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Patriots vs Steelers: Who are the X-factors for tonight’s game?

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Related: Asking Behind the Steel Curtain: All eyes will be on Patriots’ interior offensive line

NFL: AUG 29 Preseason - Giants at Patriots Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Later today, the New England Patriots will host the Pittsburgh Steelers for both team’s season opener. The game features plenty of star power on both sides — from quarterbacks Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger to wide receivers Julian Edelman and JuJu Smith-Schuster to standout defenders such as Stephon Gilmore or T.J. Watt — but who can actually be named an X-factor for the contest? Pats Pulpit spoke with Jeff Hartman, editor at our sister site Behind the Steel Curtain, to find out.

Steelers: LB T.J. Watt

“When I think of an X-Factor I think of a player who can wreck a game and be a player who can swing the game in one way, shape or form,” said Jeff when naming his X-factor on Pittsburgh’s side. “To me, this is T.J. Watt for the Steelers. Watt was dominant in the Week 15 game last season, and someone who will likely be called upon to have a huge performance in both the run game, coverage and as a pass rusher.”

“The Steelers haven’t had a defensive player this dynamic since Troy Polamalu retired, and Watt will likely have shown improvement as he progresses into his third year in the league,” Jeff continued. Watt, of course, is coming off a Pro Bowl season during which he established himself as one of the league’s most productive edge rushers. Against the Patriots last December, he registered a sack and played a key role in slowing down New England’s offensive attack.

Expect Watt to again see plenty of action tonight, and to be a player that Patriots will have to keep an eye on at all times.

Patriots: The offensive line

New England’s X-factor, meanwhile, is not just one player but a whole position group: the offensive line — one that will miss two starters from a year ago. The Patriots will start Ted Karras at center in place of David Andrews, who was placed on season-ending injured reserve after blood clots were discovered in his lungs. However, he is not the only new offensive lineman in the lineup.

Left tackle Isaiah Wynn, who was drafted in the first round last year but missed all of 2018 due to a torn Achilles tendon, will make his debut as Tom Brady’s blindside protector. It will be trial by fire, if you will, considering that the Steelers have a terrific edge rush. This in combination with Karras’ inexperience — he has started only five games over the course of his three-year career — will make for an interesting battle up front.

Needless to say that if the Patriots can’t establish a presence in the trenches offensively, it will be a long day for them.