Last updated: September 5 at 12:45pm ET
Editors note: Below is a full audio reading of this column. While the column may receive updates over the weekend, the audio will not. It was posted on Friday at 11:31am.
Team Totals: Patriots 27.5, Steelers 22.5
Ben Roethlisberger looks like a potentially underrated fantasy play in Week 1’s fourth-highest-totaled game after throwing for 300-plus yards and/or multiple touchdowns in eight straight meetings with New England. No 2018 team played more man defense than Bill Belichick’s Patriots, and Sports Info Solutions has credited Ben with a dominant 35:10 TD-to-INT ratio versus man compared to 13:15 against zone over the past two seasons. Roethlisberger has negative career road splits, but they haven’t translated to post-1pm ET games. Separating early, afternoon, and late-night starts, Roethlisberger’s passer rating (97.6) and yards per attempt (7.94) are easily highest in prime time. … All preseason indications pointed to James Conner keeping bellcow duties behind a Steelers line returning all five starters after Conner was last year’s fantasy RB3 in Weeks 1-10 before myriad injuries set in. Conner’s growth potential can’t be dismissed; this is his fourth football season removed from beating cancer, and I’ve never seen Conner look as explosive and powerful as he did this August. As most signs point to Jaylen Samuels settling in as a handcuff rather than RBBC partner, Conner should be approached as a confident RB1 play at Foxboro.
Newly the Pats’ defensive coordinator following Brian Flores’ departure to Miami, Belichick’s matchup-driven strategies suggest we’ll see 2018 league-best corner Stephon Gilmore chase JuJu Smith-Schuster around the field after New England held JuJu to 40 scoreless yards on ten targets last Week 15. Target volume correlates far better with fantasy production than cornerback matchups, but there’s little doubt JuJu’s Week 1 draw is tough. Gilmore yielded below one yard per coverage snap both on the boundary and inside last year, and he is among the NFL’s few No. 1 corners who will chase top wideouts into the slot. … Donte Moncrief cleanly beat out James Washington for Pittsburgh’s No. 2 wideout role but won’t be taken lightly by Belichick, who assigned top CB Darrelle Revis to shadow Moncrief in past meetings with the Colts while dedicating double teams to T.Y. Hilton. Nevertheless, this game’s high-scoring projection and Moncrief’s secure role keep him playable on one-game DFS slates and as a WR4/flex. … Preseason usage indicated Washington will open the year as Pittsburgh’s No. 4 receiver with Big Ben-favorite Ryan Switzer and perhaps rookie Diontae Johnson mixing into the No. 3 role. Switzer will be a better straight-up fantasy play than Washington until there is a changing of the guard. Washington effectively ran as JuJu’s direct backup in August. … With Jesse James gone to Detroit, Vance McDonald projects as a true every-down player and potential beneficiary of Pittsburgh’s difficult wide receiver matchups in Foxboro. I’m anticipating McDonald’s snaps will spike into the 80% range after he finished third among tight ends in yards after catch (392) despite ranking 20th at the position in snaps.
Although Tom Brady has been a Steelers killer for most of his career, Pittsburgh’s defense checked him for yardage/TD/INT lines of 279/1/1 and 298/1/1 in their last two meetings by increasing their man-coverage rates and applying pressure. Last year’s Steelers tied for the NFL lead in sacks (52) and ranked second in QB hits (117), and they pressured Brady on 11-of-37 dropbacks last Week 15. Per Next Gen Stats, Pittsburgh was the only NFL team to finish top five in blitz rate, pressure rate, and sack rate, while New England suddenly has major offensive line questions after losing LT Trent Brown (Raiders) and C David Andrews (blood clots, I.R.). Brady should have gone as a clear-cut QB2 in season-long drafts and warrants being treated accordingly here. … I’ll be interested to see if the Patriots keep five running backs on their active 46 – Sony Michel, James White, Damien Harris, Rex Burkhead, and Brandon Bolden – but my instinct tells me Harris might not dress. In that case, I would have increased confidence in Michel’s floor as New England’s virtually uncontested early-down and goal-line runner and as a quality RB2 play with multi-score upside favored at home. … White’s outlook is more that of a PPR-specific flex option after White averaged just 8.6 touches over last year’s final seven regular season games with Michel and Burkhead healthy. Pittsburgh’s running back coverage should improve considerably with the addition of top-ten pick ILB Devin Bush, a 97th-percentile SPARQ athlete with an ubiquitous playing style.
Julian Edelman appeared to aggravate his pre-camp thumb injury in the Pats’ preseason finale but isn’t even listed on this week’s injury report. He’s the most-confident pass-catcher play on New England’s side based on his unbending rapport with Brady and Pittsburgh’s perennial insistence on covering slot receivers with linebackers. Edelman has capitalized for stat lines of 7/90/0 > 8/118/1 > 9/60/0 > 11/97/0 in these teams’ last four meetings. The defending Super Bowl MVP is a rock-solid WR2 play with WR1 upside in PPR. … Josh Gordon is a Week 1 wild card with some questions surrounding his playing time after Gordon practiced for just two weeks following his surprise-early reinstatement. Gordon was largely a non-factor against Pittsburgh last Week 15, managing 19 yards on two targets. I still think Gordon will end up playing most of Sunday night’s game – the Patriots need him to based on their poor wideout depth – and am considering Gordon a high-ceiling WR3 start in this potential shootout. At 6’3/225, Gordon has a massive size advantage on Steelers CBs Joe Haden (5’11/193), Steven Nelson (5’10/197), and Mike Hilton (5’9/178). … With first-round pick N’Keal Harry (ankle) on I.R., the Patriots’ top third-receiver candidates are Phillip Dorsett, Demaryius Thomas, and Jakobi Meyers. Dorsett looks like the best one-game DFS slate dart throw of the group. Thomas is nursing a hamstring injury after tearing his Achilles’ last December, and UDFA rookie Meyers returned to Earth following a white-hot start to camp. … Matt LaCosse (ankle) and block-first sophomore Ryan Izzo are New England’s top options at tight end.
Score Prediction: Steelers 24, Patriots 23