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Friday Preview: Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Buffalo Bills

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After 25 long years, the Monday Night Football monkey is finally off the Bills back. Coming off of one of their most impressive showings of the season, the Bills will look to continue their late-season push for a Top two seed in the AFC against the Pittsburgh Steelers. While the Bills were to finally get a win on MNF, another hurdle that they have been unable to clear awaits them: beating the AFC’s best. Since Sean McDermott arrived in Buffalo the Bills have done an exceptional job beating the teams they should beat, but they have struggled against the top-tier teams in the AFC. For example, the Patriots and Ravens games last year and the Titans and Chiefs this year are all statement games that just slipped out of reach for the Bills. What will it take for the Bills to clear another hurdle on Sunday Night Football? Let’s take a look!

The Last Five

Buffalo 17 Pittsburgh 10 (2019)
Pittsburgh 27 Buffalo 20 (2016)
Pittsburgh 23 Buffalo 10 (2013)
Pittsburgh 19 Buffalo 16 (OT) (2010)
Pittsburgh 26 Buffalo 3 (2007)

Previous matchups against Pittsburgh have not been kind to the Bills, with the Steelers leading the series 16-10. Since the 1993 season, the Bills have beaten the Steelers only twice in twelve tries. For a team that is only 217 miles away, I was surprised to see how few times these two teams have played since the turn of the century. However, when these two teams do play, the game always seems to be a significant one. For instance: the 2004 regular-season finale against the backups that ruined the Bills playoff chances, the Stevie Johnson game in 2010 and the subsequent birth of #BillsMafia, the 2013 game was effectively the end of EJ Manuel’s career in Buffalo (Many fans turned on him after that loss.), the loss in 2016 was one of the final nails in Rex’s coffin, and of course, last year’s win on SNF was the playoff clincher. The week could certainly be one that we are talking about years from now, as well.

What To Watch For: Bills

Moss Redemption – If there is one thing that everyone knows about playing the Pittsburgh Steelers, it is that you are in for a 60-minute physical dogfight. The Bills have one running back on their team that they love to use in short-yardage situations, one that specializes in north/south running. The problem is, that player is coming off of his roughest game as a professional. After an incredible defensive goal-line stand last week, Zach Moss muffed a handoff and gave the ball back to the 49ers inside the 5-yard line. After the costly fumble, Devin Singletary out-snapped Moss 59 to 2. It was a costly mistake and one that required a lesson. McDermott believes that Moss learned a lesson in his benching–once again understanding the importance of protecting the football. I would think a heavy dose of Moss would be in the cards this week. Hopefully, he can shake off last week and use it as a learning opportunity moving forward.

Offensive Line Solution – It took 12 weeks and many injuries, but it appears that the Bills have settled on a starting offensive line that doesn’t include Brian Winters. With all due respect to Winters, he just hasn’t shown enough this year to warrant a starting spot protecting Josh Allen. Last week, the Bills moved Ike Boettger to LG, John Feliciano to RG, and the results were better than anyone could have expected. Boettger had a career game, rating as PFF‘s highest-rated lineman in the game. Allen was rarely in trouble on Monday night, and the time that the line gave him was a large reason why he was able to pick apart the 49ers zone defense. If the offensive line has indeed turned a corner, it couldn’t have happened at a better time, as the Steelers bring in a defensive line that is ranked 1st in sacks, QB hits, and blitz percentage. It always “starts up front”, but this week that is especially the case if Allen is expected to repeat his efficiency from last week.

Primetime Boogyman Pt. 2 – The Bills have been able to cross a lot of accomplishments off of their list in the past few years: a return to the playoffs after a 17 year drought, a game on Thanksgiving Day, winning a Monday Night Football game, and they are in position to win their first division title since 1995 as well. While they are at it, they might as well erase the awful memory of Sunday Night Football at home. The last time the Bills hosted a SNF game they were embarrassed by the Patriots 56-10. In a season where the Bills are slowly erasing the struggles of the past, SNF would be another great box to check off.

What To Watch For: Steelers

Confidence Shaken? – When the Steelers looked at their schedule and sat only five wins away from a perfect season, it was reasonable to think it was the Bills that provided the biggest threat to their pursuit of history. It turns out that it was the Washington Football Team, instead. After the unexpected and embarrassing loss, will the Steelers experience a hangover and come out flat Sunday night? The Steelers have not been playing particularly well for a few weeks now, and it finally caught up with them. They will want to turn the page quickly on the surprising loss on Monday night before facing a talented Bills team on Sunday.

Injury Bug – The Steelers are struggling with player health at the worst time of the year. With inside linebacker Vince Williams being placed on the COVID list, Pittsburgh is dangerously thin at linebacker. The starting linebackers that will march into Bills Stadium are Avery Williamson, who was traded to Pittsburgh at the deadline, and Marcus Allen, who as of this year, is a safety turned inside linebacker. The secondary is a concern for the Steelers, as well. Joe Haden, their number one cornerback, has been sidelined with a concussion all week, and his status for Sunday does not look good. When targeted this year, Haden is allowing a 65.2 quarterback rating and has two interceptions. The injuries to the Steelers defense is noteworthy, especially considering how well the Bills offense has been playing. Covering Stefon Diggs without the help of Joe Haden is not something the Steelers want to think about, but it very well may be their reality come Sunday night.

3 Headed Receiving Monster – In today’s NFL, you don’t win your first 11 games without a dependable passing game stacked with talent on the outside. Steelers rookie, Chase Claypool, has gotten a lot of attention this year after becoming the first rookie to score 10 TDs in his first 10 games. It would be a mistake for the Bills to just focus on Claypool, as Diontae Johnson and JuJu Smith-Schuster make up a trio of WRs that have aided Ben Roethlisberger’s resurgence this Fall. All three WRs have at least 600 yards and five TDs this year. Johnson has been targeted an eye-popping 106 times and has established himself as Big Ben’s go-to WR in times of need. You can bet the Steelers will look to this WR trio to carry their offense once again, especially after seeing Levi Wallace’s struggles on tape from last week’s game.

Prediction

Bills 24 Steelers 23 I have gone back and forth on this one all week. What started out as a Steelers victory in my mind has slowly moved to a Bills win. The Bills have yet to prove that they can beat the AFC’s elite, but this is a different team than the one that was blown out by the Titans and let the Chiefs run all over them. If it weren’t for the significant injuries on the Steelers’ defense, combined with the recent play of Josh Allen, I don’t think I would give Buffalo the advantage in this one, but the Bills deserve some respect, and I will do my part by picking them this week. I think the Bills will finally clear this next hurdle for them in a close game that ends on a Tyler Bass game-winning FG.

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