The Patriots will open the season Sunday night when the Pittsburgh Steelers come to town. With any opener there comes a great deal of uncertainty, and for the Patriots secondary that uncertainty is magnified a bit this year.
Gone is Antonio Brown and his six-season streak with a 100 or more catches. But that won't make the challenge that faces the Patriots secondary easy.
JuJu Smith-Schuster is back and now he ascends to the top of the depth chart – that is if you feel a guy with 111 receptions for nearly 1,500 yards wasn't already worthy of such a label.
Smith-Schuster provides some versatility to the Steelers passing game because he has the size (6-1, 215) and speed to be used in different ways.
"He's a good receiver. He's big and he can run every route," Patriots top cornerback Stephon Gilmore said. "He has good speed and he has good ball skills. And Ben [Roethlisberger] can buy a lot of time and that makes him even better. JuJu does a good job a helping him out in those situations."
The Patriots did a nice job of keeping him in check last season, limiting him to four catches for 40 yards. But two seasons ago it was a different story at Heinz Field. In that game Smith-Schuster was thrust into the top role after Brown was lost to an injury during the first half, and the rookie piled up 114 yards on six receptions in a 27-24 comeback win for the New England.
While that game offered a peak at what the Steelers passing attack might look like with Smith-Schuster as the top dog, Devin McCourty didn't think it was particularly relevant because both teams were forced to adjust on the fly after game planning for and with different personnel all week. But he did see some similarities in the fact that it's the opener and there is always an unknown element in Week 1.
"It's always different because when someone gets hurt and there's always adjustments to make on the fly," McCourty said. "First games are always hard. You don't know how exactly they're going to use players. Some of the things they do will be brand new and it's always about adjustments."
The Patriots could choose to matchup Gilmore on Smith-Schuster and use Jason McCourty and J.C. Jackson on second-year wideout James Washington and free agent pickup Donte' Moncrief. Jonathan Jones figures to see plenty of Ryan Switzer in the slot. They also could double Smith-Schuster and use Gilmore on Washington.
Either way, both Gilmore and Devin McCourty cautioned against taking Washington for granted.
"He's been making plays. He was tough to cover last year. He made a couple of big plays on us," Gilmore said.
"He had a helluva preseason," McCourty added. "We have to try to make sure we're not the team he explodes on because you can tell the guy has every tool you would want in a receiver: big, fast, physical, does a great job reading and judging the ball deep downfield. That's why they like to throw it to him vertically.
"I think we saw last year a short catch that he turned upfield for a big play. We just have to be ready to compete against all these guys and adjust to whatever they're doing."
Washington had three catches for 65 yards in last year's meeting, including a 32-yarder behind Jason McCourty and the aforementioned short pass that turned into a 24-yard gain later.
But Smith-Schuster will be the focus, and Bill Belichick has often been successful taking away the opponents top option and forcing others to beat him. Devin McCourty wouldn't indicate how the Patriots planned to combat him, but he had plenty of praise for the third-year pro.
"He produces in every part of the field," he said. "Catch and run and he can be a deep threat. The hard thing in their offense is he's used in a lot of different ways. Last year you saw how he was used with Antonio Brown but now without him we have to wait and see Sunday night how exactly they're using him. There will be some adjustments as far as we have to approach him.
"You just have to compete. Great players there's no one thing you can do because if there was everybody would do it and you'd shut him down. We have a lot of guys we have a lot of trust and confidence in in the corner room and it's just those guys going out and competing with him each play."
That competition starts Sunday night.