both variety of blitz looks and coverages give themselves the best chance. Brady's smarts at the line of scrimmage in terms of getting the Patriots into the right play -- or out of the wrong play -- is one of his best assets. So disguising intentions pre-snap remains critical.
Fowler: The losses hurt badly, no doubt, though Roethlisberger's command of the offense helps offset some issues. Pouncey's athleticism allowed the Steelers to get creative with their blocking scheme. He can pull from the center spot, which is fairly rare, and he can get downfield in a hurry. He'll motor 15 yards to take out a safety. Not many can do that. They don't have anyone like him so they can't expect to replace him, but expect right guard David DeCastro, who's also athletic and has a first-round pedigree, to handle more pulling duties. As for Bell, the Steelers probably won't feature a back with 20 carries a game, but DeAngelo Williams looked explosive in the preseason and should be good for 12 to 15 carries, plus some pass-catching work. Where the Steelers really miss Bell is in the receiving game, especially with receiver Martavis Bryant suspended. Bell might be the league's best tailback pass-catcher. He's better than most of the Steelers' receivers. The Steelers will line up Williams wide, but probably not as much as they would with Bell.
How would you assess the Patriots' depth at wide receiver entering the season?
Reiss: It's light with just four on the active roster -- Edelman, Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson and undrafted free agent Chris Harper. Their top receiver from a playing-time perspective last year, Brandon LaFell (left foot), has opened the year on the physically unable to perform list, but they've also layered the practice squad with good depth (Kenbrell Thompkins, Nathan Palmer), and have good quality from a pass-catching perspective at tight end (Gronkowski, Scott Chandler) and running back (Dion Lewis, James White, Travaris Cadet). So they just might have to rely on those positions a bit more.
Defensively, how different is the Steelers' scheme under first-year coordinator Keith Butler?
Fowler: Definitely not an overhaul, but more than ever the Steelers will be married to versatility, unless Week 1 tells us otherwise. In the preseason, the Steelers mixed in some 4-3 formations, which hasn't been done around here in a long time. Butler has defensive linemen using both three-point and stand-up stances, depending on the play. The Steelers like the pass rushing skills of ends Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, and plan to use them more creatively than in their run-plugging pasts. You will see a lot of safety and inside linebacker blitzes. Consider this a house with the same foundation, same number of bedrooms, but a remodeled kitchen and dining room. If the Steelers can't slow running backs or get to quarterbacks with four-man rushes, then the changes won't matter.