For as long as the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots remain contenders, and especially while their current personnel are present, including two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, it will be a be regarded as a big game every time that they play against one another.
But it would be fair to say that this offseason has taken a lot of weight out of this particular contest, which is a phrase that I use literally, as roster moves and injuries have robbed us of one of the most contentious battles on the field.
The Patriots early during this offseason released veteran former All-Pro nose tackle Vince Wilfork, a longtime staple and fixture of New England’s defense, even while personnel around him constantly shifted. He was a steadying presence who consistently performed whenever healthy, and certainly his absence will be felt.
But so, too, will the absence of the Steelers, All-Pro center, Maurkice Pouncey, who suffered a fractured fibula during the preseason as he got out in front of a running play to block. A defender landed on the back of his leg and crushed Pouncey’s right foot beneath his frame.
Pouncey has since been placed on the injured reserve list with a return designation, and he is expected to miss the majority of the season. Starting in his place will be veteran reserve Cody Wallace, who started during the final quarter of the 2013 season at center for the Steelers.
Wallace, a journeyman former fourth-round draft pick before being claimed off waivers by Pittsburgh that year, is in the second year of a three-year contract that he signed following that season after showing fairly well for himself, but it would take an undisciplined observer to mistake him for Pouncey based on performance on the field.
And for the Patriots’ part, it is always difficult to replace an All-Pro starter, but the Steelers have depth along the defensive interior, with starters Alan Branch and Sealver Siliga and second-year and rookie reserves Dominique Easley and Malcolm Brown, both first-round draft selections.
Of the two teams, the Patriots are clearly more the well-prepared inside the trenches, though that is to be expected, given that the Steelers are dealing with a freak injury that caught them off-guard, rather than strategic roster rebuilding that has been a multi-year process.
As an unfortunate byproduct of this, Pittsburgh will likely find it difficult to win in the trenches, particularly right up the middle. We have seen Wallace struggle against stronger interior linemen during the preseason already, as well as the likes of Corbin Bryant.
Both David DeCastro and Ramon Foster are veteran linemen who have a good sense of how and when to give help up the middle, but with the Patriots primary running a four-man front, they will often have their hands full as well.
While there certainly feels as though there is something missing from a Steelers-Patriots game in which neither Pouncey nor Wilfork are playing, Pittsburgh remains in a decided disadvantage with respect to how those two players have been replaced, and it will surely play a role in how this game unfolds.