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Steelers vs. Bills, Week 1: Snap counts show the Bills strategy, and the Steelers identity

The Buffalo Bills went receiver heavy, and Matt Canada’s Steelers offense didn’t.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Buffalo Bills Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers won a big game to open their 2021 season, defeating the Buffalo Bills 23-16, turning what was predicted by most analysts and “experts” (yes, that includes me) to be one of their losses this season.

They did it with phenomenal defense and a few key plays on offense and on special teams. Let’s start off looking at what Matt Canada showed us, personnel-wise, in his first game as the Steelers offensive coordinator.


Offense

A couple things stand out here. First, Najee Harris played every offensive snap of the game, as did Ben Roethlisberger and four of the offensive lineman. At one point Kendrick Green left the field and was replaced by J.C. Hassenauer for three snaps.

The Steelers averaged 2.65 wide receivers per snap, with JuJu Smith-Schuster leading the way with 91% of snaps. The Steelers averaged 1.31 tight ends and fullbacks per snap, meaning they spent a little more than one fourth of their offensive snaps in formations with multiple tight ends or with a fullback.

Matt Canada loves to use tight ends and fullbacks, often putting them into the more flexible H-back role. The balance of 3 receiver sets and heavier packages will be important to monitor as Canada and Ben Roethlisberger flesh out the best balance for the offense.

One surprising note is Zach Gentry playing 28% of snaps, one more snap than James Washington received. Matt Canada is going to use a lot of players at tight end and H-back, he always has, looking to exploit a defense underestimating a player or overcommitting to a formation based on personnel. If the linebackers see Gentry, a blocking tight end, and attack the run more aggressively, that may open up play-action passing even more than having Pat Freiermuth’s receiving talents on the field. The snaps Gentry and fullback Derek Watt get are another trend we will have to keep an eye on as the season progresses.


Defense

Let’s get the basics out of the way, anytime the Steelers have their starting outside corners and safeties healthy for an entire game it is rare to see any of them leave the field. Cameron Sutton, Joe Haden, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds all played the entire game.

Devin Bush was joining that group in 2020 before his injury, Mike Tomlin rotated linebackers more in this game, and while Bush still led the group, he also got 12 snaps off, something that will hopefully keep Bush fresh and reduce risk of injury for the Steelers young star linebacker.

T.J. Watt only played 81% of snaps, a bit lower than early in 2020, and a solid drop from the end of 2021 when he was playing around 90% of snaps. That’s a good thing. Outside linebackers and defensive lineman are high impact players, battling offensive lineman and tight ends on almost every snap. Defensive backs spend a good percentage of their snaps running and only having minimal contact with other players. Melvin Ingram and Alex Highsmith both played well, and the Steelers showed some creative usage of the outside linebacker rotation and it resulted in a lot of pressure generated, with sacks, QB hits and holding penalties dominating the big plays on defense. Even more impressive is the Steelers did it while blitzing a total of 2 times. It was almost entirely 4 man rushes that were getting to Josh Allen.

The real meat of this snap count report is in the secondary, where the Steelers played 2021 NFL Draft 7th round pick Tre Norwood 80% of the snaps in his first NFL game. The young defensive back was up to the challenge, holding his own as the nickel back against one of the better passing offenses in the NFL. Overall, the Steelers averaged 5.32 defensive backs per snap, meaning they were in dime significantly more than they were using their 3-4 seven man front. Tre Norwood received 80% of snaps, but Arthur Maulet rotated in as the nickel back for several series while James Pierre came in as the dime back. This rotation allowed Cameron Sutton to stay the outside corner in nickel packages and then slide inside in dime to play the role he has excelled at for years.

The Steelers played so many defensive backs because the Bills averaged 3.48 wide receivers per snap, while they only played a tight end on 50 snaps and a running back on 74 of the 85 snaps they were on offense. While the Steelers were content to run their 3-4 sets against 11 personnel in 2020, the Steelers responded with plenty of defensive backs this game, the Bills had only a 14 snap advantage in receivers versus defensive backs, with 11 of those snaps accounted for when the Steelers went dime against 5 receivers, meaning they had 1 linebacker in when the Bills had zero tight ends or running backs. The Bills plan was to attack the Steelers defensive back depth with their great receiver depth, and they only scored 16 points. That’s a huge win for a group that was considered the weak link of the defense heading into this game.

On special teams Derek Watt led the way with 20 snaps, followed by the rest of the core special teams players all with 19 snaps, Benny Snell, Marcus Allen, Miles Killebrew and Ulysees Gilbert III.

Miles Killebrew paid great dividends for their special teams snap with a blocked punt that Ulysees Gilbert III returned for a touchdown to turn a tight game into a 10-point Steelers lead that would hold up for the win.

Lastly, it would be remiss of me to not point out that Minkah Fitzpatrick continues his streak of the Steelers being undefeated in every game the Steeler star plays at least one snap on offense.

Be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the black and gold as they prepare for the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 2 of the regular season.