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Bills In The Trenches: Week 1 vs the Pittsburgh Steelers

How the line of scrimmage can dictate this week’s outcome for the Buffalo Bills as they face the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 1.

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Image courtesy of Bryan Bennett/Getty Images

Well, Bills fans, we made it: the NFL season is here. After a promising 2020 NFL campaign, the Buffalo Bills aim to make another playoff run and, hopefully, an even longer one.

This offseason has been an exciting one for the Bills, especially on the line of scrimmage. Bills’ General Manager Brandon Beane was able to keep starters Daryl Williams and Jon Feliciano on team-friendly deals. He also spent their first two picks on edge rushers Gregory Rousseau and Carlos Basham. Both of whom stood out in the preseason.

But that’s all over. Now, the players who showed out the most are here to stay and, more importantly: these games actually count. 

The Bills’ now seventeen-game schedule features some of the best teams in the league, starting Week One against the 2020 AFC North Champions, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

This will be the third consecutive year these two teams have faced off. The Bills have won both of the previous matchups in primetime settings. In 2019, the Bills edged out Duck Hodges & Co. 17-10 in the waning seconds to clinch a wild card spot. In 2020, the Bills exhibited a little more dominance in defeating the Steelers by a score of 26-15.

Either way, this year will be just as entertaining, and it all starts upfront. 

The Bills Offensive Line

(Projected) Starters: LT Dion Dawkins, LG Jon Feliciano, C Mitch Morse, RG Cody Ford/Ike Boettger, RT Daryl Williams

Going into 2021, the status of the offensive line was unknown. We all had our doubts about re-signing Williams and Feliciano. Many of us remained uncertain about Cody Ford’s future with the Bills after an injury-plagued season. Now all three are back and look to pick up where they left off.

However, Sean McDermott has not signed off on Cody Ford starting at guard. In fact, he hasn’t guaranteed that Feliciano will start either. Ike Boettger has recently started to heat up in practice, and performed well when his name was called upon last season. It’s likely we won’t know who is the starter until the official depth chart is released.

Regardless of who starts, this unit, including Dion Dawkins and Mitch Morse, needs to dominate an area they struggled with last year: the run game. Of course, not all the blame lies with the O Line. However, as we’ve seen through camp and preseason, RB Devin Singletary appears ready to hold up his end of the bargain to better help out the running game this time around. 

Steelers’ Defense 

DE: Cameron Hayward, NT: Tyson Alualu, DT: Chris Wormley, Left-EDGE: T.J. Watt, Right-EDGE: Melvin Ingram

The Steelers defense finished as one of the top defensive units in the entire league last year. This is in part due to their ferocious front-seven. TJ Watt was a runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year and Cameron Heyward finished Second-Team All-Pro. Not to mention, Bud Dupree’s play earned him a huge deal with the Tennessee Titans this offseason. Dupree has been replaced by stud edge rusher and former Charger, Melvin Ingram, but the main focus still remains on Watt.

As for the rest of the line, it’s not focused on just one guy. Not only did the Steelers pick up Ingram, but Devin Bush is back after tearing his ACL last season. While healthy, Bush is one of the most versatile linebackers in the league and a serious game changer.

Although Stephon Tuitt won’t be suiting up this week, Tyson Alualu is still an underrated nose tackle in this league. He’s not on Tuitt’s level, but he will also have an impact.

Game Plan

This week’s game plan should be pretty straightforward. As we all know, Heyward is one of the top players at his position year in and year out. Taking him out of the flow of the game would help the Bills tremendously. Although his age is catching up to him, the less involved he is in the Steelers’ game plan, the better it is for the Bills.

Likewise, a big part of the Bills’ plan of action should be to completely neutralize Watt. If you recall from last year, Watt’s lack of production against the Bills last season helped earn Daryl Williams his contract and put him back on the borderline-elite tier of right tackles. If Williams can manage another big game like he did last season, Buffalo’s offense should produce just like it did in Week 12.

As for Devin Bush, recognizing his blitzes, stunts, and the rest of his movements will be key for the Bills’ offensive success. Bush is a vital part of the Steelers’ defense. His ability to play all over the field and within the box. Delayed and stunt blitzes will be the biggest things to keep an eye out for when running plays around him.

But if the Bills really want to succeed on offense, they need to pound the ground game early and often. Contrary to popular belief, Josh Allen can’t do everything. Establishing the run game needs to be a priority this time around. 

The Steelers were the third ranked defense in the NFL, but just 11th in rush defense. They will be a different unit this year with some new and returning faces, so this year’s game will be much different than last year’s in terms of running the ball. Buffalo’s offensive line will have its hands full early and often to start the season. For the Bills to win, they’ll have to win the battle upfront on every single play.

The Bills Defensive Line

(Projected Starters) LE: Jerry Hughes, 3T: Ed Oliver, 1T: Star Louteleli, RE: Mario Addison

Unlike past seasons, the Bills’ defensive line was probably their biggest liability last season. They struggled mightily against the run, did not produce many sacks, and almost cost the Bills a few games. 

This year, however, the D-Line looks primed to make up for last season’s sub-par performance and return to being one of the top units in pro football. 

If you told me the Bills would miss Star Louteleli last season, I would’ve called you crazy. But if you asked me my thoughts after the game against the Chiefs in Week 6, I would’ve apologized for being wrong. But this season, Louteleli returns to the field and looks to continue filling gaps and stopping the run. That ought to right the Bills’ defensive ship on the line.

As for the other starters, Jerry Hughes returns for his ninth season in Buffalo and should solidify his name on the Bills’ Wall of Fame. Mario Addison aims for a bounce-back season after a disappointing first year. Ed Oliver looks to make more of an impact as he moves back to his 3-tech defensive tackle spot, a position for which he should be much better suited. 

But if it’s one thing this defensive line has, it’s depth – something they seriously lacked last season. A.J. Epensea, a 2020 second-round pick, has looked phenomenal in camp and preseason. He should see his snap count continue to rise with his new and improved play.

The biggest depth name to keep an eye out for is none other than 2021 first-round pick Greg Rousseau. Like Epenesa, he shined throughout the preseason after opting out of the 2020 college season. His size and speed should be utilized to the best of his ability to aid the Bills’ pass rush and wreak havoc on opposing offensive tackles.

The best of the rest includes both old and new faces. This includes 2021 second-round selection Carlos Basham, Harrison Phillips (currently recovering from an injury), UK export Efe Obada, undrafted hero Justin Zimmer, and veteran Vernon Butler, all of whom will be rotated in and out of the D-line as needed. 

Steelers’ Offensive Line

(Projected) Starters: LT: Chuckwuma Okorafor, LG: Kevin Dotson, C: J.C. Hassenaur, RG: Trai Turner, RT: Joe Haeg*

The 2021 Steelers’ projected starting offensive line looks A LOT different than it did last season. With the retirement of long-time center Maurkice Pouncey. Along with the losses of Alejandro Villanueva and Matt Feiler to free agency and the surprise cut of David Decastro, the only returning starter is Western Michigan-product Chukwuma Okorafor, who finished with an underwhelming 57.6 overall PFF grade.

This new unit features five-time Pro Bowler Trai Turner, 2020 fourth-round pick Kevin Dotson, veteran Joe Haeg (who’s filling in for the injured Zach Banner), and second-year center J.C. Hasenauer. However, don’t be surprised if 2021 rookies Kendrick Green and Dan Moore Jr. see a majority of the playing time this Sunday.

Although they have some notable names, most Pittsburgh beat-writers and NFL analysts see the Steelers’ O-line as a significant area of concern. It’s never a good sign when QB1 is calling his own line out before the season starts. 

“They’re on a fast track; they’ve got to learn each other really quick. There are going to be bumps in the road.”

– Ben Roethlisberger

They’ll be blocking for rookie Najee Harris, who’s had a great summer camp so far in his new home in Pittsburgh. A hard and vicious runner who is incredibly effective in the passing game, Harris may not benefit from the same kind of line he did back in Alabama, but he will be able to make himself a star in this league.

Just maybe not in Week 1

Bills’ Defensive Gameplan

This is the perfect opportunity for the Bills’ defense to come out swinging and regain the momentum they lost in 2020. With an uncoordinated and inexperienced offensive line, their point of emphasis should be pretty simple: attack the rookies. 

When you lose a veteran like Pouncey – referred to as his “safety blanket” by Big Ben himself – that does not bode well for your immediate future. Hasenauer does have starting experience in the NFL, starting four games last season, but I don’t expect him to have nearly the same impact that Pouncey had.

Stunt blitzes, stacking the box, and simply keeping the Steelers’ offensive line off balance with a varied game plan should help Buffalo’s defensive line wreak havoc on the offense and completely shut them down.

The Bills’ D-line should also be focusing on stopping Harris in the run game. The rookie excels in both ways on offense, being one of the best pass-catching running backs in college football last season, but taking him out of the running game would be huge for this defense. 

As for the rest of it, getting to the quarterback early and often should be a priority. If anyone’s age is catching up to them, it’s Ben Roethlisberger. Although he was never a mobile quarterback, Big Ben’s mobility has gotten worse and worse with each passing year. The young guns will have an easy target in Week 1 and hopefully will record their first career sacks against one of this generation’s best quarterbacks.

Wrap Up

I’ve been waiting for this game all year. Ever since the heartbreaking loss to the Chiefs, it’s been one of the only things on my mind (which may explain my Calc 110 grade right now). 

I’m not exactly sure what to expect out of this game just yet. Of course, my game plan is probably correct, but it’s only an educated guess; Brian Daboll and Leslie Frazier may well have different plans up their sleeves.

It will also be interesting to see the final depth chart. The Bills recently released their unofficial depth chart, and while I believe it will look almost the same as the final list, nothing is set in stone.

This game versus the Pittsburgh Steelers is more than just winnable: it’s a game where the Bills can purely dominate on both sides of the ball. But it has to start up front, play in and play out. The Steelers have been one of the best teams every year. If the Bills want to reach that elite status and prove that last season wasn’t a fluke, they need to come out swinging. Early and often.

Disagree with what I said? Tweet at me! @RubinsteinPete on Twitter.

Sources:

  • Steelers insights courtesy of Bob Labriola/Steelers.com and Heavy on Steelers
  • Unofficial depth charts courtesy of ourlads.com
  • Defensive rankings courtesy of ESPN
  • Statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference 
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