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How the Steelers “will” prevailed in a thrilling opening day win over the Buffalo Bills

It wasn’t always pretty, but the Pittsburgh Steelers are 1-0 because they won in all three phases vs. the Buffalo Bills.

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

The Steelers won in thrilling fashion on Sunday, storming back from a ten-point halftime deficit to claim their season opener in Buffalo, 23-16.

It was an upset that surprised even the most ardent Steelers fans. Strong defense, timely special teams and the tireless right arm of Ben Roethlisberger carried the day, while a masterful job by the Pittsburgh coaching staff put the team in position to win. It was a total team effort that produced one of the most satisfying opening-day victories in recent memory.

None of that seemed possible at halftime. The Steelers, with a completely revamped offensive line and six rookies in the starting lineup, trailed 10-0. They had gained just 51 total yards on offense. The line was getting no push in the run game. Roethlisberger looked slow on his reads. The special teams had given up a long kickoff return and shanked a punt. And the defense, which had played well for the first 25 minutes, surrendered a touchdown in the final :30 to cap a 13 play, 91 yard drive by the Bills. A betting man would have been crazy to lay more than a dollar on a Pittsburgh comeback.

And yet, that’s exactly what happened. The Steelers dominated the second half, outscoring Buffalo 23-6 and outgaining them 237-105 (with 40 of Buffalo’s yards coming in the final two minutes against a prevent look from the Steelers). The Steelers got huge contributions from all three phases, with clutch coaching decisions providing an intangible advantage.

Let’s start with the defense. In last week’s preview article, I suggested the Steelers would need an answer for Buffalo’s short and intermediate passing game. That answer came in the form of heavy nickel and dime packages that featured rookie Tre Norwood, undrafted player James Pierre and Arthur Maulet, a free agent signee the Steelers initially cut. The odds of slowing down a potent Buffalo passing attack with that trio seemed slim. But, other than Norwood getting run behind on a sneaky double move by veteran receiver Emmanuel Sanders, they afforded themselves well.

Butler stuck with the nickel and dime throughout the contest. He created complexity, though, by mixing assignments with his linebackers. At various times, he aligned T.J. Watt, Alex Highsmith and Melvin Ingram at inside backer. This allowed Devin Bush and/or Joe Schobert to widen and play coverage, a wrinkle that seemed to confuse the Bills.

On the play below, Ingram came clean on a cross-fire stunt through the B-gap while Schobert dropped to the deep middle in a Tampa-2 hybrid. Meanwhile, Highsmith fell off of the right edge to become the hook-curl defender. Clearly, this was not a look the Bills had anticipated.

Bills’ quarterback Josh Allen alluded to this in his post-game press conference. “That’s a great defense,” Allen said. “They had a really good plan today.” In under-stated fashion, Allen suggested the Steelers showed him some things he hadn’t seen from them before. This forced him to hold the ball much longer than he did in last season’s contest, when just about everything he did was in rhythm. Pittsburgh did this largely by rushing four and clogging the passing lanes with seven defenders. Allen never looked comfortable anticipating what was coming.

The Steelers sacked Allen three times, chased him from the pocket on countless other occasions and got their hands on a number of his throws. They were able to get to Allen with just four rushers because their edge players, Watt and Ingram in particular, were relentless. Watt had two sacks and a forced fumble and showed no signs of rust from his semi-holdout that ended with a lucrative contract extension on Thursday. Ingram had a number of pressures and was a physical presence all afternoon. Then there was Cam Heyward, the brilliant defensive tackle, who created pressure in an entirely different fashion:

With Heyward rag-dolling offensive linemen and hurling them at Allen’s feet, the young quarterback was often unable to step into his throws or set properly. The player who had looked so poised against Pittsburgh a season ago was never able to find a rhythm.

Buffalo also suffered from out-thinking themselves. On one of the game’s most crucial plays, the Steelers stopped the Bills on a 4th and 1 from the Pittsburgh 41 yard line. Buffalo aligned in a compressed 22 personnel formation, motioned a receiver from the outside to pull corner Cam Sutton into the box, then tried to outflank Sutton with an awkward flip-pass that was thrown seven yards behind the line of scrimmage to the tailback. Sutton had none of it. He beat the block of the fullback to make a huge tackle and the Steelers promptly drove down the field for the go-ahead touchdown.

After the game, head coach Mike Tomlin indicated the Steelers saw the play coming. “That is something we anticipated,” Tomlin said. “They got in that formation a bunch, four or five times in the preseason. We figured the next phase of it would be to fake it to the fullback and flip the ball out to them.” Tomlin and Butler figured right, and the momentum of the game swung considerably as a result.

The Bills may kick themselves in hindsight. Their gimmicky approach was costly. And, despite the steady diet of nickel and dime looks from Pittsburgh, Buffalo opted for 54 passes against just 25 runs. You know what they say about hindsight, though. In the moment, Buffalo believed they could throw on the Steelers like they’d done in 2020. The Steelers proved them wrong.

On offense, Matt Canada’s major adjustment was to embrace the vertical passing game. Buffalo’s defensive game-plan in the 1st half looked eerily similar to the one the Bills rolled out last season, when they held the Steelers to just 224 total yards in a 26-15 Buffalo victory. They inserted their safeties into the box, played large doses of press-man coverage and dared the Steelers to throw the football down the field. Pittsburgh did not. Instead, they opted for quick receiver screens and a host of run plays that looked like this:

This play is actually blocked pretty well. It’s counter-gap, with the left side of the line caving in Buffalo’s front and right guard Trai Turner pulling and getting a decent kick-out block on the filling linebacker (Matt Milano, #58). Running back Najee Harris has a nice seam through which to run. And yet Harris makes just one yard. To understand why, look at the still frame below:

Count the Buffalo defenders in the box. Now count the number of blockers the Steelers have for Harris. It doesn’t take a math major to understand that nine-against-seven is not a fair fight. With the insertion of corners Tre’Davious White (27) and Taron Johnson (24), the Bills created two run defenders for whom the Steelers could not account. Johnson came unblocked to make a nice form tackle.

This was exactly what the Bills did to the Steelers in their 2020 contest. They loaded the box with extra defenders, played the Steelers in press coverage and challenged them to throw deep. The Steelers could not.

In the second half on Sunday, however, Canada called on Roethlisberger and the wide receivers to accept Buffalo’s challenge. They responded on the opening drive. Chase Claypool went high to make a spectacular catch over White, who is one of the best cover-corners in the business:

The throw to Claypool was an RPO (run-pass option) where the Steelers ran a draw concept up front and gave Roethlisberger the option to hand the ball to Harris or make the outside throw to Claypool. Roethlisberger trusted Claypool to make a play against White so he took the pass option. The Steelers hit several more RPOs later in the game. Last season, Roethlisberger looked uncomfortable executing RPOs. Yesterday, he handled them adeptly. That type of progress from the veteran quarterback shows both maturity and a willingness to work with his new offensive coordinator. Those are encouraging signs for the Steelers.

Later in the half, following Sutton’s crucial fourth-down tackle, the Steelers drew a 26 yard pass interference penalty on a similar fade route to Claypool. That drive ended with another brilliant catch, this one on a double-move from Diontae Johnson against man coverage that gave the Steelers the lead:

The Steelers’ special teams then got into the act. They blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown to extend the lead to 20-10. Buffalo answered with a field goal to cut it back to a one-score game. The Steelers took over with 5:23 remaining. Rather than play it safe, Canada stayed aggressive. On 1st down he went deep to Johnson and drew a holding call on Levi Wallace. Two plays later, on 2nd and 7, with just about everyone expecting a run (including the Bills, who again put eight in the box), Roethlisberger found Juju Smith-Schuster one-on-one against Taron Johnson up the seam and hit him with a beautiful back-shoulder throw:

That drive culminated with a clutch 45-yard field goal from Boswell to make it 23-13, essentially putting the game out of reach.

Much has been made of Roethlisberger’s diminished downfield throwing ability. While he will never again resemble the gun-slinger of yore, he reminded everyone on Sunday that he remains a dangerous quarterback and a fierce competitor. Canada, recognizing Buffalo’s challenge to put the game in Roethlisberger’s hands, did just that. The veteran responded by authoring another epic comeback while outplaying his much-heralded counterpart (Allen) in the process.

As for Tomlin, his post-game comments spoke volumes about the mindset he expects from his squad. “We faced a lot of challenges today...” he said. “Hopefully it’s a sign of what we’re capable of from a ‘will’ standpoint.” The Steelers exuded will on Sunday. Their ability to fight through adversity was a reflection of their coach, who managed to instill enough confidence in a young team starting six rookies and several new veterans still integrating to the system to overcome a ten-point deficit against a good team in a hostile environment. The standard is the standard. Make fun of that as another rah-rah Tomlin-ism if you want. The Steelers appear to take it seriously.

One game does not define a season. But if Roethlisberger can continue to punish defenses that gamble against him, it should loosen up the box and help the rushing attack the Steelers have been so adamant about restoring. If this offense can both run and throw, look out. The defense is already great. The coaching staff is one of the best in the league. The special teams were uneven on Sunday but showed up when it mattered most. The potential is there, and Sunday in Buffalo we got a glimpse of it. A franchise that was written off by so many prior to the season could wind up producing one of its most well-rounded teams in years.