The Patriots continued preparations on Thursday for their season opener against the Steelers. In the locker room after practice, Rex Burkhead was excited to get the season started.
"Really excited." Burkhead said from his new locker next to Joe Cardona. "Sunday night football. There's nothing else like it. Coming out there, first game of the season against a great opponent in the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team with a lot of tradition, a lot of success and a lot of great players."
Pittsburgh should challenge the Patriots in a number of ways that will stress areas where they're undergoing some change. Their potent pass rush, led by Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt coming off the edges, is just part of a well-coordinated group that will come after a Patriots offensive line with two new starters.
Joe Thuney knows what they will be up against.
"They have a really good defense," Thuney told reporters. "A nice combination of size and speed. They play really hard. They play really well together. It's going to take 60 minutes. We've got to be on our communication and be on the same page."
In the past the Patriots have handled the vaunted Steelers more times than not, including three AFC Championship game wins. But the last year's loss to the Steelers was a reminder of how dangerous Pittsburgh can be for Phillip Dorsett.
"I would say they came out and they executed their gameplan better than us," said Dorsett. "We gotta come out and play better. We know they're going to bring it, it's Pittsburgh. They bring it every time. It's going to be a tough game."
Getting off to a fast start is always a big key for the Patriots, as any team would prefer to play from in front rather than behind. The key positional group perhaps to making that happen? The running backs, who cover the spectrum between hard early-down runners and nifty pass-catching backs.
"Coming out just locked in, focusing on what we need to do to execute," said Rex Burkhead. "Whatever looks we get early on, being sure we're on top of those and making adjustments when we need to. We know it's always important to start fast. The Steelers are a great team all around, defensively they got a lot of size and speed, and they're very physical at the point of attack. We gotta be ready to go from the get go."
Burkhead didn't reveal much about the game plan when asked if he and his fellow backs might be asked to use their receiving skills more frequently with the turnover at tight end and receiver.
"Whatever Josh asks us to do, we'll just have to step up and make the most of that. Whatever offense he wants for that game or series."
But Burkhead doesn't mind catching the ball, does he?
"No, not all," he said with a smile.
The team announced their captains for the 2019 season and the majority of them are the well-known leaders, including Tom Brady, Matthew Slater, Devin McCourty, James White and Dont'a Hightower.
Despite being on season-ending IR, David Andrews was also voted a captain. Andrews has continued to be present around the locker room since spending a day in the hospital for blood clots in his lungs. The center should be a valuable player to have around as he assists with the three new players along the offensive line who were added at cutdowns.
The biggest surprise captain was fourth-year linebacker Elandon Roberts, who was considered by many to be trade bait this summer. Roberts not only stuck around but now has a vote of confidence from his teammates. Heading into the final year of his contract, the physical middle linebacker should be ready to make his presence felt on the field.
The Patriots once again had full attendance at practice under perfect conditions that hopefully hold up for Sunday night. The injury report remained the same as well with Matt LaCosse (ankle), Demaryius Thomas (hamstring) and Obi Melifonwu (ankle).
For the Steelers, Mark Barron was given the day off as a coaches decision, while starting safety Sean Davis was absent with an ankle injury.