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Injuries, and a cold night in Buffalo, present challenges for the Steelers on Sunday night

The Pittsburgh Steelers are dealing with a rash of injuries on the defense, and that could pose a big problem for the team as they prepare for the Buffalo Bills on Sunday night.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

This week we are previewing Sunday night’s AFC showdown between the Pittsburgh Steelers (11-1) and the Buffalo Bills (9-3). The Steelers dropped their first game of the season last week, losing 23-17 to the Washington Football Team. Buffalo, meanwhile, won 34-24 against the San Francisco 49ers in a game that was relocated to Arizona due to strict COVID protocols in the Bay Area.

(Side note: on a scale of 1-100, how weird/inappropriate would it be if the Steelers played a “home” game at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore?)

I’m going to approach the scouting report differently this week. Rather than pick two specific keys to victory, as I’ve been doing, I’ll look at the state of both teams heading into the game and then give some thoughts at the end on how the Steelers might win. Here goes:

The state of the Steelers

Pittsburgh is 11-1, which, in most circumstances, would suggest a state of bliss. Think again. The Washington loss, and a few of their close-call wins earlier in the season, have exposed some of Pittsburgh’s weaknesses as we head towards the post-season.

First and foremost, the Steelers have lost their running game. To say they’ve “lost” it suggests that at one point it was found. Indeed, early in the season, the rushing attack was serviceable. Then, following the sixth game of the year at Tennessee, it disappeared. As evidence, consider their rushing yardage splits for the first and last six contests:

First six games: 141, 109, 169, 136, 129, 92 (129.4 per game)

Last six games: 48, 46, 44, 106, 68, 21 (55.5 per game)

What happened? They trailed 17-7 at halftime in game seven at Baltimore. The offense needed a spark, and to provide it, they broke out a no-huddle package that included a host of empty sets and allowed Ben Roethlisberger to throw the ball at will. At one point, Pittsburgh threw on 36 of 37 plays. Roethlisberger rallied the team to a 28-24 win. A new template, one that placed the ball in his hands and allowed him to conduct the offense, had been established.

The Steelers have pretty much discarded the run game altogether since then, allowing the offense to become completely Roethlisberger-centric. They’ve thrown 272 times since that Tennessee game against 115 runs. That’s a 70/30 pass/run split and an average of 45.3 passes per game.

This approach was effective for a few weeks as the Steelers, after a scare in Dallas, rolled past Cincinnati and Jacksonville. But they struggled on offense in the bizarre Covid-game against Baltimore last Wednesday. Then, on Monday night against Washington, the offense was completely out-of-sync. Their inability to run the ball surfaced in a host of short-yardage situations, including a 1st-and-goal from the 1 where they did not score, and their reliance on the dink-and-dunk passing game faltered when Washington borrowed from Baltimore’s game-plan by jamming the Steelers’ receivers in the short zones where Roethlisberger preferred to throw.

Watch in the GIF below how aggressively Washington attacked the underneath routes. This forced Pittsburgh to throw into tight windows down the field, where they were often unsuccessful:

Washington also made a concerted effort to have their defensive linemen get their hands in the air, hoping to deflect Roethisberger’s quick, low-trajectory throws. This resulted in several tipped passes and batted balls, including the one that was intercepted by linebacker Jon Bostic to seal the win:

The receivers, for their part, have not been up to the task the past two weeks. Depending on what one considers a true drop, there have been 12-15 dropped passes over that span. That’s 12-15 plays that either killed a drive or put the Steelers behind the chains. The rash of drops have coincided with the onset of colder weather. Temperatures have been in the 30s for the Steelers’ past two contests. Roethlisberger is a bear of a man who grew up in Ohio and has played football in western Pennsylvania these past seventeen years. He is well acclimated to the cold. His receivers? Not so much, it seems.

It may seem simplistic to blame the dropped balls that have plagued Pittsburgh’s offense these past two weeks on the cold weather. Still, drops were not a problem earlier in the season when the weather was warmer. That is likely not a coincidence.

The Steelers have also had their normal schedule interrupted by the Covid fiasco that surrounded the Ravens franchise. Playing on a Wednesday afternoon and then on a Monday at 5:00 pm throws off plenty of routines. Their practice schedule, in particular, has been disrupted, costing the team the subtle benefits of repetition and normalcy. Football coaches are creatures of habit and Mike Tomlin, though you will never hear him use this as an excuse for what has transpired on the field the past two games, will surely welcome a return to their regular weekly schedule.

Finally, there is Pittsburgh’s injury situation to consider. The Steelers seemed to have plugged the absence left by Devin Bush’s season-ending knee injury by getting competent linebacker play from Robert Spillane and acquiring veteran Avery Williamson. Spillane was hurt against Washington, however, and is not expected to be ready for Buffalo. That will thrust Williamson into a larger role for which his preparedness is questionable. Cornerback Joe Haden will miss the Buffalo game too after sustaining a concussion against Washington. Linebacker Bud Dupree is gone for the season, and corner Steven Nelson missed the Washington game as well. With players like Williamson, Alex Highsmith, Ola Adeniyi, Cameron Sutton, Justin Layne and (perhaps) Marcus Allen getting heavy reps on Sunday night, the Steelers may look more like a pre-season squad on defense than a Super Bowl contender.

Offensively, the Steelers will get Maurkice Pouncey and James Conner back from the Reserve/Covid-list. That should help. But, with no run game to speak of, a cold and windy night and a banged-up defense, winning in Buffalo will be a challenge.

The state of Buffalo

It’s hard not to love the state of the Buffalo franchise at the moment. They are young, fast and fun to watch. Their quarterback, Josh Allen, reminds me of a young Roethlisberger. He is big, mobile, fearless and cocky. These are all attributes you want in a franchise quarterback. Allen was sensational against San Francisco on Monday, going 32-40 for 375 yards and four touchdowns. More than the stats indicate, he looked completely in control of the offense and unfazed at what the 49ers and their well-respected defensive coordinator, Robert Saleh, were throwing at him.

Speaking about his quarterback after the win, Bills’ offensive lineman Dion Dawkins had this to say:

Sunday night will indeed be a big moment for Allen. With the surprising Miami Dolphins (8-4) hot on Buffalo’s trail, the Bills need to keep winning. A national prime-time audience and a match-up against the vaunted Pittsburgh defense will put Allen in the spotlight. If he plays as well as he did against San Francisco, it could be a rough night for the Steelers.

Allen has plenty of help at his disposal in the passing game. Buffalo has an elite receiver in Stefon Diggs, whose 90 receptions are tied for the lead league with the Chargers’ Keenan Allen. Cole Beasley is a shifty slot receiver whose 66 catches put him in the top twenty in the league as well. Beasley has four 100+ yard receiving games this season and could be a match-up nightmare for the Steelers’ linebackers in the middle of the field. Rookie receiver Gabriel Davis, a fourth-round pick out of Central Florida, is having a solid season as well. Buffalo’s 276.4 passing yards per game is 3rd in the league, behind only Kansas City and Houston.

Buffalo is similar to Pittsburgh on offense in that their passing game is light years ahead of their rushing attack. The Bills are 23rd in the league at just over 102 yards rushing per game and have been under 90 yards in three of their past four contests. The diminutive Devin Singletary, at just 5’7, leads the team with 544 yards. Allen is their second-leading rusher, with 322 yards on 87 carries. The Bills are likely to limit Allen’s carries as they get closer to the post-season, leaving Singletary as the work-horse.

Defensively, Buffalo has regressed from last season. In 2019, the Bills were second in points per game (16.5) and fourth against the pass while finishing 10th in total defense. This year, their points per game total (25.5) has slipped to 18th while they are 20th against the pass and 21st overall. They have been uncharacteristically offensive (insert joke here), winning shootouts over the Rams (35-32) and Seahawks (44-34) while dropping a 32-30 contest to the Cardinals. Linebacker Matt Milano, who is key to their ability to cover backs and tight ends, returned last week from injury, which should help. But the opportunity to score points on the Buffalo defense exists, provided the Steelers can get their offense in gear again.

How do the Steelers win on Sunday?

Kickoff is scheduled for 8:20 pm in Buffalo. The forecast is calling for temperatures in the high 20s, fifteen mile per hour winds and a 30% chance of snow. On a sub-freezing, potentially windy night in Buffalo, will Pittsburgh be able to effectively execute the pass-heavy offense they’ve featured recently? Or will the conditions, and the suddenly-meager returns on their dink-and-dunk attack, require an adjustment?

To suggest the Steelers will miraculously discover a run game feels silly. Getting Pouncey and Conner back will help, but Pouncey and Conner were in the lineup when they rushed for 48 yards at Baltimore, 46 at Dallas and 44 against Cincinnati. When the Steelers were running the ball well in September and October, it was often because they had thrown it early to claim leads and run it late to kill clock. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner likes to script his openings conservatively to get a handle on what a defense is doing before ramping up the offense. Sunday may have to be an exception. A fast start seems essential if Pittsburgh wants to alleviate pressure on the passing game.

For the Steelers to score points, they’re going to have to make plays down the field. Buffalo will surely try to disrupt the short passing game the way Baltimore and Washington did by being physical underneath and looking to bat down throws at the line of scrimmage. As a result, the Steelers will likely get one-on-one opportunities against Buffalo’s defensive backs. That means Roethlisberger is going to have to make accurate throws (something he has not done on deep balls this season) and their young receivers are going to have to elevate their play.

Defensively, the Steelers will have their hands full. I would take my chances on a healthy Steelers defense against any opponent. Minus Bush, Dupree, Haden and perhaps Nelson, not so much. Buffalo is going to score some points Sunday night. The question is, will the Steelers score enough to keep up with them?