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Steelers look pitiful on defense in defeat

The Pittsburgh Steelers opened the 2015 National Football League regular season on Thursday night against the New England Patriots. It was billed as a potential AFC Championship game preview. Instead, we watched a champion move up and down the field, while the other team looked hopelessly inept on defense.

Pittsburgh has one of the best offenses in the NFL, but it could not overcome New England in a 28-21 victory. The score sounds closer than the game felt. While the Steelers were hurt by new kicker Josh Scobee missing two first-half field goals, they also could not get Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and the Patriots off the field in key moments.

New England did whatever it wanted against Pittsburgh’s secondary. Tom Brady completed 25-of-32 attempts for 288 yards and four touchdowns without an interception. Gronkowski, who was supposedly the focal point of defensive coordinator Keith Butler’s gameplan, scored three touchdowns and romped down the seam unmolested multiple times.

All told, the Patriots racked up 26 first downs and converted 7-of-11 third down attempts. It was a clinic in efficiency for one team, and ineptitude for the other. Just as glaring was the lack of defense being played in the red zone, where New England was barely challenged as it went 4-of-4 in those chances.

Ultimately, the Steelers have a long season ahead of them. Butler can get his unit fixed, and Pittsburgh can start to see vast improvements within an AFC North that does not have one dominant team. However, the defense is likely not going to be very reliable with the current roster.

The inside linebackers of Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons are very good, and the play of Cameron Heyward on the line cannot be discounted. Unfortunately, the rest of the defense needs to be chucked out the proverbial window. A secondary that features William Gay as its best player is going to get torched.

Perhaps even more troubling was the insistence of Butler to play Cover 2 for much of the game. New England loves to run seam routes for Gronkowski, and a Cover 2 look forces an inside linebacker to run up the seam with him. Shazier and Timmons are good, but they have no chance. Additionally, the safeties are too far away to make an impact, leaving Brady with easy throws all night.

In Week 2, the Steelers come home to face the reeling San Francisco 49ers. This should be a win for Pittsburgh and perhaps a chance to get fat on a team still trying to find itself after devastating personnel departures this offseason.

However, if Pittsburgh crumbles and falls to Colin Kaepernick and San Francisco, justified alarm bells should start ringing across the three rivers.

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