Despite playing in different divisions, the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers are familiar foes. As two of the best teams in the AFC over the past two decades, they have met regularly — oftentimes with a lot on the line. Last year was no different: the Patriots traveled to Pittsburgh in a game with major implications for the conference’s playoff picture. New England won and more or less secured the number one seed in the process.
But while the game was played just 362 days ago, the two teams look quite different today than they did in December of last year. Yes, the main players are still a here: the Patriots still have Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, the Steelers still have Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger. The men surrounding them are a different story, though. Both the Patirots and the Steelers have seen a lot of personnel turnover from 2017 to 2018.
Let’s take a look at some of the major changes.
New England’s wide receiver group looks fundamentally different...
When the Patriots and Steelers met in week 15 last year, New England’s top three wide receivers were Brandin Cooks, Danny Amendola and Phillip Dorsett — a trio that combined for seven catches, 87 receiving yards and a touchdown. Fast forward one year: Cooks and Amendola no longer play for the team, while Dorsett is now its fifth option at the position. Meanwhile, Josh Gordon, Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan are the new men atop the wide receiver depth chart.
...as does Pittsburgh’s to a certain degree
While the Steelers’ wide receiver corps did not undergo that drastic a transformation since last year, it still has some new faces in its midst. Gone are the days of Martavis Bryant and Darrius Heyward-Bey, who combined for five catches, 62 yards and a touchdown last December, as Pittsburgh’s primary rotational receivers. While Heyward-Bey is still around, he has been passed on the depth chart by rookie James Washington and Ryan Switzer.
Gone are Nate Solder and Cameron Fleming
With Marcus Cannon on injured reserve last season, the Patriots turned to Cameron Fleming to replace him at right tackle against the Steelers. Fleming — who gave up a sack and two hurries versus the eventual AFC North champions — left the team in the offseason, as did starting left tackle Nate Solder. In their place, Cannon and offseason acquisition Trent Brown serve as the offensive line’s bookends in 2018.
There are new running backs in town
Last year’s game featuring two of the most electrifying running backs in the NFL: Dion Lewis on the Patriots’ side and Le’Veon Bell on the Steelers’. Neither of the two men will be on the Heinz Field turf on Sunday, though. Lewis left New England as a free agent in March, while Bell refused to sign his franchise tag tender sheet and will sit out the season as a result. In the meantime, two new runners emerged: first-round rookie Sony Michel is the Patriots’ top option as an early down back, while James Conner — who is questionable to play on Sunday because of an ankle injury — fills Bell’s former role in Pittsburgh.
Only one starting cornerback remains standing in New England,...
When the Patriots and Steelers met last year, the starting cornerbacks on both sides looked drastically different. New England’s top trio at the position consisted of Stephon Gilmore, Malcolm Butler and Eric Rowe: Gilmore is still with the team, but Butler plays for the Tennessee Titans now and Rowe for the Patriots’ injured reserve squad. Their roles have since been filled by offseason trade acquisition Jason McCourty and undrafted rookie free agent J.C. Jackson.
...only one starting cornerback remains standing in Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh also altered its cornerback group quite a bit since last season. While ex-Patriot Mike Hilton remains the team’s top option in nickel packages, the starting duo of Artie Burns and Cameron Sutton is now seeing most of its snaps on special teams. The two have been replaced in the defensive starting lineup by Joe Haden and Coty Sensabaugh — the latter of the two was already on the Steelers’ roster last year but he played only five snaps in the kicking game against the Patriots.
On the Patriots’ side the changes go beyond those outlined above. Since last year, the team also moved on from depth safety Jordan Richards, replaced four of the top special teams players (Brandon Bolden, Nicholas Grigsby, Johnson Bademosi, Trevor Reilly), upgraded the defensive edge (Adrian Clayborn instead of Eric Lee), and got its top linebacker — Dont’a Hightower — back off injured reserve. The times, to quote Bob Dylan, are a-changin’.