The Pittsburgh Steelers went out on the opening weekend of the 2021 NFL season and surprised even the most optimistic of their loyal fanbase by defeating the defending AFC East champion Buffalo Bills on their home turf.
What basically amounted to the same Bills roster that had defeated the Steelers in both the previous two seasons. The game was played in front of a packed house of Bills Mafia, or is that Maniacs, I can never remember. The atmosphere in the stadium was electric, and had a real playoff game feel to it.
This was the perfect baptism by fire for the seven or eight Steelers rookies who got a helmet for opening week. It's one thing to suit up for the first time in a game that matters in front of your adoring fans at your home field, but something entirely different in the very definition of a hostile work environment.
The stakes don't get much higher than a road game against an opponent that fancies themselves a playoff contender, at least until the divisional road games roll around. Then the rookies can learn how to dodge batteries and dog biscuits being hurled at their heads. I realize that really doesn't happen anymore, but I guess I was just reminiscing about the good old days at the Dawg Pound.
The good news is the rookies and all the other new faces in new places endured all the expected growing pains that come with inexperience, but emerged on the other side of the learning experience with victory in hand. Talk about a win, win scenario. All three aspects of the team played a complete game, showing real growth in the process.
Steelers Stock Trending Up: The whole freaking defense
The individual standout performances in all three phases of the game were too numerous to mention. On offense, it seemed like there were different players taking turns making positive plays throughout the second half. Wideouts Diontae Johnson and JuJu Smith Schuster really stood out by making game changing plays during that time frame. Although the offense never seemed to find their rhythm, they made just enough plays to win the game.
The main reason that there was even a game to be won was because of the outstanding effort of the Steelers defense. The Steelers 2021 defense is potentially more creative and versatile than last season's, and that's even with stalwart Stephon Tuitt missing the first three games.
Cameron Heyward destroyed whatever poor soul that had the misfortune of being lined up in front of him. He consistently collapsed the pocket and was credited with pressuring Bills star QB Josh Allen an astounding 12 times on the afternoon according to PFF. He even sacked Allen with a single powerful paw on one occasion. It looked like Heyward was playing Mortal Kombat, and he told Allen to "Get over here!" He absolutely destroyed the Bills offensive game plan.
The linebackers played a great game, both in the interior and on the edge. What a difference a healthy Devin Bush makes for the Steelers. His speed, coupled with the well rounded game of Joe Schobert, gives the Steelers the best ILB tandem they have had in years.
The edge trio of T.J. Watt, Alex Highsmith, and Melvin Ingram are the best in the NFL. They were absolutely dominant against the Bills on Sunday, both rushing the passer and playing the run. Watt played like a man determined to prove himself worth every penny of his new contract. Two QB sacks, six QB hits, five pressures, and a forced fumble was definitely a great start. Highsmith and Ingram were disruptive throughout, living in the Bills backfield and smothering the Bills running game. The front seven was able to create consistent pressure without blitzing, and the Steelers defensive backfield were the beneficiaries.
While all of the Steelers defensive backs played admirably on Sunday at Orchard Park, I want to acknowledge two players for their performances. Rookie CB Tre Norwood and veteran CB Cameron Sutton.
Norwood was a rookie seventh round selection playing in his first NFL game, but he sure didn't play like one. He displayed the football IQ and instincts of a veteran performer. He never appeared out of place or overwhelmed, even against a quality opponent in a harsh environment. Great start to what is shaping up to be an extraordinary rookie season.
Sutton is the type of player who Norwood should strive to be. Sutton is versatile and fundamentally sound, and he showed both attributes against the Bills. It may have been his finest hour thus far in his NFL career, especially the lights out TFL fourth down play that contributed greatly to the Steelers comeback. He was part of the committee that stymied Stefon Diggs and company throughout the game. He was even in good position on the Bills lone TD pass. Sometimes the opponent just makes a play.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention Danny Smith and the special teams. After the shaky start, they rebounded nicely. The blocked punt return for a TD was the turning point of the game and the final margin of victory. Great job by all involved.
Steelers Stock Trending Down: Offensive execution
I warned all my faithful followers, actually anybody who cared enough to listen, that the Steelers offense was going to be a work in progress and would require plenty of patience from our not very patient fanbase early on in the season, especially when it came to the offensive line. I even went against my eternal optimism and predicted a Steelers loss in Buffalo due in part to the aforementioned offensive line. In typical Steelers fashion, they went out and proved me to be both right and wrong.
The offense did indeed struggle throughout the majority of the afternoon, but made enough plays in the end to win the game. I didn't listen to my own advice, which amounts to a cardinal sin. If I am not smart enough to listen to myself, how can I expect the readers to listen to me. I might as well predict doom and gloom each week like the fair-weather few. Like I have said all along, the Steelers offense doesn't have to be the best in the league, just good enough to win each week while they work to consistently improve.
The Steelers offense was understandably shaky in the first half. The Bills defense was pressing the line of scrimmage, often with all 11 defenders within 10 yards of the line. They played the numbers game, making it virtually impossible to consistently run the football, daring the Steelers to prove capable of making them pay for their over aggressiveness by beating man coverage over the top. That would require the offensive line and the pass protection to be in sync enough to give Ben Roethlisberger time to do so. The line wasn't up to the task in the first half.
The Steelers fully realize that every opponent will utilize this tactic every game until the Steelers prove they can exploit it. They remained calm, and made some much needed halftime adjustments. The second half offense remained sporadic, but they were able to generate enough chunk plays and penalties to mount some scoring drives. Improvement is needed across the board, but the talent and effort necessary to do just that is evident.
Roethlisberger looked uncomfortable and unsettled behind his new look offensive line, rushing a few throws unnecessarily without proper fundamentals, which led to some accuracy issues. That will undoubtedly improve as trust and chemistry develop.
There are too many observations to point out after breaking down the offensive lines performance, so that will have to be another article for later in the week. Sufficient to say, the young linemen are high on effort, but execution is another matter altogether. The one consistent; Chukwuma Okorafor is still the weak link as a starter. Even the most optimistic among us are starting to lose hope.