Pregame Zone Blitz: How Serious Are The Bills?

It's Steelers vs. The World. The current challenger, Buffalo, is part of the answer to a few trivia questions. Can you name which quarterback leads the league in touchdowns per game with at least six starts? Your hint is he just whipped his previous team with a four-touchdown performance in the second half on the road.

Ryan Fitzpatrick of the Buffalo Bills.

Which wide receiver currently has 700+ yards and 9+ touchdowns, but had less than 15 career receptions before this season? Here's your hint, he's the only guy in the league this year to make a veiled threat toward Gotham City.

Stevie Johnson of the Buffalo Bills.

Who are these guys? They're the rejuvenated Steelers' dangerous opponent in Week 12. But, with a week between the Steelers lowest performance of the year, they found a way to produce their best performance, even when the officiating was shockingly bad.

Strap yourselves in, the season for Super Bowl contenders starts in Week 12, and this one's gonna feature the two hottest WRs in the game. They have to be looked at side-by-side.

Opponent Web Sites/Forums

Brian Galliford of Buffalo Rumblings described the second half of the Bills' eventual 49-31 win over Cincinnati as "equal parts Bills heart and Bengals shart."

Jerry Sullivan of the Buffalo News says the Bills are "too dumb to quit," but he says it in the most complimentary way possible.

Whether they are dumb or not, they're the Prilosec NFL Victory of the Week.

And Drayton Florence edged out Steelers LB James Harrison for AFC Defensive Player of the Week after he recovered a fumble and returned it for a touchdown and had an interception.

While defensive players may stand out on this match-up, the offenses of these two teams stand nearly identical to each other.

Last Game

With stats like 14 penalties, 168 penalty yards, 42 offensive linemen injured, the last thing you'd expect to see is that team kicking the tar out of its opponent.

That's really the best way to summarize the game, but to go deeper, look to Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.

"We let this game get out of control...from ALL of us..." Tomlin said after the game, and clear and obvious shot at the officials' lack of ability to control the game.

The only real tension and excitement in the second half was seeing who would put more yards on the Steelers, the hapless Raiders offense, or the intoxicated and senile officiating crew.

It rained green at Heinz Field during the final 30 minutes. The flags were used so often, grass stains covered them, dulling their yellow color.

Outside of what was without question the worst officiated game in the league this season, the Steelers defense came to life. Perhaps feeding off the lack of control the officials had over the game (which resulted in two fights and a slew of personal foul penalties), the defense got mean, nasty and aggressive. Even the fundraising organization known as the NFL wouldn't dare fine any player (except Richard Seymour, who landed a haymaker on Ben Roethlisberger's chin in the first half. More on that in a minute) after that game, but it almost seemed justified. Righteous.

As LB James Harrison rightly said after the game, "We didn't worry about the calls," Harrison said. "When you're getting a lot of penalties against you, it brings you together."

In their most complete effort of the season, they were only pissed off they couldn't score more. They were angry with the fact the clock ran out before they could extract more revenge on Bruce Gradkowski.

It was like the Raiders had three quarterbacks available, and the Steelers wanted to bench all three of them, whether by injury or by ineffectiveness, like they did to starter Jason Campbell.

They're going to need that fire heading into a big AFC showdown with the explosive passing game of Buffalo.

Us Against The World

In wake of the recent rash of Steeler Profiling envoked by the NFL, its officials in particular, PZB felt there was no longer a point in tallying the simple lack of non-calls being made against the perceived enemy of the league, James Harrison. Instead, we're following the Steelers example from their Week 11 win over Oakland; the more you penalize this team, they harder they're going to play. The NFL has provided the Steelers with the one element of motivation that escapes every other team in the league going into the final six games of the year - "Us Against The World."

David Fleming of ESPN knows exactly what PZB is talking about. This is his mock apology sent by James Harrison:

Even with the commissioner in my head, with these massive fines for dangerous tackling techniques, last week I still had five tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and a pick. That gives me 69 tackles, nine sacks and five forced fumbles already this season. I'm gunning for my second defensive player of the year award, and here's my secret: I hit everybody. Anything that moves that isn't wearing black and gold, you're fair game. So to all of you, I'm sorry. I'm sorry that I can't be blocked. I'm sorry that I can't be stopped. I'm sorry that the NFL can't legislate me into being a kinder, gentler, softer tackler.

Your friend, James Harrison

The 2007 New England Patriots were able to establish themselves as the bad boys of the league after the whole Spygate issue blew up national headlines. Instead of trying to placate the bloodthirsty populace, they went into complete and total "Eff You" mode (Bill Simmons term) and not only blew the doors off most teams they played, but they ran up the score just to get people even angrier with them.

The result of that was more people hating them, calling them out and giving them plenty of reason to want to go out and kick the tar out of their next opponent. Everyone was against them. Everyone hated them. It gave them a level of focus and togetherness that brought them to the cusp of being the greatest team in the history of the game.

To a lesser extent, the Steelers have the same opportunity now. And clearly, the Oakland game showed that mentality come to the surface. The flags rained down, and they responded by hitting harder, playing with more emotion and the final result was the most one-sided dominant effort they produced all season.

There are some who are still calling them out, and PZB welcomes it. We will post everything we find that can be used as a proverbial log on the "Us Vs. The World" fire.

The first example is obvious; Raiders DT Richard Seymour received a $25,000 fine for punching Roethlisberger in the face, despite picking up two fines last season, one for pulling Broncos LT Ryan Clady's hair (bet you never thought you'd hear hair-pulling was a fineable incident) and one for punching Browns RB Jerome Harrison after the whistle.

It's important to note $25,000 is the minimum level fine for a second offense. Apparently, Seymour gets to throw out one of his previous offenses (probably the hair-pulling incident), and his chicken-bleep actions in Week 11 only merit a minimum fine after he was thrown out of the game (more on this below). 

James Harrison received a $75,000 fine after a hit that wasn't even penalized. Explain that one, Mr. Commissioner.

Opponent Spotlight: WR Stevie Johnson

If you hadn't heard of Buffalo's breakout WR Stevie Johnson before Week 11, you either don't follow football or at least, you don't play Fantasy Football.

But his touchdown celebration against Cincinnati, where he pulled up his jersey to reveal the written statement "Why So Serious?" likely caught your attention. Or, maybe it was just the three touchdown catches he had in the second half, as the Bills throttled the host Bengals 35-rip in the last two quarters. Behind Johnson, the Bills erased a 31-14 halftime deficit to beat the Bengals 49-31. It cost him five grand, but at least he's memorable now.

A quiet shot at Cincinnati's alleged "Dynamic Duo" of Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco, Johnson paid homage to The Joker in "The Dark Knight," and Batman and Robin had no answer. Most teams haven't had an answer for Johnson this season, as he's racked up 728 yards and nine touchdowns for the 2-8 Bills.

A former seventh-round pick, University of Kentucky fans are screaming about how no one heard of this guy until now, considering the 6-foot-2, 210 pound field-stretcher had 14 touchdowns and a 16.7 yards per catch career average there.

With his size and run-after-catch ability, he looks like another Brandon Marshall, and his future gets brighter with each game.

While teams haven't been able to hit many deep passes against the Steelers (26 pass plays of 20+ yards, 8th lowest total in the league), they've been hurt in shorter routes. Johnson's forte seems to be more in breaking shorter passes for big gains, and is a load to tackle in the open field. Particularly when behind, Fitzpatrick is looking for Johnson on his first and second reads, and isn't afraid to continually draw from that well. Pittsburgh's secondary can double-team him but the key is keeping a defender underneath him to cut off the short throw. The over-the-top defender has to be right on him and limit his yards-after-catch.

If they can keep Johnson contained and still manage to stop the run out of the nickel, rest assured, the Steelers will put smiles on the Bills' faces.

Steelers Spotlight: WR Mike Wallace

As the saying goes, you ride the horse until she bucks you off.

The Steelers' offensive game plan seems comfortable with getting the league's leader in yards per catch (23.0) the ball. In this particular match-up, Wallace will be the critical component of the game plan because he will force the free safety combination of Jarius Byrd and George Wilson to favor him over the top, thus keeping them out of the box. Buffalo struggles to stop the run as it is, but with Wallace's attention-grabbing speed (without slogans written on his shirt) will keep the Steelers at even numbers in run blocking efforts. That should open things up for RB Rashard Mendenhall.

In four games this season, both Wallace and Mendenhall have recorded touchdowns. The Steelers are 4-0 in those games. Maybe that's Captain Obvious's Statement of the Week; when you have that much production from your skill positions, you'll be successful. But it shows how important both of them are to the overall production of the offense.

Buffalo's secondary isn't elite by any means. They have an explosive offense, and can play well from behind (just ask Cincinnati). Pittsburgh's key to success is going to be time of possession, and most of that lies on the running game's shoulders. Wallace kick-starts that, so it won't be a surprise to see the Steelers try to involve Wallace early, and run Mendenhall through the turf at Ralph Wilson Stadium the rest of the game.

I See You

I see you, Chris Kemoeatu. I see you because you weren't backing down from Raiders DT Richard Seymour. You had already scrummed with him earlier in the game, and you were going after him as aggressively as you could, despite missing the last game with an injury.

But in perhaps the defining moment of team unity this season, you were injured on Roethlisberger's touchdown pass to Manny Sanders, and as you were celebrating, you saw Seymour knock Big Ben on his butt. While three other offensive linemen were standing next to Seymour, you were the one who went after him, injury be damned.

Granted, it's possible all three of those linemen were also hurt, they probably were by the end of the game, but you were the one who fought for your guy.  

Typically, coaches teach you to avoid that kind of thing. PZB says to hell with rules, some chumbalone just socked your quarterback, so you fight the bastard. That's the rules of the school yard.

As if the team needed to be more fired up, but frankly, it looked like the Steelers defense in particular cranked it up to 11 after that, and got a cathartic inter-conference victory.

Key Stats

  • Buffalo's opponents are 52-37 (.711 this season)
  • This is Buffalo's eighth game this season against a current division leader (Pittsburgh, Chicago, Kansas City, Baltimore, Jacksonville, New York Jets, New England and Green Bay). They lost the previous seven
  • Fitzpatrick has thrown a touchdown pass in 11 consecutive games dating back to 2009
  • Steelers receiver Mike Wallace tied Hines Ward for the franchise record of consecutive 100 yard receiving games (3) with his 116 yard performance in Week 11.
  • Buffalo WR Stevie Johnson has 16 catches for 295 yards and four touchdowns against two AFC North opponents this year (Baltimore and Cincinnati)

Quick-Hitters

Week 13 at Baltimore: Not surprisingly, the game has been moved to Sunday night. Coaches and players aren't allowed to overlook an opponent in favor of thinking of the next one, but fans certainly can. Pretty much a no-brainer for the league and NBC, that's without question the game of the week.

Sorry Cincy: Typically this isn't the column for such things, but this made me laugh hard enough that I had to use it. I mean no disrespect to them, but reading that forum after they lose produces some of the funniest things you'll ever read about football. This exchange is from some agonized fans over at Cincy Jungle who are understandably talking draft:

"No way on (drafting Michigan QB Ryan) Mallet...build the offensive line out."

"What? Have you heard of the Andre Smith Experiment?"

"IMO, the jury's still out on him. I want to see what he can do if healthy for a full season."

"That's my point! He can't stay healthy for an entire season!"

"Then draft more lineman to take his place, just because one guy gets hurt, it doesn' t mean you do not draft that position. Wait...are you Mike Brown?"

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