Matchup Analysis: Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots

Vegas Prediction

Vegas says: Steelers 22, Patriots 28

FBG Projections

TeamRushYardsTDCompAttPass YdTDINT

Steelers Rushing offense

Good matchup vs. the Patriots defense.

Under Mike Tomlin, the Steelers have virtually always taken a bell-cow approach to the run game, feeding the top back relentlessly and treating the others like reserves. That puts the smart money on James Conner to take the bulk of the groundwork, with Jaylen Samuels in a change-up role. Conner is much more rugged and suited to the lead role; he averaged 4.5 yards per rush in 2018, and he ran exceptionally well in short yardage. Samuels should serve as a dynamic backup, and he gave a glimpse of his abilities with a few big fill-in games down the stretch. He looked especially impressive against New England, turning 19 carries into 142 yards. But his main contributions should come in the passing game, while Conner dominates the early downs. Both will run behind one of the league’s best lines, which remains loaded on talent and experience. Our Matt Bitonti ranks it the fourth-best unit in football, thanks in no small part to the years these components have played together. The interior duo of Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro, in particular, is arguably the best in football.

The New England run defense was a rather weak unit in 2018. They didn’t allow many huge games, but not for lack of trying: opponents averaged 4.9 yards per rush, fourth-most in the league. Whenever offenses can keep their run games relevant, there’s always the opportunity for success against this shaky group. Last year, 12 different opposing runners averaged 4.9 yards or better on 6 or more attempts – including Jaylen Samuels in this very matchup. It should be noted that this group tightened up in the postseason, but it didn’t wash away the week-to-week inconsistency. The Patriots didn’t change up the personnel much this offseason, so they’re hoping the issues are scheme-based. They’ll need more from space-eating nose Danny Shelton, who held his ground in 2018 but saw just 25 snaps a game. He’ll be needed to shield linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower from blockers. Jamie Collins was brought back but looks like no more than a depth piece. He’s largely flamed out of starting relevance due to injuries and inconsistency.

Steelers Passing offense

Neutral matchup vs. the Patriots defense.

In 2018, Ben Roethlisberger threw the ball at a ridiculously high volume. His 675 attempts were the fourth-most in NFL history, and he led the league with 5,129 yards. That usage will surely trend downward in 2019 – he’s 37, and Antonio Brown’s departure creates a ton of uncertainty. But it was encouraging to see him post some of the best efficiency numbers of his career at 36. He completed 67% of his throws, took just 24 sacks, and posted his most adjusted net yards per attempt since 2015. Of course, it’s fair to wonder how well those marks will hold up without the league’s best receiver on board. JuJu Smith-Schuster is a fully-capable No. 1 option, able to win both inside and outside, both down the field and underneath. But Roethlisberger and Brown had such an instinctive downfield connection that it’s hard to just project it down the line. Across the field, deep threats Donte Moncrief and James Washington will likely compete for snaps each week, and both should find some soft coverages opposite Smith-Schuster. Top tight end Vance McDonald has always battled injury and inconsistency, but should see more usage as a slot and seam target. He’s never seen much volume, but over his 25 games as a Steeler, he’s produced 11 receptions of 20 yards or more.

The New England secondary took a huge step forward in 2018, allowing just 6.2 net yards per attempt, good for ninth-best. And it was the talk of Patriots camp last month, with such impressive play and depth that second-round cornerback Joejuan Williams couldn’t even lock down a role. Stephon Gilmore has settled in at an All-Pro level in New England, consistently shadowing and shutting down top receivers. Last year was his masterpiece; he was the driving force in shutting down the likes of Antonio Brown (4 catches for 49 yards), Davante Adams (6 for 40), and Stefon Diggs (5 for 49). Jason McCourty is solid in the slot, while J.C. Jackson was a pleasant 2018 surprise down the stretch on the outside. Devin McCourty remains a solid downfield playmaker at free safety. The most pressing question marks in this unit are up front, where the team is rebuilding its pass rush on the fly. Trey Flowers was allowed to walk in free agency, so the team is counting on quick impacts from newcomers Michael Bennett and Chase Winovich.

Patriots Rushing offense

Tough matchup vs. the Steelers defense.

As usual, the Patriots enter the season with a host of viable bodies in the backfield. James White’s talents are mostly reserved for the passing game, but the team now boasts two young, talented, ex-SEC runners in the early-down role – either (or both) of whom could be in line for big Week 1 success. Sony Michel has shown both power and elusiveness on the NFL level, and his rookie production (794 yards over 9 starts) was stout. But Michel did struggle in a few phases of the game, particularly short yardage, making rookie Damien Harris relevant. Harris didn’t see much preseason action and likely slots in solidly behind Michel. Still, he’s a powerful runner who averaged 6.8 yards per carry as a starter at Alabama. Michel is the lead dog as the season kicks off, but Harris will likely get a few opportunities to assert himself into a role. White will see some change-of-pace work, and Rex Burkhead should claim a few snaps as well. Up front, the New England line stays relatively static after paving the way for a mediocre 4.3 yards per rush in 2018. The big loss was center David Andrews, who looks unlikely to play this year, though Ted Karras is a capable fill-in.

On the whole, the Steelers boasted one of football’s stoutest run defenses in 2018. They allowed opponents just 4.2 yards per carry and 96 per game, both top-10 marks. Still, those numbers were deflated a bit by the easier chunks of their schedule. They struggled noticeably in matchups with quick-footed runners, such as Christian McCaffrey (5.5 yards per rush), Phillip Lindsay (7.9), and Joe Mixon (7.0 over 2 meetings). Ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt continued to head an elite front line, occupying blockers and penetrating to make plays of their own. But linebacker Ryan Shazier’s absence was definitely felt, as Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett simply couldn’t make the same plays in pursuit. As a result, fast runners were able to feast whenever they could reach the second level. The team expects big things early from first-rounder Devin Bush, who will start immediately on the inside. Bush shredded the combine’s speed and explosiveness drills, then made an on-field impression with 10 first-half tackles in the Steelers’ preseason opener. With a line capable of keeping him clean, Bush should be far more productive than the plodding Bostic and Burnett were last year. He could singlehandedly tie up this unit’s loose ends, making it a potentially dominant group as early as Week 1.

Patriots Passing offense

Good matchup vs. the Steelers defense.

Tom Brady has entered seasons without Rob Gronkowski before, but this Sunday he’ll do it in a permanent sense. Gronkowski’s retirement leaves Brady without the league’s most dominant one-on-one matchup at his fingertips. Still, his receiving hierarchy looks awfully familiar, with Julian Edelman manning the slot and Josh Gordon back across the field. Neither practiced much over the summer, but both are healthy, conditioned, and locked into their respective roles. Gordon may be asked to win more Gronkowski-type plays, outmuscling defenders for jump balls up the seams. James White remains Brady’s primary dump-off option, a role in which he caught 107 balls over 19 games last year. He’s also a strong red-zone weapon: over the past 2 years, he’s turned 34 such targets into 10 touchdowns. Beyond them, Phillip Dorsett is the clear-cut No. 3 wideout to open the year, though Demaryius Thomas is now healthy and making a case for the role. Thomas is also adept at underneath and horizontal route-running, and he brings far more upside to the table than Dorsett. All of these targets will be leaned on to some degree in Week 1, with virtually no production expected from the new-look tight end room.

The Pittsburgh pass defense finished 2018 among the top 10 in both yardage allowed and efficiency. But it’s worth noting that those numbers were aided by a long, midseason stretch of shaky opponents. The better passers they faced – Patrick Mahomes, Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, even Joe Flacco – had little trouble posting big lines. The problem certainly wasn’t with the Steelers pass rush, which produced a league-high 52 sacks. Rather, the team simply failed to find a suitable second starter at cornerback. Joe Haden remained an above-average starter, and Mike Hilton was solid in the slot, but former first-rounder Artie Burns continued to look like a lost cause. The Steelers have brought in ex-Chief Steven Nelson to stabilize the spot, a shrewd, low-cost move after a solid season in Kansas City. A step forward from last year’s first-round pick, strong safety Terrell Edmunds, would also go a long way. With a strong, versatile pass rush providing pressure, there’s nowhere to go but up for this shaky secondary.

Ben Roethlisberger (FanDuel: $7600, DraftKings: $6300)

1PROJ-Dodds25382911.7124020.820.820.8 (H=50)20.8 (H=60)
1PROJ-Tremblay29463351.61.3140.122.922.922.9 (H=59)22.9 (H=71)
1PROJ-Bloom24362681.61110.119.519.519.5 (H=45)19.5 (H=54)

James Conner (FanDuel: $7700, DraftKings: $7300)

1PROJ-Dodds15670.53.4300.213.917.315.6 (H=30)17.3 (H=38)
1PROJ-Tremblay11500.43.6280.110.814.412.6 (H=20)14.4 (H=27)
1PROJ-Bloom17720.53.0250.113.316.314.8 (H=27)16.3 (H=34)

Jaylen Samuels (FanDuel: $5400, DraftKings: $3800)

1PROJ-Dodds4170.11.8140. (H=6)6.1 (H=12)
1PROJ-Tremblay4160. (H=4)4.9 (H=8)
1PROJ-Bloom4150.12.0170. (H=6)6.4 (H=13)

Wendell Smallwood (FanDuel: $4700, DraftKings: $3200)

1PROJ-Dodds2801.0701.52.52.1 (H=1)2.6 (H=3)
1PROJ-Tremblay3140.10.9702.73.63.2 (H=3)3.7 (H=6)

Benny Snell (FanDuel: $4500, DraftKings: $3300)

1PROJ-Dodds1500.0000.50.50.5 (H=0)0.5 (H=0)
1PROJ-Tremblay2100.10.3201.82.12 (H=1)2.1 (H=2)
1PROJ-Bloom0000.000000 (H=0)0 (H=0)

Derek Watt (FanDuel: $4500, DraftKings: $3000)

1PROJ-Dodds0000.000000 (H=0)0 (H=0)
1PROJ-Tremblay0100.1100.20.30.2 (H=0)0.3 (H=0)
1PROJ-Bloom0000.000000 (H=0)0 (H=0)

JuJu Smith-Schuster (FanDuel: $8100, DraftKings: $7500)

1PROJ-Dodds6.6860.500011.618.214.9 (H=26)18.2 (H=40)
1PROJ-Tremblay7.71000.400012.420.116.3 (H=31)20.1 (H=48)
1PROJ-Bloom7.0880.500011.818.815.3 (H=27)18.8 (H=42)

James Washington (FanDuel: $5500, DraftKings: $3900)

1PROJ-Dodds2.7370.20004.97.66.3 (H=8)7.6 (H=17)
1PROJ-Tremblay3.0380.2000586.5 (H=9)8 (H=18)
1PROJ-Bloom3.0410.30005.98.97.4 (H=11)8.9 (H=22)

Diontae Johnson (FanDuel: $4500, DraftKings: $3000)

1PROJ-Dodds0.91300001.32.21.8 (H=1)2.3 (H=2)
1PROJ-Tremblay2.1280.10003.45.54.5 (H=6)5.6 (H=13)
1PROJ-Bloom0.000000000.1 (H=0)0.1 (H=0)

Deon Cain (FanDuel: $4500, DraftKings: $3000)

1PROJ-Dodds0.81200001.221.6 (H=1)2 (H=2)
1PROJ-Tremblay1.3170.10002.33.63 (H=2)3.6 (H=6)
1PROJ-Bloom0.000000000 (H=0)0 (H=0)

Ryan Switzer (FanDuel: $4500, DraftKings: $3200)

1PROJ-Dodds1.21200001.22.41.9 (H=1)2.5 (H=3)
1PROJ-Tremblay1.7180.10202.64.33.6 (H=4)4.4 (H=8)
1PROJ-Bloom2.0160.10002.24.23.3 (H=3)4.3 (H=7)

Vance McDonald (FanDuel: $5600, DraftKings: $4000)

1PROJ-Dodds4.0460.36.410.48.4 (H=14)10.4 (H=28)
1PROJ-Tremblay3.7420.369.77.9 (H=12)9.7 (H=25)
1PROJ-Bloom5.0530. (H=17)12.1 (H=37)

Eric Ebron (FanDuel: $5900, DraftKings: $4100)

1PROJ-Dodds2.7290. (H=6)6.8 (H=13)
1PROJ-Tremblay3.0310. (H=7)7.3 (H=15)
1PROJ-Bloom2.0250. (H=4)5.7 (H=9)

Chris Boswell (FanDuel: $--, DraftKings: $--)


Matt McCrane (FanDuel: $--, DraftKings: $--)


Pittsburgh Steelers (FanDuel: $3500, DraftKings: $2800)

1PROJ-Dodds27.73682.30.80.600. (H=11)5.7 (H=14)
1PROJ-Tremblay28.53822.410.600. (H=15)6.8 (H=19)

Cam Newton (FanDuel: $7900, DraftKings: $6500)

1PROJ-Dodds22352421.616260.321.921.921.9 (H=53)21.9 (H=64)
1PROJ-Tremblay23362591.61.14210.221.621.621.6 (H=51)21.6 (H=63)
1PROJ-Bloom21332201.416250.420.520.520.5 (H=47)20.5 (H=57)

Sony Michel (FanDuel: $6600, DraftKings: $5900)

1PROJ-Dodds15660.61.8140.112.21413.1 (H=26)14 (H=32)
1PROJ-Tremblay15630.51.29010.211.410.8 (H=18)11.4 (H=22)
1PROJ-Bloom15660.62.0180.112.614.613.6 (H=27)14.6 (H=35)

James White (FanDuel: $6300, DraftKings: $4800)

1PROJ-Dodds5200.24.6380.38.813.411.1 (H=20)13.4 (H=37)
1PROJ-Tremblay3120.14.6390.37.512.19.8 (H=16)12.1 (H=31)
1PROJ-Bloom4170.24.0400.38.712.710.7 (H=19)12.7 (H=34)

Rex Burkhead (FanDuel: $4800, DraftKings: $3500)

1PROJ-Dodds390.11.21102.63.83.2 (H=3)3.8 (H=5)
1PROJ-Tremblay5180.11.9160. (H=8)6.5 (H=14)
1PROJ-Bloom1301. (H=1)2.7 (H=3)

Lamar Miller (FanDuel: $--, DraftKings: $--)


Damien Harris (FanDuel: $5400, DraftKings: $3300)

1PROJ-Dodds0000.000000 (H=0)0 (H=0)
1PROJ-Tremblay4140.10.000222 (H=1)2 (H=2)
1PROJ-Bloom3150.10.0002.12.12.1 (H=1)2.1 (H=2)

Julian Edelman (FanDuel: $7100, DraftKings: $6900)

1PROJ-Dodds5.8670.41509.615.412.6 (H=22)15.5 (H=33)
1PROJ-Tremblay4.6560.41408.41310.8 (H=17)13.1 (H=24)
1PROJ-Bloom6.0630.51409.715.712.8 (H=23)15.8 (H=34)

Mohamed Sanu (FanDuel: $5300, DraftKings: $4600)

1PROJ-Dodds3.3360.20004.88.16.5 (H=9)8.1 (H=16)
1PROJ-Tremblay3.0370.20205.18.16.6 (H=9)8.1 (H=16)
1PROJ-Bloom4.0410.30005.99.97.9 (H=13)9.9 (H=23)

Marqise Lee (FanDuel: $5000, DraftKings: $4400)

1PROJ-Dodds1.5210.10002.74.23.5 (H=3)4.2 (H=5)
1PROJ-Tremblay1.7230.10002.94.63.8 (H=4)4.6 (H=6)

Jakobi Meyers (FanDuel: $4500, DraftKings: $3200)

1PROJ-Dodds1.4180.10002.43.83.1 (H=3)3.8 (H=6)
1PROJ-Tremblay1.5210.10002.74.23.5 (H=3)4.2 (H=7)
1PROJ-Bloom3.0280.2000475.5 (H=8)7 (H=18)

NKeal Harry (FanDuel: $5700, DraftKings: $3900)

1PROJ-Dodds0.000000000 (H=0)0 (H=0)
1PROJ-Tremblay0.000000000 (H=0)0 (H=0)

Ryan Izzo (FanDuel: $4000, DraftKings: $2500)

1PROJ-Dodds1.5140.123.52.8 (H=2)3.5 (H=7)
1PROJ-Tremblay2.2240. (H=7)5.8 (H=16)

Matt LaCosse (FanDuel: $4500, DraftKings: $2800)

1PROJ-Dodds0.000000 (H=0)0 (H=0)
1PROJ-Tremblay0.000000 (H=0)0 (H=0)
1PROJ-Bloom2.0170. (H=3)4.3 (H=8)

New England Patriots (FanDuel: $3800, DraftKings: $3400)

1PROJ-Dodds22.43942.51.10.600. (H=20)8.4 (H=23)
1PROJ-Tremblay22.542131.30.700.410.110.110.1 (H=28)10.1 (H=32)