Pittsburgh Steelers @ New England Patriots
Live on Sky Sports Main Event, Action
Same old story?
Most fans who don’t root for the Patriots have assuredly grown tired of the ruthlessness, efficiency, and goddamn relentlessness of the Belichick-Brady axis and their supporting cast, but gamblers clearly haven’t as New England are currently ranked as favourites on the Exchange at [8.2] to retain the Lombardi Trophy in early 2020.
But should they be?
While quarterback and coach remain in Foxboro, fun-loving tight end Rob Gronkowski has swapped football player for full-time party animal as his job description this offseason. His loss has had plenty wondering who are the playmakers on the roster now – and speculating he may not stay retired all that long.
For now, Julian Edelman assumes the role of Brady’s biggest target. Josh Gordon has been cleared to play, but, as we’ve seen before, he’s no sure thing despite his talent, and his 11 games last season were the most he’d managed since 2013.
They added rookie N’Keal Harry in the first round of the draft, but he’s been sent to IR already. Another draftee, Jakobi Meyers, has generated some moderate buzz, but he’s joined by veterans Demaryius Thomas, Cameron Meredith and Phillip Dorsett in the receiving corps. All three have seen better days. As if to underline the “experienced” (meaning over-the-hill) pass-catchers available, sprightly 38-year-old Ben Watson came out of retirement to slot into the gap left at tight end.
All of which suggests to many that we’re going to see the passing games de-emphasised in Patriots country this season. James White, Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead, Brandon Bolden and Damien Harris offer diversity in the backfield, and with Brady’s powers seemingly waning last season despite the sixth title – they have to some time, right? – having so many talented backs can only be a good thing.
Nothing complements a good rushing attack like a rock-solid defence, and many take the view that this year’s crop of Pats defenders is their best since the first years of Belichickian dominance. Former Super Bowl champion Michael Bennett has come in along the line, Stephon Gilmore leads the secondary and they’ve kept the pieces in place that shut down the potent Rams offence in the Super Bowl last February.
Will the flex to a more ground-based game work in 2019? If anyone can make it happen, it’s Belichick, and it should get a stiff test on Sunday night.
Pittsburgh haven’t been without issues of their own in the offseason, though thankfully two of them have now become other peoples’ problems.
That might sound like an odd way to describe Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell given their production for the Steelers, but their departures for Oakland (via the moon it would seem) and the New York Jets seems to have lifted the mood around this franchise.
At least until the games start.
The AFC North team are considered dark horses for the title this season, one year after contriving to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2015. They’ve a ready-made replacement for Brown in Juju Smith-Schuster, and James Conner ably replaced Bell last season during his contract dispute. He gets the permanent gig in the backfield this campaign.
Ben Roethlisberger eschewed his usual “will-he, won’t-he” retirement melodrama this year, though you’d wonder how long the 37-year-old would take to think about packing it in if he were to win a third Super Bowl this season.
Improvements are expected on defence too, with the Steelers using their top pick in the draft to take linebacker Devin Bush, a “can’t-miss” prospect by all accounts who is touted to fill the gap left by Ryan Shazier’s terrible injury. Ex-Brown Joe Haden’s earned a big payday and the unit is starting to look more solid again having regressed in recent years.
A bigger loss than Gronk for this game and the season as a whole could be David Andrews, the Patriots’ center, who was found to have blood clots in his lungs this week. Ted Karras has been pencilled in to replace him, but it will take time to incorporate him as a starter, so that may not help their plans to run the ball early in the season.
It’s a bump they could do without, and may account for some softening in the line to 5.5 from opening at 7. The numbers may surprise some given the Steelers beat the Patriots without much trouble back in December last year, but New England’s record against the Steelers – 5-1 straight-up and 4-1-1 on the handicap at home since ’98 – and their record at Gillette Stadium, where they’re 13-3 in the last 16 as home favourites against the spread, give reason to believe they’re well-priced here.
I like the line move against them as it gives extra wriggle room and would take the Pats to cover by anything under a touchdown at [1.99]. The Steelers turnover gives pause for thought, and I’d also prefer being on Belichick’s side rather than Mike Tomlin’s in this one. Pittsburgh could be good this year, but I need to see it first.
On the total, the Steelers trends aren’t great on the road, their record over recent years coming to 36-15 in favour of the under, and Ben Roethlisberger generally doesn’t hit the heights on his travels that he can at home. Add in the Pats likely trying to run the ball more, that speeds up the game clock, and the likely stronger defences than last season, and 49 points looks unlikely at [2.0].
For a player punt, Vance McDonald looks set to be a favoured target of Big Ben’s all season now Jesse James is holstering up in the urban wild west of Detroit and there’s no one else on the roster to challenge him as the passing-option there. He’s worth a look on both Any Time and First TD markets at around 3/1 and 17/1 respectively.
Source: US Sports