A Patriots-Steelers matchup would have been a game-of-the-year candidate in the not-so-distant past. Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger had a handful of high-stakes regular season and playoff meetings in their career-long rivalry, usually ending in New England victories. The 2023 edition of this matchup is quite different.
The Pats have the worst record in the AFC and are second in the race for the top pick in the 2024 draft. They are 6-point road underdogs to the Steelers with a dwindling point total of 30 from the opening number of 35.5. According to USA Today, that would be the lowest NFL total since a 1993 meeting between New England and Cincinnati. The Patriots prevailed 7-2 in that game.
Mitchell Trubisky looks set to start for Pittsburgh, which was also the case when these teams met in 2022, and Bailey Zappe is the likely starter for New England in place of Mac Jones. Pittsburgh has lost Kenny Pickett to a high-ankle sprain and will attempt to retain a playoff spot despite mounting injuries.
The Pats’ last three games have resulted in a combined 39 points scored during a five-game losing streak and a tumultuous situation in their quarterback room that’s been challenging to follow.
Coach Bill Belichick is between a rock and a hard place with his existing options at the position and has no use for an above-average defense when his team is struggling to reach double-digit scoring over the last three games. We’ve lined up a pair of player props to give bettors something else to root for in this game and present those plays below.
New England’s defense allows the fewest rush yards per carry in the NFL and has stymied a stable of top-tier running backs in recent weeks. Austin Ekeler, Saquon Barkley, and Jonathan Taylor combined to rush for 133 yards and a touchdown on 49 carries (2.7 yards per rush) over the last three weeks against the Pats.
The Patriots have allowed an average of 3.0 yards per attempt to their last five opponents, with the leading rushers from those opposing teams posting an average rushing total of 48.4 yards per game.
Najee Harris has averaged 15 attempts per game since the start of November, but backup Jaylen Warren has carved into his role significantly. Harris has played 54% of Pittsburgh’s offensive snaps in 2023 and hasn’t cleared 60% in any individual game.
Warren is averaging a 47% snap rate in his last four games and has also reduced his role on special teams.
Harris missed practice Tuesday and could be banged up entering this matchup. For these reasons, we like Harris to be contained below 60 yards rushing on Thursday.
Some fans may remember Zappe’s 309-yard, two-touchdown performance during a spot start against Cleveland last season that put the rookie on the map. He and the Patriots have had difficulty replicating any of that success in 2023, and Zappe’s numbers bear that out.
He averaged 8.5 yards per pass attempt last season and had five touchdowns on 92 throws over four appearances. This year, Zappe is completing 50% of his throws, down from 70% a season ago, averages 4.7 yards per attempt, and does not have a touchdown pass compared with two interceptions.
His start against a porous LA Charger defense at home last week gives us complete confidence that he’ll struggle equally or worse against Pittsburgh on the road amid a short week of practice.
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