Their reward for winning the Super Bowl: A rematch with Ben Roethlisberger and Co. on Sunday night to kick off 2019 in a game that can be live streamed on the Yahoo Sports app.
While Roethlisberger and Tom Brady haven’t shown major signs of slowing down late in their NFL careers, each enters 2019 without their most trusted weapons from seasons past.
Life after Gronk
For the first time since 2009, Brady will start an NFL season without the game’s ultimate safety valve in Rob Gronkowski. One of the most physical and reliable targets in the history of the game, the retired Gronkowski is focused this fall on his CBD business instead of the football field.
Edelman appears healthy and ready to resume his role as Brady’s top target across the middle after an offseason thumb injury. Meanwhile Gordon could be prepared for a career resurgence, helping fill the void left by the departed Gronkowski.
Breakout looming for Gordon?
It seems like ages ago when Gordon posted 1,646 receiving yards in his sophomore season with the Cleveland Browns. But he’s just 28 and in the midst of his physical prime.
Meanwhile, the Patriots retain one of the game’s top receiving backs in James White paired with second-year running back Sony Michel, who projects to lead the multi-headed Patriots rushing attack.
First-round rookie receiver N’Keal Harry won’t suit up after landing on injured reserve with an ankle injury. But the Patriots retained four-time Pro Bowl receiver Demaryius Thomas after releasing him in a procedural move.
Will Steelers miss Antonio Brown?
Roethlisberger, meanwhile, will start a season without seven-time Pro Bowl receiver Brown for the first time since ‘09. His absence, of course, is a two-sided coin, as the Oakland Raiders learned the hard way.
Sunday is generally where Brown makes all the noise worthwhile as arguably the game’s most consistent, reliable target over the past several seasons. Make no mistake, the Steelers will miss him on the field, even if they’re laughing at the Raiders off it.
Fortunately for the Steelers, they won’t have to face Brown Monday night.
Time for JuJu to shine
Fortunately, Pittsburgh has a breakout star in his stead with JuJu Smith-Schuster coming off a Pro Bowl campaign during his second NFL season that saw him tally 111 receptions for 1,426 yards lining up opposite Brown.
Smith-Schuster produced those numbers with the luxury of Brown drawing the attention of the opposition’s top cover man. He’ll be the primary target of secondaries, a duty that will start Sunday taking on Patriots All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore when the two are on the same side of the field.
Gilmore should also see time covering Donte Moncrief, who could be poised for a breakout campaign of his own as Roethlisberger’s No. 2 option at wideout. Moncrieff escaped the passing purgatory that was Blake Bortles and the Jacksonville Jaguars last season for a chance to catch passes from one of the game’s most productive quarterbacks.
Will Conner keep it up?
James Conner softened the blow of the Le’Veon Bell divorce last season with a surprise Pro Bowl campaign of his own at age 23. He’ll be the unquestioned leader out of the backfield for Pittsburgh.
Conner didn’t star in Pittsburgh’s victory over New England last December. It was backup Jaylen Samuels, who torched the Patriots for 172 yards from scrimmage while filling in for Conner, who was sidelined with an injured ankle.
It sees likely head coach Mike Tomlin will work him into the gameplan Sunday. Fourth-round rookie Benny Snell Jr. could see action out of the backfield as well.
Fireworks in Foxborough?
While both the Steelers and Patriots offenses are matching up without the All-Pro talent their accustomed too, there’s no shortage of weapons on either side.
Barring a sudden collapse from either team’s aging quarterbacks, both offenses are poised to be among the best in the NFL this season.
Don’t expect a repeat of December’s 17-10 score in Sunday’s season opener.
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