Pittsburgh, PA - The Patriots are readying for a primetime matchup with the Steelers, and the offense around starting quarterback Bailey Zappe is set on Thursday night.
After ruling out four players en route to Pittsburgh, the Patriots inactives are WR DeVante Parker (knee), RB Rhamondre Stevenson (ankle), WR Kayshon Boutte (shoulder), WR Demario Douglas (concussion), CB Shaun Wade (illness), RB JaMycal Hasty, and OT Vederian Lowe. The three other questionable Patriots players, Christian Barmore (shoulder), OT Trent Brown (ankle/hand), and WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (ankle), are all officially active for Thursday Night Football.
The Steelers inactives are QB Kenny Pickett, RB Anthony McFarland, CB James Pierre, LB Markus Golden, T Dyland Cook, and DE DeMarvin Leal. After some doubt during the week, RB Najee Harris is active for Pittsburgh.
With the Patriots expected to start QB Bailey Zappe for the second straight week, the second-year quarterback won't have veteran wide receiver DeVante Parker on Thursday night. After carrying a questionable designation into the game, Parker will miss his fourth game of the season due to a knee injury. Last week, Parker had a team-high 64 receiving yards on nine targets, with Zappe targeting him frequently on deep passes downfield. The Pats top X receiver only caught one of those jump balls but did gain 27 yards and 21 yards on two chunk gains.
Without the veteran receiver in the lineup, New England will be down three regulars, leaving JuJu Smith-Schuster and Tyquan Thornton as the only core contributors active for Thursday night's game. Jalen Reagor is also dressed, with only three wide receivers active for the Patriots on Thursday night. Zappe will have his three tight ends: Hunter Henry, Mike Gesicki, and Pharaoh Brown. But the already slumping Patriots offense is very short-handed at wide receiver.
The Patriots also elevated Malik Cunningham for the second consecutive week. With the undrafted rookie up from the practice squad, Cunningham is active alongside Zappe and Mac Jones. Due to using a standard elevation on Cunningham, the Patriots didn't have the option to designate an emergency third quarterback, so the Pats will have three quarterbacks active for the second straight game.
Despite being shut out in a loss to the Chargers last week, Zappe is expected to start his second game of the season. At this point, it's hard to predict head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien turning to Cunningham after he played zero snaps last week.
In his first NFL appearance, Cunningham played six snaps against the Raiders in Week 6. However, the rookie netted -4 yards in two snaps at quarterback, while he wasn't targeted in four snaps at wide receiver. Since then, Cunningham has remained on the practice squad until last week, when he didn't play a single snap vs. Los Angeles.
Although he spent most of the summer practicing at wide receiver, Cunningham showed promise in limited opportunities at quarterback. In particular, the Louisville product led a fourth-quarter touchdown drive in the preseason opener vs. the Texans, showing off his dual-threat abilities. Again, we'll believe it when we see it with Cunningham. But, with Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin speaking about the challenges of preparing for Cunningham on a short week, anything is possible.
In the offensive backfield, the Patriots elevated second-year RB Kevin Harris from the practice squad. Harris will be the top backup to veteran Ezekiel Elliott, who will assume RB1 responsibilities with Stevenson inactive. Harris gives the Pats another early-down power runner, showing well in limited work as a rookie. Harris will make his season debut on Thursday night, while the Pats also have WR/RB Ty Montgomery active, who can play out of the backfield as well.
Although the Steelers sixth-ranked defense by DVOA is an aggressive, playmaking unit, it's now or never for Zappe and the Patriots offense. The Pats have to start showing some improvement on offense, where they rank dead-last in the league in scoring (12.3), the lowest output for New England since the 1990 season.
Defensively, the Patriots will have their full contingent of defenders on the active roster, with Barmore as the only player with an uncertain game status. The Patriots defense will face Steelers backup quarterback Mitch Trubisky, with Pittsburgh's starter, Kenny Pickett, officially inactive. Last season, the Patriots beat Trubisky's Steelers 17-14 in Pittsburgh.
The season's final five games could have conflicting rooting interests for many Patriots fans. New England currently holds the number two overall selection in the 2024 NFL Draft, with the race for the number one pick driving many fans to root for the team to lose. Still, we hope to see bright spots for future building blocks on both sides of the ball. We've seen that recently on defense, but it's the offense's turn to show improvement down the stretch.
The Steelers host the Patriots at Acrisure Stadium in Pittsburgh at 8:15 p.m. ET on Thursday night.