Showdown Slant ::
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The first Sunday Night Football matchup of the 2019 season has the Steelers visiting the Patriots, with a healthy game total of 51 and the Pats 5.5 point favorites at home. The Steelers’ total looks low at first glance, but after really digging into this game I think it’s a pretty reasonable number, as Pittsburgh is likely to struggle to consistently move the ball in this one (especially if, or when, they fall behind).
New England has a reputation for being a hard-to-predict, spread-out offense, but I actually think that’s likely a false narrative in this instance. Last year, down the stretch, what really got the Pats’ offense humming was utilizing a ball-out-quick attack centered on Julian Edelman and their running backs. Against a Pittsburgh defense that A) likes to blitz and B) has a strong pass rush, it seems reasonable to expect the same strategy here. Edelman and James White are obviously attractive plays to take advantage of this. Edelman is priced like a near-elite receiver at $9,600 which is a bit tough for me to swallow given his lower ceiling, but White at $6,600 feels like an absolute steal. Sony Michel should lead the backfield in carries by a healthy margin, and he could well be more involved in the passing game as well (Michel spent the offseason working on his receiving skills, and he caught 13 of 13 balls in training camp this year). We don’t know if that will translate to real game usage, but as a large home favorite running back on a team that wants to run the ball (the Pats ran more often than all but six teams last year), Michel is already a strong play and some pass game involvement would just put him over the top into an elite play. The Pats’ other weapons are led by Josh Gordon, who is a reasonable play against a weak secondary, while all of the Patriots’ other skill players are basically dart throws (though Phillip Dorsett should be the WR3 and be on the field for a large percentage of snaps at just $3,800).
On the Pittsburgh side of the ball, with Antonio Brown gone, the Steelers are basically fielding one elite NFL wide receiver and a hodgepodge supporting cast. JuJu Smith-Schuster should see a ton of volume all year, but in this matchup, when he’s on the outside he’ll be matched up with Stephon Gilmore, who is as shutdown of a shutdown corner as exists in the NFL right now. The Steelers will move JuJu around to try and get him open, including into the slot where the matchup is not as terrible, but it’s still not great. Playing JuJu is betting on talent over matchup. The Steelers’ other WRs are basically dart throws, as Donte Moncrief and James Washington (who I’m expecting to be the other perimeter WR in three-wide sets when Juju is in the slot) are just outclassed by the Pats’ secondary. The best way for the Steelers to move the ball will be in the running game, as the Patriots are generally willing to give up yardage on the ground in order to stop big plays, so James Conner should be able to consistently make some gains. If the Pats take a lead, as they’re expected to, the Steelers will at some point have to stop leaning on the run and that’s where things get dicey for them. Conner should get a lot of pass game usage, and Vance McDonald is the most attractive overall receiver on Pittsburgh, with a reasonable matchup and great after-catch ability. Finally, Jaylen Samuels is a bit of a sneaky play, as the Steelers could use him at the same time as Conner to try and create different looks and move the ball in the air while avoiding the Pats’ cornerbacks.
The most likely way for this game to play out is for the Pats to take a lead while leaning on their run game and short passes, with Pittsburgh trying to stay on the ground as long as they can keep it close but eventually having to take to the air as they attempt to catch up. In this scenario, the priority plays are Michel, Edelman, and White on the Patriots and McDonald and Conner on the Steelers. Samuels is in play with salary considered, and of course the kickers are in play as well, along with the New England defense.
Other ways this game could play out include:
- The Pats take a lead but the game stays within one score the entire time, which means that the Steelers can remain focused on the ground and the “take to the air to catch up” narrative never really comes to pass.
- The Steelers put up a quick score or two and it’s the Pats who have to get more aggressive, which would bring Josh Gordon more firmly into play.
- The Steelers, a team that has historically struggled on the road, just gets wrecked traveling to New England as they can’t move the ball through the air against the Patriots’ elite secondary. 5-1 onslaught teams are always underowned.
- The Pats are able to move the ball on the ground, as imagined, but the touchdowns go elsewhere (imagine something like Rex Burkhead with a rushing TD, another to James Develin, and then a passing TD to Matt LaCosse). Basically, imagining that the “Pats are a hard to predict and spread around the ball” narrative holds true. In this scenario the Pittsburgh players become more attractive as the Pats’ scoring is spread out while the Steelers are likely to have a narrower distribution of volume.
As always, my captain exposures will vary with the game scenario I’m building for, and of course they’re likely to be adjusted when full pricing come out. But, as of right now, my hands-down favorite captain is Sony Michel as the lead back on a large home favorite with additional possible upside if he gets more involved in the passing game. Conner, McDonald, and White are all strong choices as well, while Julian Edelman rarely has the kind of ceiling game that we need for a player who is priced near $10k.
Some thoughts on groups to consider:
- At most 1 kicker
- At most 1 defense
- Pair captain QBs with at least 2 receivers (personally I’m probably not using either QB as a captain here as it’s hard to envision them putting up the highest score)
- Pair captain receivers with their QB
- At most 1 of the Pats’ ancillary receivers (Dorsett, LaCosse, etc.)
- At most 1 of the Steelers’ ancillary receivers (Washington, Switzer, etc.)
- At most 2 Pats RBs