Enough about Deflategate and cheating and, hey, oh wait, there’s a real football game Thursday night. Here’s a look at why the Steelers and their new coordinator could struggle slowing down New England in the opener. Plus, mailbag questions on Tim Tebow, preseason pricing and award races

By Peter King
September 09, 2015

Actual football is about to be discussed. Beware.

I mean, like, football with men running around and colliding on fields, which we haven’t seen for 31 weeks. We’ve been football-less for 219 days, but now only for one more, with the Steelers flying to New England today for the Thursday night season-opener against the defending-champion Patriots.

The defiant Patriots. The embattled Patriots. The us-against-the-world Patriots. You’ve been reading and hearing a lot about the Patriots and the commissioner and a judge named Richard Berman and how the rest of the league is either paranoid about the Patriots or think they’re flat-out cheaters … and you know what the great thing is? This week, none of that matters. Sixteen football games do.

Let’s focus on the first of 256 regular-season games: Pittsburgh at New England. And Pittsburgh enters the game in trouble, on both sides of the ball. On offense, center Maurkice Pouncey will be gone through mid-season with a broken leg. Deep-threat receiver Martavis Bryant is gone for four weeks, suspended for a substance-abuse violation. Top fantasy pick Le’Veon Bell is gone for two weeks, suspended for a substance-abuse ban too. Pouncey and Bell are two of the four most important offensive cogs the Steelers employ, and they’ll be hugely missed Thursday night.

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But it might be worse for Pittsburgh on defense. Entering the game against a supremely motivated Tom Brady and a Patriots team that will be sky-high emotionally, here’s how bad things are:

• The Steelers drafted three rookies to remake a secondary that was 27th in the NFL in pass defense last year (4,243 yards passing and 30 touchdown passes allowed), and none will dress Thursday. Cornerback Senquez Golson (second round) is out for the year after shoulder surgery. Cornerback Doran Grant (fourth round), the highest-drafted rookie to be cut this year, is on the practice squad after making little impact in training camp. Seventh-round safety Gerod Holliman was cut, a year after leading the NCAA in interceptions but showing poor physicality in camp.

• Young strong safety Shamarko Thomas, ticketed to replace retired playmaker Troy Polamalu, could be benched Thursday because foes made too many preseason plays—he was beaten for three touchdowns—on him. Will Allen, who was supposed to provide safety depth only, might start alongside vet Mike Mitchell.

• The cornerback position is in crisis. It should have been William Gay and Cortez Allen, with Golson in the slot. But Cortez Allen has struggled in camp and could be replaced against New England by a waiver pickup from Jacksonville, Antwon Blake. The secondary could be target practice for Brady and, also in the first six weeks, for Joe Flacco, Philip Rivers and Carson Palmer. The Steelers traded a fifth-round pick for Brandon Boykin early in camp, and he may not be good enough to be their nickel. What a personnel nightmare: using second, fourth, fifth and seventh-round picks to retool a bad secondary, and getting almost no immediate benefit.

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• The front seven has little depth, particularly on the line. It needs an impact rusher. What the Steelers really need is the 2013 first-rounder Jarvis Jones to show up.

• The last three times Tom Brady has faced the Steelers, he’s put up an average of 37 points per game. You get the feeling New England would be disappointed with 37 on Thursday night.

With legendary Dick LeBeau having been nudged out as defensive coordinator last winter, an anonymous man takes his spot. This is some spot to have to make a play-calling debut.

* * *

Keith Butler (George Gojkovich/Getty Images)

“The first game I ever started as rookie was in Three Rivers Stadium,” the new guy, Keith Butler, said in training camp. He had a 10-year career as a linebacker with Seattle, starting in 1978, and spent his last 11 seasons as Pittsburgh’s linebackers coach, being tutored by LeBeau.

“I played against the Steelers and all those guys, Terry Bradshaw and Franco [Harris] and Benny Cunningham, Rocky Bleier. It left a big impression on me. What I remember about the game is, Rocky was running the ball up the middle, and I hit the tight end. Back then the outside backers were supposed to run back inside when the play goes away from them, and so I did that. I went in to hit Rocky, and right before I hit him he cut outside and I turned and [tight end] Benny Cunningham ear-holed me right there. He got me. I kind of got initiated into the NFL. It was a thrill for me to play against them; they had already won the Super Bowl, and they were going to end up winning the one that year too. I never dreamed I would be doing this by any means.

“It’s a great place to coach. Everybody asks me why I’ve stayed here so long. I’ve stayed here so long because I’ve been here long enough to go to three Super Bowls and win two of them. How many coaches have they had here?”

Three in forty-something years, Butler was told.

“There’s a reason the Steelers have won six Super Bowls. If players hear the same words every year, they are going to sooner or later get it. If they don’t get it, you have to replace them. The more you can maintain continuity, the better chance you have to be successful. When you look at New England, how long has Belichick been there?”

Fifteen years, Butler was told.

“There’s a lot to be said about continuity.”

That’s one reason why Butler doesn’t plan to change the Steelers from a 3-4 to something in his image. He likes the 3-4. He loves LeBeau. Coach Mike Tomlin didn’t want to move from the 3-4, but he also wanted a fresh voice to coach the defense.

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Butler’s an interesting guy. A first-year NFL coordinator at 59, he wondered if his time would ever come. But he and Tomlin have become close, and Tomlin trusts that Butler—with a long history of 3-4 experience and a laid-back mien and a good relationship with the players—will be able to make an undertalented group competitive enough to give an explosive offense a chance to carry the Steelers to the playoffs. One day in training camp, you could see young linebacker Ryan Shazier and Butler talk the way a player and mentor should talk, with a 10-second Butler lesson and several Shazier nods and a “Got it, coach” at the end.

“He’s been here,” said Shazier, “and he knows our defense so well.”

But what will that new D be? How will it change?

“Uh,” said Shazier, “I don’t think I’m supposed to be talking about that.”

Nor will Butler give away what the Steelers will do on defense that’s different from the LeBeau Way. “There will be subtle differences,” Butler said, “and only the trained eye will know what the differences are. I’m sure that the fans might not see it, but we are going to change some things that are subtle that will help us to, number one, stop the run and, number two, put more pressure on the quarterback on what we call mixed downs, first or second down. I don’t think we did a very good job of that last year, and it puts our DBs in an awkward position in trying to cover guys for a long time. We need to try to make the quarterback as uncomfortable as we can.”

Which would be the impossible dream with those corners this year—especially this week. Pressure is paramount.

One more note for you footballphiles: The debate between the 3-4 and 4-3 has died down in recent years, because even the 3-4 teams play so much four-man line. Butler understands—and he still thinks, particularly with a team in a division in which coaches are desperate to run it on early downs, that the 3-4 is a better scheme.

“The reason I ran a 3-4 defense is I always thought it was more versatile than a 4-3 defense,” said Butler. “You can use the outside linebackers as rush men or as people who could cover for you too. Hence, the zone blitz that Dom [Capers] and Dick [LeBeau] came up with. Really, it’s [Bill] Arnsparger, the old Miami defensive coordinator. Arnsparger started it all, and Dick took some ideas from him. We took some ideas from Arnsparger when we were at Seattle. I think the 3-4 defense gives us a chance with [outside rushing] people like Jarvis Jones and James Harrison and Bud Dupree, the guys we got who are big, good-looking athletes who can do both. They can rush the passer and still cover when you need them to cover. It gives us some versatility in terms of nobody knows who the fourth rusher is for us. They can drop and you aren’t worried too much about him getting mismatched.”

Thursday night in Foxboro, Butler will have his first test. It won’t be easy. In fact, it’s a little bit of David and Goliath. But watch for the guy who looks—well, like a career coach, with the graying hair and the major challenge in the secondary. The Patriots are the first, second and third stories Thursday night, across America. In Pittsburgh, Butler’s the big man. Because without his unit becoming competent, fast, this is going to be a lost year for the Steelers.

* * *

You may have noticed I that didn’t lead this column with a story on the Patriots, and the two big stories Tuesday: ESPN’s piece on how the Patriots’ penalty in the deflated-footballs scandal has strong ties to the Spygate scandal in 2007—one owner told ESPN the harsh Tom Brady sanctions were a “makeup call”—and the Sports Illustrated story that reported that 19 teams have taken more precautions when playing in Foxboro than they do at any other road venue because they fear spying or skullduggery on the part of the Patriots.

There’s a reason I led the column with football. It’s because I think America has Deflategate fatigue. That doesn’t mean we shouldn't keep asking about it and keep reporting on it. I applaud ESPN and SI for advancing the story. It’s clear that, from the stories, there is either rampant unfounded paranoia about the Patriots, or so much smoke about the Patriots that there must be some fire. But it is true that, fair or foul, several owners and coaches in the rest of the league mistrust the Patriots.

• GIVE IT UP, GOODELL: Why the NFL commish should drop the appeal and move on from Deflategate

What does that mean going forward? Not a lot, really. It means the Patriots have an extra-large chip on their shoulders from the doubters entering the season. Bill Belichick always uses that well. If you watch “Do Your Job,” the one-hour documentary of the 2014 Patriots season on NFL Network on Wednesday night, you’ll see how Belichick compartmentalizes the controversy of the early Deflategate days so well.

It’s them against the world, starting Thursday night in Foxboro. And Keith Butler and the Steelers have a monumental task. It’s the Patriots against the other 31 teams, in 2015. In the opener, it’s the outmanned Steelers D against Tom Brady—and the six states who love him.

Now on to your email:

* * *

TEBOW IN CANADA, EH?

About Tebow finding a job in Canada in “10 minutes,” do you actually have contacts in Montreal or elsewhere in the CFL who told you that? It seems to me that it's very unlikely. With the CFL season in full swing, why would a team sit down its starting QB to allow a QB with bad mechanics and a poor knowledge of the playbook to play in a league with a huge field and three downs, making it a pass-happy league? After the Michael Sam fiasco I doubt that the Alouettes or any other CFL team will be interested in a high-profile and ill-equipped American player.

—Yves L., Montreal

Are you telling me that there isn’t a team in the CFL that would want the gate attraction of Tim Tebow? There's not a team that would want the must-see buzz that Tebow would bring? There's not a team that would appreciate having one of the all-time nice guys on their roster, whether he starts right away or not? I think it is ridiculous to suggest that if Tim Tebow said he was interested in playing in the CFL, he wouldn’t find a job very quickly.

AN EVEN OLDER RIVALRY

The NFL is not the only professional football league in the world. On a day when the Toronto Argonauts played the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in their annual Labour (u for emphasis) Classic, you missed an opportunity to recognize that the CFL has rivalries that had passed the Packers and Bears for number of games played. Toronto lost to Hamilton in the 246th meeting of the teams. I would bet Calgary and Edmonton have played more than 189 times as well. While we are at it, maybe you can start a campaign to call the Super Bowl winner exactly that, rather than World Champion.

—Brian S., The Woodlands, Texas

I love when we can educate people about football history. Thanks, and I always love people understanding that there is a league north of the border. It’s longlasting, and it’s really fun. Thank you.

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PRESEASON PREVAILS

The MMQB thinks the NFL preseason should be shortened because many of the top players sit out the last preseason game. But as long as the regular season starts just one week after the preseason, the top players will continue to sit out the last game. So the reason you've cited is not valid. More importantly though, let's ask the coaches what they think—they're the ones who need the preseason to evaluate players and get prepared for the regular season.

—Allen, Annapolis, Md.

To make season ticket holders pay for these games—granted—is an outrage, but this is the USA, and this NFL thing is a capitalist endeavor. 

—Richard W.

The solution to me is fairly simple. Since the vast majority of sure starters are going to play very little in the preseason, the smartest preseason plan would be two games that people actually had to pay for, and either one or two scrimmages—either against nearby teams or intra-squad scrimmages with coaches on the field to simulate the kind of game conditions coaches need to see but also to give the coaches control over exactly what they want to see out of players. I’ve heard from several of you that if the number of games are reduced it won’t mean the number of plays that veteran players play would actually be reduced. Perhaps. Surely most teams are going to play veterans a handful of snaps in the preseason to help them get ready for the regular season. But the more games you have, the more coaches will be tempted to play the starting players more.

Let’s say you had a two-game preseason schedule. In the first game, you play your starters two or three series. In the second game, you play them for most or all of the first half. If coaches treated it this way, the charade of the fourth preseason game would be replaced by a scrimmage in which you could see 60 plays from the 65th player on your team competing against another team’s 65th player. You wouldn’t have the starters out there risking injury; the scrimmages would be strictly to make judgments on, say, the bottom 45 to 50 players in camp. I’m mostly against the preseason because I think players are in such good shape by the time they get to training camp that the games are not needed. But I’m also against them because fans shouldn’t have to pay anywhere near close to full prices for preseason football. If fans are going to get robbed, I prefer they get robbed once every summer, not twice.

SELL THE STORY

What is keeping John Jastremski and Jim McNally from selling their story? I am sure your company would love to hear their side. There is too much money to be made on this story. If it was me, and I got fired and disgraced for doing what I was told by Tom Brady or a representative of Brady, I would sell to the highest bidder. And then lawyer up like Brady is!

—Steven P.

I don’t know what is stopping them. But I can guess: They would like to work in football again one day, and I’m sure they feel tremendous loyalty if not to the Patriots, at least to Brady. They may have some short-term gain from speaking out for profit right now, but I believe it will be pretty short-term. I think one of the interesting things about this story and the Pats employees who handled the footballs is that it has shined a light on the part of football that no one paid much attention—the pregame preparation of footballs. (Something I covered in my Game 150 series on officials in 2013.) While that is a pretty dry subject generally, it does have the potential to flare up into a big story if people believe that illegal things have been happening in the preparation of the footballs. My gut feeling here is that those two guys still probably feel loyal to Brady even though their lives have been turned upside down because of this story, and I doubt they would say anything right now that they believe would get Brady in any trouble.

SYSTEMATIC DISCIPLINE

What I don't understand is why the NFL doesn't create a clear system of discipline, like they have with the drug policy. The biggest point of contention that I've heard among players is that Goodell is too arbitrary, and it's hard to argue that. If I were the NFL I would go through and create a number of tiers of punishment with set punishments for first offense, second offense, etc. I would then go through the NFL rule book and assign each possible rule infraction or issue to a tier. Why not do something like that? It seems common sense to me.

—Jon H.

That is one of the best ideas I have heard to come out of this story. I can only hope that when the league and union meet to discuss a change in commissioner discipline—and Roger Goodell admitted Tuesday morning on ESPN Radio that he had already spoken to the union’s executive director, DeMaurice Smith, about it—both sides put all levels of discipline in black and white so there is no confusion going into the future.

DEFENDING THE DOLPHINS

It is a little short-sighted to discuss how beneficial the Dolphins schedule looks on paper. Did you notice their third true home game is Nov. 22? I remember all the press the Bears schedule got last year, but in retrospect isn't Miami's schedule more unbalanced (without extenuating circumstances) on the league office's behalf?

—Brian H.

Well, you play eight home games (seven, in this case, because one of Miami's home games is in London this year) and if you have four after Thanksgiving, you have four after Thanksgiving. I’m sure other teams are either home four times or on the road four times after Thanksgiving. I just don’t think it's a big deal. In fact, it may be an edge, because Miami will be used to working out in warm to hot weather all the time, and a northern team flying into Miami in December or January might struggle. My point was more about how in the first seven weeks of the season, the Dolphins have one of the easiest opening schedules I have ever seen if you are simply considering the opposing quarterbacks. There is no question that is an edge for Miami.

BRADFORD THE TRUE COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR

So just to be clear, the Eagles will lose a nail-biter to the Packers in the NFC Championship Game and the Niners stay home in January but NaVorro Bowman is the Comeback Player of the Year over Bradford? Mark Sanchez ain't taking Philly that far, Peter!

—Mike D., Brooklyn

Well, quick point: The 2015 awards will be voted on the week after the regular season ends; playoff performance will have nothing to do with who the comeback player of the year is. But you could well be right. If Bradford leads the Eagles to the playoffs and plays at a high level for 16 games, it is going to be hard not to vote for someone who has been knocked out of two consecutive seasons with ACL tears. I think the reason that I ended up projecting Bowman for this award is because I’ve seen him play at a ridiculously high level in brief appearances in the preseason. My theory is that if Bowman plays like this, he will be a first-team All-Pro pick. In that case, unless Bradford is the best quarterback in football this year, I probably would vote Bowman for the award.

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