8:20 PM EST, NBC – Line: Patriots -5.5, Over/Under: 51
The first Sunday of Regular Season action comes to a close as the New England Patriots play host to the Pittsburgh Steelers, from Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. It’s the dawn of new era for the Steelers (9-6-1, 2nd in AFC North), who hope that this one will be filled with less noise off the field, as they enter 2019 without two of their most prominent personalities, that of Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. Pittsburgh moved on from both All-Pro performers in the Offseason, jettisoning the former in Trade with the Oakland Raiders (more on that in a bit), while allowing the latter to leave in Free Agency. Both players had dominated much of the headlines surrounding the team throughout the 2018 campaign, with Brown (104 REC, 1,297 YDS, 12.5 Y/R, 15 TD in 2018) routinely acting childish and unprofessional, while Bell sat out the entirety of the term after being hit with the dreaded Franchise Tag. The train of thought for Mike Tomlin & Co. is that a quieter locker room will lead to a more successful season, though in all honesty their collective departure has been made much smoother thanks to the emergence of their successors, Tailback, James Conner (215 CAR, 973 YDS, 4.5 Y/C, 12 TD in 2018) and Wideout, JuJu Smith-Schuster (111 REC, 1,426 YDS, 12.8 Y/R, 7 TD in 2018). Twenty-Three and Twenty-Two Years Old respectively, the duo emerged out of the shadow of their more heralded teammates, earning their first selection to the Pro-Bowl in the process, with their immediate future figuring to only get brighter. Of course, this must be music to the ears of Ben Roethlisberger (67.0%, 5,129 YDS, 7.10 NY/A, 34 TD, 16 INT, 73.0 QBR in 2018), the veteran Quarterback who spent much last season in conflict with the aforementioned Brown, only to come out of it the victor after the Franchise inked him to a two-year, $68 Million Contract Extension that should for all intents and purposes keep the Thirty-Seven year Old in Western Pennsylvania for the remainder of his venerable career. Big Ben is coming off arguably his most prolific campaign to date, posting career-highs in a slew of categories including Completions (452), Attempts (675), Passing Yards (5,129), and Passing Touchdowns (34). With so many of his counterparts continuing to play at such a high level in the latter stages of their careers, most notably his counterpart tonight, there is plenty of reason to believe that this Offense will continue to be one of the league’s most explosive for years to come. However, it does beg the question: has this team already peaked and missed it’s window of championship contention? After four consecutive trips tot he Playoffs, the Steelers have little to show for it, with some disappointing postseason debacles, followed most recently by last year’s collapse down the stretch in which they lost four of their final six outings, leaving them without the January Football for the first time since 2013. Tomlin would probably prefer to reign in his Quarterback just a bit and incorporate more balance on the offensive side of things, for no team threw the ball more than Pittsburgh (43.1 A/G), which coincidentally means that they ranked next-to-last in Rushing Attempts (21.6 A/G). A solid ground game is an aging Quarterback’s best friend, as evidenced by their opponent tonight, with it likely going a long way towards keeping Roethlisberger healthy and upright, preserving his status down the stretch. It will be interesting to see if a different approach will bring success in Foxborough for the two-time Super Bowl Champion, who has struggled throughout his career against the Patriots; in ten meetings during the Regular Season, Roethlisberger is just 4-6 against New England, completing 62.8% of his Passes for an average of 279.7 Yards per Game, with Twenty-One Touchdowns and Nine Interceptions, while in the Playoffs he’s fallen short in two encounters, throwing Three Touchdowns in comparison Four Interceptions. Another area of focus will be the Defense, which despite ranking Sixth Overall in Total Yards Allowed (327.2 Y/G) and First Overall in Sacks (52), struggled like hell to turn their opposition over, logging a scant Fifteen Takeaways (29th Overall), leading to a dismal Minus-11 Differential. The Secondary continues to a point of emphasis for Tomlin, who made his bones as an Assistant coaching up Defensive Backs for years before Pittsburgh ultimately tabbed him back in 2007. Veteran Cornerback, Joe Haden (63 TKL, 2 TFL, 1 FF, 2 INT, 12 PD in 2018) was rewarded with a new contract (2-years, $22.6 Million) following a solid showing in 2018, while the team selected Justin Layne out of Michigan State Pick No. 83 in the Third Round of the 2019 NFL Draft. The Steelers are building a solid nucleus of young talent on this side of the football, with No. 10 Overall Pick, Devin Bush, joining a Front Seven that features breakout Edge-Rusher, T.J. Watt (68 TKL, 12 TFL, 21 QBH, 13.0 SK, 6 FF, 3 PD in 2018), along with Linemen, Javon Hargrave (49 TKL, 6 TFL, 8 QBH, 6.5 SK, 1 PD in 2018), Stephon Tuitt (45 TKL, 7 TFL, 20 QBH, 5.5 SK, 4 PD in 2018), and Bud Dupree (42 TKL, 8 TFL, 13 QBH, 5.5 SK, 1 FF, 1 INT, 1 TD, 3 PD in 2018).
Meanwhile, yet another season begins with the Patriots (11-5, 1st in AFC East) reigning as Super Bowl Champions, which is the third time they’ve done so in the past five years. It’s fair to question what exactly there is left to accomplish for a team that has very much done it all, competing for a Lombardi Trophy for a whopping NINTH time since 2001, and for a third consecutive season in 2018. However, even with a Tom Brady now Forty-Two Years Old, Rob Gronkowski retired (or is he?), and Bill Belichick once again losing a high-ranking Assistant Coach, you can absolutely bet that the machine that is New England will not be slowing down anytime soon. After all, why would it? Though he should be in the twilight of his illustrious career, Brady (65.8%, 4,355 YDS, 7.12 NY/A, 29 TD, 11 INT, 68.8 QBR in 2018) is still performing at an absurdly high level, for even though he showed a marginal regression in a number of statistical categories, he remains so far ahead of most Quarterbacks in the league that it’s really quite ridiculous. At this rate, maybe he really will play into his late Forties… Somebody who won’t be playing at long is Gronkowski (47 REC, 682 YDS, 14.5 Y/R, 3 TD in 2018) who abruptly retired from the game a few months after Super Bowl LIII, calling it a career at the age of Thirty, citing the accumulation of numerous injuries over the years. Of course, this leaves Brady without his primary threat in the Passing Game, with the tandem connecting for Sixty-Eight Touchdowns since 2010. However, after it initially appeared that Belichick would essentially have a motely crew in the Receiving Corps, they turned the tables to their advantage as they have on so many occasions in the past, signing the aforementioned Brown following his shocking release from the Raiders earlier in the week. That’s right folks, just a few days ago, the Pats were set to go into the 2019 campaign with reigning Super Bowl MVP, Julian Edelman (74 REC, 850 YDS, 11.5 Y/R, 6 TD in 2018) and the oft-suspended Josh Gordon (40 REC, 720 YDS, 18.0 Y/R, 3 TD in 2018), as their main weapons in the passing game, having cut veteran Receiver, Demaryius Thomas (59 REC, 677 YDS, 11.5 Y/R, 5 TD in 2018), in Training Camp, and this year’s First Round Pick, N’Keal Harry (No. 32 Overall), languishing on Injured Reserve with multiple ailments. Brown, who had been embroiled in a sensationally ridiculous series of events with Oakland, who traded for him back in March, demanded to be released after his new team voided the totality of his guarantees in his contract ($30.6 Million) due to outrageous behavior in recent weeks, eventually acquiesced, purging the malcontent from their Roster. Essentially a Free Agent, Brown signed with the Patriots within hours of his release, inking a One-Year Deal worth $15 Million, $9 Million of which is guaranteed. While there is certainly no questioning his talent or his insane production on the football field, Brown represents a huge gamble for Belichick & Co. who have treaded this path on numerous occasions before. In fact, let’s turn back the clock to 2007, when they acquired yet another malcontent Receiver from the Raiders, Randy Moss, who was brought to Foxborough for a Fifth Round Pick of all things. The Future Hall of Famer looked disinterested throughout his brief stay in Oakland, only to be revitalized in New England, breaking the Single-Season Record for Touchdown Receptions (23), helping his team to only the third perfect Regular Season in NFL History. Could he prove to be a major disruptive force in their typically serene locker room? Sure. Could he also top 100 Receptions and 1,200 Receiving Yards for the seventh consecutive year? Absolutely. Now, with Brown in the fold, and Thomas brought back following his release, New England has managed to turn what was once a weakness into an unlikely strength, which has to be making the rest of the league sick right about now. It’s only poetic that his new team will be facing his old one in the Season Opener, even if he will be held out of action due to the timing of signing his new contract.