It’s finally here — game week! We’re just days away from the Pittsburgh Steelers’ season opener Sunday in Buffalo against an ascending Bills squad. The Bills have gone from 6-10 to 10-6 to 13-3 the past three seasons, elevating themselves to championship contenders. It will take a great effort from a Pittsburgh squad that underwent a fair amount of change this off-season to earn the road victory. Here are three keys that could lead to an upset from the Steelers.
Avoid SIWs (Self-Inflicted Wounds)
To win against a good team on the road, playing a relatively clean game is essential. By “clean” I mean a game in which mistakes are minimized, particularly those which qualify as SIWs, or self-inflicted wounds. These include blown assignments, missed opportunities, turnovers, penalties and mental mistakes. While some of these are nearly inevitable throughout the course of a 60-minute contest, a road underdog must keep them to a minimum to be successful.
In their meeting in Buffalo last December, a 26-15 Bills win, Pittsburgh did anything but minimize its SIWs. The Steelers played a sloppy contest that night, particularly on offense. They turned the ball over twice, had three pre-snap penalties and were credited with five dropped passes. The drops began on the first snap from scrimmage, when Diontae Johnson failed to corral a simple receiver screen from Ben Roethlisberger:
Johnson’s drop set a tone for the evening. He dropped another on the next series on a 3rd and 7 play where he appeared to have enough room to run after the catch to pick up a 1st down:
Early in the 2nd quarter, tight end Eric Ebron dropped one on a 3rd and 3 in Buffalo territory:
The ball to Ebron was a tougher catch than the earlier throws to Johnson. Still, had he held on, it would have given the Steelers a new set of downs inside field goal range in a scoreless game. Dropped passes dogged the Steelers all season in 2020 (they led the league in that category with 43). In this game, they were particularly troublesome.
While the receivers let Roethlisberger down at times, the veteran QB was responsible for Pittsburgh’s biggest SIW of the night. It came near the end of the first half. The Steelers, despite their gaffes on offense, had played soundly enough on defense to hold a 7-3 advantage. They had the football near midfield with under a minute to play. While scoring points would have been nice, their main objective should have been getting to the locker room with the lead. Instead, this happened:
At the snap, Roethlisberger stared Juju Smith-Schuster down on his out-cut. Nickel corner Taron Johnson (24) read his eyes, slipped inside of Smith-Schuster, picked off the throw and returned it for a touchdown. Instead of feeling good about themselves at halftime, the Steelers went to the locker room dejected. It was a gut-punch from which they never recovered.
It’s hard to know what Roethlisberger saw here. Pittsburgh was in a bunch set, to which Buffalo had been playing cover-2 throughout the half. The corner and safety, aligned side-by-side at the +46 yard line, rotated to play the flat and deep half, respectively, while Johnson (lined up at the 50) manned the alley:
The look from Buffalo was pretty vanilla. While they did feign a blitz by walking both backers into the A-gap before having them bail, the pre-snap coverage look was zone all the way. And, with a fairly clean pocket, there was no need for Roethlisberger to rush his throw. It’s likely he tried to locate the football on Smith-Schuster’s outside shoulder and simply missed his target.
Whatever the case, it was a huge mistake. To win on Sunday, SIWs of this nature cannot happen.
Run the football efficiently
If there was one topic that dominated the conversation surrounding the Steelers this off-season, it was the state of the team’s run game. The Steelers finished last in the NFL in rushing in 2020 and spoke ad nauseum about making sure they would not achieve such a dubious distinction again. They drafted running back Najee Harris in the 1st round, revamped the offensive line, and hired both a new coordinator and new line coach. If the run game flops again it won’t be because the Steelers ignored it.
While the line looked physical throughout the pre-season, the five players projected to start against Buffalo on Sunday have played very little together. Dan Moore Jr, Kevin Dotson, Kendrick Green, Trai Turner and Chuks Okorafor have a combined 23 starts in Pittsburgh — 19 by Okorafor, 4 by Dotson and none by anyone else. With Harris making his NFL debut as well, finding continuity in the run game against a fast, physical Buffalo defense will be a challenge.
In last year’s game, the rushing numbers were predictably discouraging. The Steelers ran 17 times for 47 yards for an average of 2.8 yards per carry. There is a caveat, however. When the Steelers ran against six or seven man fronts, they had 10 carries for 38 yards (3.8). Against eight-man looks, they totaled just 9 yards on 7 carries (1.3). How did Buffalo get to their eight-man boxes, then, and what can the Steelers do to avoid the dead plays that result from running into them?
Buffalo used a variety of nickel looks against the Steelers. With the Steelers in 11 personnel, this often created a six-against-six pre-snap look in the box. Late in the cadence, though, or sometimes right at the snap, the Bills often sent a safety and an alley player on a run blitz, giving them extra defenders for whom the Steelers could not account.
Take this run below. As receiver Chase Claypool motioned across the formation, safety Micah Hyde (23) and slot defender Levi Wallace (39) both inserted into the box away from the motion. The Bills slanted their front towards Claypool, which muddied the front-side blocking assignments on Pittsburgh’s counter-gap scheme while also providing two unblocked defenders on the back-side to defend the cutback. This play was doomed from the start because of Buffalo’s pre-snap movement.
Here’s another. This is a similar stunt from the Bills. As Claypool motioned, Buffalo slanted their front, rotated their backers and fired Hyde off the edge into the motion. Meanwhile, Johnson (24) pinched into the backside C-gap while fellow corner Tre’Davious White (27) crept down to fortify the edge. Buffalo wound up with nine defenders within two yards of the line of scrimmage against just seven Pittsburgh blockers. Not surprisingly, Hyde came unblocked to wrap up running back James Conner for a short gain.
Finding ways to avoid running into these stacked fronts will give the Steelers a puncher’s chance at establishing a run game. To do so, Matt Canada will have to anticipate aggressive rotations into his myriad shifts and motions and look to exploit them. Last season, the Steelers barely threw the ball off of their pre-snap movement. A game-plan that uses motion not simply as window-dressing or for the occasional sweep play but also to attack Buffalo’s defensive rotations with the pass could back the Bills off and open up the box for the run game.
A heavy dose of inside zone could help as well. With Green at center and Dotson and Turner at the guards, the Steelers are far more physical in the A-gaps than they were a year ago. Gap schemes that feature pulling linemen are often ineffective against a penetrating defense like Buffalo’s because of the seams created by the pullers and the time it takes for the play to develop. An inside zone attack, where all gaps are covered and the running back heads downhill at the snap, could reduce penetration. And, as BTSC’s Geoffrey Benedict has pointed out in his off-season study of Canada’s offense, so much that Canada does emanates from the inside zone play. Inside zone is the trunk from which everything branches outward. If the Steelers can get that play going, it could open up the playbook for Canada.
Defend Stefon Diggs
Diggs had a big day in the game last December, catching 10 passes for 130 yards and a touchdown. The Steelers mixed their coverages on him but could not keep the football out of his hands.
Pittsburgh started by having corners Cam Sutton and Steven Nelson shadow Diggs. This worked for a while. Over the first 25 minutes, Diggs was targeted just twice and caught no passes. On Buffalo’s final drive of the half, however, Diggs began to shake loose, predominantly on quick timing routes. He caught 2 passes for 31 yards and had another 18 yard reception called back on a penalty. When play resumed in the second half, the Bills went heavy on these concepts.
First, they hit Diggs (#14, bottom of the screen) on a short slant to convert a 3rd and 2:
A few plays later, Diggs, aligned in the same spot, shook free of Sutton on a quick out-cut. Without the benefit of the All-22 film, it’s impossible to see how Diggs created so much space considering Sutton started in press coverage and wound up ten yards off of Diggs when the ball was caught. Nevertheless, Diggs had plenty of room to run after the catch:
To finish the drive, Buffalo flipped Diggs to the other side of the formation, where he went to work on Nelson. Diggs turned Nelson completely around with a wicked in-cut. Nelson slipped trying to recover and Diggs won a foot-race to the end zone:
On Buffalo’s next possession, the Steelers fell back into a soft zone. Unfortunately, they failed to execute well. Below, in cover-2, Sutton (bottom of the screen) did a poor job of getting his hands on Diggs to slow his release while safety Terrell Edmunds bailed way too deep into his half-field responsibility. When linebacker Ulysses Gilbert III (54) chased the tight end to the flat, Diggs had an ocean of turf in which to operate in the middle of the field:
On the next play, Buffalo found Diggs free in the middle of the zone again:
The Bills scored two plays later to take a 23-7 lead, essentially putting the game away.
Locking down Diggs on Sunday will be easier said than done. He’s going to get catches. The key will be to limit the damage he does once he touches the ball. Last year, of his 130 receiving yards, over half came on runs after the catch. When Diggs catches the ball, the Steelers need defenders in place to put him on the ground.
How might they do this? For starters, the linebacker duo of Devin Bush and Joe Schobert will surely provide better underneath coverage than last year’s Avery Williamson-Ulysses Gilbert combo. Also, corner Joe Haden, who missed the Buffalo game last season with an injury, is healthy. Haden is Pittsburgh’s best cover corner and could be a better matchup in man schemes than were Nelson and Sutton. The Steelers may also try to jam Diggs at the line and funnel him inside where a safety or alley player could provide help. They would be wise to use a more physical approach than the one they deployed last season.
A road opener at Buffalo is no easy task for the Steelers. But, if they avoid self-inflicted wounds, run the football efficiently and contain Diggs, an opening-day win is well within their reach.
Stay tuned, and HERE WE GO!