When the Pittsburgh Steelers defenders review this week's defensive gameplan for their game Sunday night against the Buffalo Bills, it may be similar to reading the back of a shampoo bottle. Instructions reading something along the lines of "Rinse and repeat", because if the Steelers are to achieve victory versus the Buffalo Bills Sunday night they will need a repeat of last week's performance against the Arizona Cardinals.
At first glance, the Bills and the Cardinals don't appear very similar. The surging Bills squad has already clinched a winning record and is smack dab in the middle of the AFC playoff race, while the floundering Cardinals are playing out the remainder of the season with hopes of a brighter future at the top of their holiday wishlist.
However, a closer look reveals some intriguing similarities. Both teams are being lead by young, strong armed, athletic QBs. Kyler Murray for the Cardinals and Josh Allen for the Bills. Each quarterback stresses your defense with their ability to extend the play and create big plays out of the pocket. Both men possess excellent arm strength, but struggle at times with accuracy and decision making.
At this point in their young careers, the biggest threat they present to opposing defenses is the ability to move the chains with their legs. Last week the Steelers were able to contain Murray for the most part by limiting his opportunities to unleash his legs. They achieved this in part by utilizing a gameplan slightly out of character for this current Steelers defense. Although the Steelers excel in man coverage and do so more than years prior, the Steelers utilized a majority of zone coverage against the Cardinals uptempo offense.
This turn of events seemed to both surprise and confuse Murray. The Steelers were able to collapse the pocket with a four man pass rush, they alternated using spies on Murray on occasion, and by playing zone on the backside the defenders were able to avoid losing visual of Murray and opening up running lanes as a result. This well executed gameplan resulted in five sacks, three interceptions, and a Steelers victory. This week the Steelers need a "Rinse and Repeat" of that performance against Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills.
Josh Allen is a rising young star at quarterback, with maybe the strongest throwing arm currently in the NFL. That being said, he still struggles with some of the same concerns that many scouts had about him during the predraft process. Touch and accuracy are both still a work in progress. Surprisingly, for a man blessed with incredible arm talent, Allen struggles mightily on throws over twenty yards downfield. He repeatedly overthrew open receivers deep downfield last Sunday in the loss to the Baltimore Ravens. To be fair to the young man, the weather conditions were far from ideal, with strong winds swirling throughout the game. However, this has been a recurring theme during Josh's young career.
Allen also struggles when facing pressure in the pocket. His efficiency rating drops from 13th to 31st under such circumstances. These numbers maybe slightly skewed if we are being honest, because of Allen's tendency to turn his vision from downfield to look for running lanes when forced from the pocket. This has greatly impacted his passing statistics in such situations, but he has managed to stay productive as a QB for a winning football team because of his superior running ability.
Allen in the open field is the equivalent to Ben Roethlisberger in the pocket, tough to bring down. Blessed with size and strength, Allen is just as likely to bulldozer or hurdle a defender than he is to run away from larger defenders with excellent speed for a man of his stature. This makes it imperative that the Steelers limit Allen's opportunities for chunk plays. No Steelers fans want to see diminutive Mike Hilton struggling to bring Allen down in the open field.
First and foremost, the Steelers need to minimize the Bills running game, creating multiple 3rd and longs. Then maintain rush lane discipline, collapse the pocket, and force Allen to make plays in the passing game against the Steelers outstanding, playmaking defense.
If the Steelers are able to create this narrative against the well coached Buffalo squad, then the opportunity for sacks and turnovers should present itself, resulting in improved odds of a Steelers victory. Sounds simple, but easier said than done.