Nine months is a long time in the NFL, and Sunday’s meeting between the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers will serve as another reminder of that. The two teams last met in December, with the Steelers coming away with a 17-10 victory. Since then, however, a lot has happened: from the Patriots winning the Super Bowl to massive personnel turnover within both organizations. Let’s dig a bit deeper.
Two of the game’s biggest stars are gone
In 2010, two of the best receiving weapons the NFL has ever seen entered the league: Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Brown were drafted by the Patriots and the Steelers in the second and sixth rounds, respectively. Over the nine season that followed, Gronkowski grew into a first-ballot Hall of Famer while Brown became one of the league’s most productive pass catchers year-in and year-out. Both were terrific players for their teams.
Fast forward to 2019, and neither Gronkowski nor Brown are with the teams that drafted them. While Gronkowski announced his retirement from pro football in March, Brown was traded to the Oakland Raiders where he is living a quiet and not at all news-worthy life. New England and Pittsburgh, meanwhile, will need to fill two massive holes in their offensive units after losing two of their cornerstone players.
In order to fill Gronkowski’s vacant spot, the Patriots added size to their wide receiver position: Demaryius Thomas and N’Keal Harry were picked up over the course of the offseason, while Josh Gordon returned from his indefinite suspension. The Steelers, on the other hand, will turn to JuJu Smith-Schuster and free agency acquisition Donte Moncrief to help replace Brown’s production. On Sunday, we will see how this works.
The Patriots will look quite different in the trenches
New England did not only lose its most talented offensive skill position player since last December, but also two starters along the offensive line: left tackle Trent Brown left via free agency to join Antonio Brown in Oakland, while center David Andrews was diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs and subsequently placed on season-ending injured reserve. Second-year man Isaiah Wynn, who missed all of last year with a torn Achilles tendon, and career backup Ted Karras will step in.
On defense, the Patriots lost three players who saw considerable action against the Steelers last December: Trey Flowers and Malcom Brown signed with the Detroit Lions and New Orleans Saints in free agency, respectively, while Adrian Clayborn was ‘granted his release.’ Flowers is the biggest name of the group given his status as one of the NFL’s most disruptive defenders; New England brought veteran Michael Bennett and rookie Chase Winovich on board to help with producing pressure and setting the edge in the run game.
Pittsburgh’s starting secondary has changed
The Steelers played plenty of nickel defense against the Patriots last year, and of the five defensive backs to see the most snaps only two are safe bets to play on Sunday night: while Terrell Edmunds and Joe Haden are again expected to start against the Patriots, Sean Davis was listed as ‘doubtful’ on Friday’s final injury report. Meanwhile, Coty Sensabaugh and Morgan Burnett left the franchise over the course of the offseason.
With them no longer available, the Steelers will likely turn to Steven Nelson and ex-Patriot Mike Hilton at cornerback alongside Haden, and Kameron Kelly at safety.
New England’s kicking game units are missing four core players from a year ago
While Nate Ebner and Matthew Slater are still around to cover kickoffs and punts, three other core special teamers from last December’s game are no longer with the Patriots at this point: veteran Brandon King was placed on season-ending injured reserve after suffering a torn quadriceps during the preseason; in-season additions Albert McClellan and Ramon Humber were not re-signed during free agency.
While the return of Brandon Bolden should help soften the blow of the coverage losses, the gist remains that the Patriots’ kicking game operation will look quite different compared to 2018 — especially considering that Ryan Allen has also been replaced; rookie Jake Bailey will handle punting duties this year.
Rookies, of course
New England’s first-round selection this spring will not suit up against the Steelers — wide receiver N’Keal Harry has been placed on injured reserve earlier this week with the intention of being brought back at a later point — but the majority of the rookie class will be good to go: the aforementioned Bailey and Winovich are expected to see plenty of action, with cornerback Joejuan Williams a potential option against Pittsburgh’s tight ends. Jakobi Meyers, meanwhile, might see some rotational snaps as a Z receiver particularly if the questionable Demaryius Thomas is limited or unable to play.
On the other side of the field, one name stands out: the Steelers drafted linebacker Devin Bush with the 10th overall selection and he is projected to serve as a starter at inside linebacker in the team’s 3-4 base defense. When looking back at last year, Bush will replace ex-Patriot Jon Bostic in the lineup and despite his status as a rookie be an upgrade. Other than the first-round pick, wide receiver Diontae Johnson will be worth keeping an eye on as a depth option alongside Smith-Schuster, Moncrief and James Washington.
Multiple assistant coaches have left both organizations
Change does not just happen on the field, but off it as well — and the 2019 Patriots and 2019 Steelers can tell us a thing or two about it. New England, for example, lost numerous assistant coaches this offseason: defensive signal caller Brian Flores left the team to join the Miami Dolphins as their new head coach, and was joined by wide receivers coach Chad O’Shea and cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer. Meanwhile, defensive line coach Brendan Daly left to take a similar position with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Pittsburgh, on the other hand, saw the assistants responsible for the offensive line (Mike Munchak), running backs (James Saxon) and outside linebackers (Joey Porter) leave the team. The most shocking departure, however, was that of wide receivers coach Darryl Drake who unexpectedly passed away in early August at the age of just 62.