This is the point of the offseason when Steelers news begins to drip out of the news cycle faucet at a much slower rate than it will in, say, late July when training camp commences at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., for the first time since 2019.
Actually, who am I kidding? Steelers news never seems to slow to a drip at any point in our NFL-dominated lives. In fact, it’s probably just a matter of time until a Steelers player posts a social-media video of himself playing fireball during a Memorial Day picnic. (In case you don’t know, fireball was a game popularized by Joey and Chandler on the sitcom, Friends, and involved fire and bowling balls.)
But until that happens, I figured it would be pretty cool to publish my annual article about which Steelers game from the previous season was my favorite.
If the picture accompanying this article didn’t give it away, the game in question was the very first one, and it occurred on September 12, 2021, against the Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, New York.
As you can imagine, the Steelers, being underhyped all throughout the 2021 offseason, were fairly sizable road underdogs with the Bills being favored to win by nearly a touchdown.
As for the Steelers? They were favored to do anything but make it to the Super Bowl. In fact, even as the season kicked off, many of their critics were still pretty darn vocal about the decision to sign quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to a one-year deal. What was the point? Why not just cut bait and move on from the past and begin the future?
I guess the Steelers just weren’t ready for the future.
As for the Week 1 game vs. the Bills, it didn’t look like Pittsburgh was ready for that, either, at least not right out of the gate, as Isaiah McKenzie returned the season’s opening kickoff 75 yards down to the Steelers' 24-yard line.
Fortunately, the Steelers very stout defense limited the Bills' offense to just three plays, and the home team had to settle for a Tyler Bass 37-yard field goal to make it 3-0.
As for Pittsburgh’s offense? It was yucky most of the day. That’s right, Roethlisberger did very little to silence his vocal critics, while the ground game was mostly ground to a halt by Buffalo’s defense. Pittsburgh punted on its first four possessions while compiling a combined 38 yards.
Thankfully, the Steelers' defense was keeping Buffalo’s offense at bay. Actually, the defense, led by the $80 million man, himself, T.J. Watt, got the ball back for the offense when Watt stripped Bills quarterback Josh Allen, and Cam Heyward recovered at the Pittsburgh 45.
Buffalo then proceeded to drive 91 yards on 13 plays and took a 10-0 lead on a three-yard touchdown pass from Allen to Gabriel Davis.
And that was the score as the two teams headed for their respective locker rooms to receive what I can only guess were electrolytes. (September football can be scary hot, even in Buffalo, and the Bills did that psychological thing where the home team wears white immediately after Labor Day.)
I’m sure the Steelers' offense also received a tongue lashing—at least it should have.
A 10-0 halftime score might not seem like much, but it may as well have been 20-0 with the way the offense was performing.
The Steelers got the ball to start the second half, and after a Tre White interception was wiped out by defensive holding, the offense sorta, kinda began to move the chains. Roethlisberger hit tight end Eric Ebron for a 19-yard pass; No. 7 then lofted one of those 50/50 balls into the sky for receiver Chase Claypool to go up and get—something he is successful at 20/80 percent of the time. Claypool was actually successful on this play and made a great catch which set the offense up at the Buffalo 12. Claypool then proceeded to do that Hulk Hogen-like cuffed ear gesture to the Bills’ crowd—but, unlike when the Hulkster does it, Claypool was actually mocking the lack of noise.
Unfortunately, the Steelers' offense remembered what it was and had to settle for a 24-yard field goal by the always reliable except in 2018 Chris Boswell.
The defense came to play on this day, and after allowing Buffalo to drive to the Pittsburgh 35 on 11 plays, the 12th play—a “might as well go for it” pass attempt on fourth and eight—was broken up by cornerback, and owner of a new contract, Cam Sutton.
The Steelers' offense didn’t tie the score on the ensuing drive, but it did move the ball far enough so that Boswell could bring the team to within four points on a 20-yard field goal.
The Bills advanced to the Steelers' 41 on their very next drive and decided to go for it again on fourth down—this time on fourth and one. Unfortunately for the Bills, their offensive coordinator decided to call one of those backward laterals to running back Matt Breida, who was able to advance the ball minus-seven yards thanks to a heads-up tackle by that man, again, Cam Sutton.
The Steelers had really, really good field position, and the offense was beginning to kinda, sorta show some life. The Bills' defense gave the offense even more life three plays later when future Steelers corner, Levi Wallace, was called for pass-interference while guarding Claypool, a 26-yard penalty that gave the offense a first and 10 from the Buffalo 23.
Would the Steelers' offense finally be able to reach paydirt? Yes, because this would be the first of many times throughout the 2021 campaign that Roethlisberger was able to get his noodle arm to perform the familiar late-game heroics that he had always been known for throughout his 18-year career. Roethlisberger had help, though, starting with rookie running back, Najee Harris, who immediately raced 18 yards down to the Buffalo five. One play later, Roethlisberger hoisted a pass into the back left corner of the end zone that was intended for a well-covered Diontae Johnson. Johnson tipped the ball, somehow found a way to possess it and managed to get both feet in bounds as he twisted all the way around and fell to the turf.
So, after struggling to do much of anything on offense for three quarters, the Steelers suddenly had a 13-10 lead with 11:19 left in the fourth quarter.
The Steelers defense once again stopped Buffalo’s offense—this time on just three plays—and after the Bills decided not to go for it this time, special teams ace and safety, but mostly special teams ace, Miles Killebrew raced in and blocked the punt; Ulysses Gilbert III scooped up the loose football before walking into the end zone with another touchdown to make it 20-10 with 9:45 left.
So, after not scoring a touchdown since the previous January, the Steelers managed to produce two of them in just 94 seconds.
The Steelers traded two field goals to the Bills in exchange for three more points for Boswell and were able to hold on for a 23-16 victory.
That Week 1 victory was more fulfilling than any of the 12 the Steelers posted in 2020. I was so proud to be a Steelers fan that day and that week.
While the two teams did go on to do what most had predicted—the Bills went on to be Super Bowl contenders while the Steelers' offense sputtered all season long—Pittsburgh was able to secure the seventh and final playoff spot in the AFC with a 9-7-1 record (thank you for tying the Lions, Mason Rudolph).
Thanks to injuries—mainly the season-ending one suffered by defensive lineman Tyson Alualu in Week 2—the Steelers defense was never again quite as dominant as it was in Week 1.
But it was awesome in Week 1. Sutton had the game of his career. Veteran free-agent acquisition, and future malcontent, Melvin Ingram, filling in for an injured Alex Highsmith at outside linebacker, played his role as an insurance policy quite well that day while providing an effective enough pass rush all game long.
What more can be said? It was quite the way to start the regular season.
There you have it, my favorite Steelers game of 2021.