By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Steelers come to Foxboro having lost major pieces. But the team that dealt the Patriots their last defeat should present similar challenges in the 2019 season opener on Sunday night.
Pittsburgh looks different in prominent areas, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. Antonio Brown’s departure is well-documented and other key names from 2018 have left via trade or free agency. But other talented, efficient weapons remain for Ben Roethlisberger, bolstered by new additions and young talent looking to take steps forward.
On defense, the Steelers bring back eight players who started at least 14 games in 2018: defensive linemen Cameron Heyward, Javon Hargrave, and Stephon Tuitt; edge rushers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree; safeties Sean Davis and Terrell Edmunds; and cornerback Joe Haden. This is a unit that finally gained some traction against Tom Brady and the Patriots offense in last season’s tilt, and could be even better going into this game.
Here’s a rundown of what’s new with the Steelers and what you should know before they take the field against the Patriots in Week 1.
— WR Donte Moncrief. The veteran wideout is officially bouncing around the league, landing with his third team in the Steelers. He should get plenty of targets in a Brown-less passing game now headlined by blossoming star JuJu Smith-Schuster. But Moncrief still has yet to catch more than 64 passes or seven touchdowns in five NFL seasons, despite his impressive size and athleticism. He did score against Stephon Gilmore last season as a Jaguar, though.
— LB Mark Barron. The former seventh overall pick in 2012 has evolved into a solid, versatile middle linebacker since converting from safety. Barron fits the Steelers’ typical schemes and personnel packages. He projects to start early on as one of the team’s key free agent additions, but he’ll be pushed for snaps by their top draft pick this year, who we’ll get to later.
— CB Steven Nelson. The former Chief has experience playing both inside and on the boundary. He has a good chance to play a good amount outside with Mike Hilton handling slot duties. The Steelers still have Haden and 2016 first-rounder Artie Burns, but Nelson should at least add versatility and depth to the back end.
— WR Antonio Brown. Duh. You can add Le’Veon Bell to this class if you want to, but Bell didn’t play at all in 2018. The Steelers will still throw the ball, a lot, and it will simply go to Smith-Schuster and their new-look receiving corps. Pittsburgh threw at the second-highest rate in the NFL last season at 67 percent, and they did it mainly in 11 personnel (three WRs). Expect more of the same, despite Brown now being a Raider. We’ll see if they can be as productive.
— TE Jesse James. The Steelers threw the ball effectively to their tight ends last season, mainly because they could often deploy two reliable targets together. Starter Vance McDonald remains, but they’ll need to replace James’ efficiency (30 catches on 39 targets, a 76.9 percent rate). The top candidate to get James’ snaps is fifth-year pro Xavier Grimble, who has just 22 career catches.
Key Draft Picks
— LB Devin Bush. A teammate of Patriots rookie Chase Winovich at Michigan, Bush earned multiple top honors including Big Ten defensive player of the year and first team All-Big Ten. The Steelers traded three draft picks to move up and take Bush with the 10th overall pick. So if he’s not starting Sunday night, he should be in due time. Bush has the speed and cover ability to contribute right away against running backs in the passing game, which could make him a tough matchup for James White or Rex Burkhead.
— WR Diontae Johnson. It’s the Steelers and he’s a wide receiver, so Johnson is a player worth your attention. It’s unclear how much of a workload he’ll get with Smith-Schuster, Moncrief, and second-year pro James Washington ahead of him on the depth chart. But it’s unlikely the Steelers spent a third-round pick on Johnson for him to just collect dust on the bench.
— CB Justin Layne. Taken just four picks before the Patriots drafted running back Damien Harris, Layne immediately became the Steelers’ biggest cornerback at 6-foot-2. The Patriots have the personnel to employ three receivers at 6-foot-2 or bigger (Josh Gordon, Demaryius Thomas, Jakobi Meyers) on the field at the same time, so there’s a chance the Steelers need to put Layne out there at some point. If they do, look for Brady to test the rookie.
More to Think About
— Smith-Schuster caught just four of 10 targets for 40 yards against the Patriots last December … with J.C. Jackson covering him. It’ll be interesting to see how the Patriots approach Smith-Schuster this time, now that he’s the top target. They could bracket him with Jackson and safety help over the top, or simply task Gilmore with wiping him out. What’s important is that the Steelers remain deep at receiver and aren’t necessarily easy to cover now. They’re just different.
— Brady has historically shredded the Steelers, but 2018 wrote a different chapter to his decades of dominance. He went 25-of-36 (69 percent) for just one touchdown and a costly late interception in last season’s 17-10 loss. The Steelers pressured Brady up front and rushed a number of throws. Pittsburgh has the talent to repeat that pass-rushing performance, between Heyward, Tuitt, Watt, and Dupree. The Patriots’ new-look offensive line with left tackle Isaiah Wynn and center Ted Karras, taking over for the injured David Andrews, needs to get on the same page for this group.
— The Steelers throw the ball aggressively, often in situations that might appear unconventional. According to Sharp Football, in 2018 they had a 71 percent success rate targeting Smith-Schuster on third down and 1-3 yards to go. At the same time, they converted 57 percent of the time targeting McDonald on third down and 8-10 yards to go. And they used running back James Conner similarly to Bell as a drive-starter, with a 63 percent success rate throwing to him on first down. They threw on first down 57 percent of the time overall.
Plenty more on the Steelers coming later this week into Sunday, when they take on the Super Bowl champs at Gillette Stadium on Sunday Night Football.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at email@example.com.