On a snowy Sunday afternoon in Buffalo, the Pittsburgh Steelers continued their late-season drive toward the playoffs and, despite a poor outing by their franchise quarterback, fulfilled their mission for the fourth consecutive week to post an 8-5 record. In a game not nearly as competitive as the 27-20 final score indicated, Pittsburgh managed to extend its winning streak while continuing to exhibit new and promising capabilities on both sides of the ball.
The record-smashing performance by Le’Veon Bell, who amassed 236 yards rushing and 62 yards passing, was so dominant that it largely overshadowed a poor game by Ben Roethlisberger. Bell’s sheer dominance also overcame a defensive lapse enabling the Bills to outscore the Steelers 13-6 in the fourth quarter. Bell thus established himself firmly as the NFL’s premier running back and a force to be reckoned with for any team facing Pittsburgh from now on.
The heavy snow flurries and swirling winds in Buffalo were hardly optimal for throwing the ball. This was evident in Roethlisberger’s pedestrian, 17-31, 220-yard performance which included three interceptions, one of which handed the Bills an easy touchdown after the Steelers had moved out to a 14-0 lead. In fact, if not for the turnovers, this game might have been essentially decided by halftime. But the fact that Buffalo was able to move back nearly within striking distance in the fourth quarter was hardly surprising to Steelers fans who have watched the same scenario play out many times before, and particularly in road games.
But despite their well known problems in closing out opponents like Buffalo, the Steelers continued to show many positive signs indicating that they’ve turned the corner on their 2016 season. In addition to Bell’s one-man wrecking crew, Antonio Brown snagged a 40-yard pass from Big Ben to set up a TD and finished the game as the leading receiver with a respectable five catches for 78 yards. Ladarius Green wasn’t nearly the factor in Buffalo that he had been against the Giants last week. But combined with Eli Rogers, David Johnson, Cobi Hamilton and Jesse James, the guys not named “Le’Veon” or “Antonio” contributed an additional eight receptions for 80 yards. While neither the number nor the yardage of these receptions was particularly impressive, the fact that Ben utilized seven different receivers against the Bills is something that Steelers fans haven’t seen for quite awhile. Furthermore, several of these completions happened at key points helping to sustain Pittsburgh scoring drives.
Defensively, the Steelers gave another strong performance overall. Absent Buffalo’s second-quarter TD stemming from Roethlisberger’s interception which set the Bills up for a 1st-and-goal at the Steelers’ 7-yard line, the final score would likely have been 27-13. Although the defense had a brief-but-frustrating lapse late in the game which allowed Buffalo to cut the margin to seven points, they largely continued their recent improvement as a unit, doing so even in the absence of Javon Hargrave and Cameron Heyward.
Artie Burns grabbed a big interception to snuff out a Buffalo scoring drive and Sean Davis played another strong game, finishing second in tackles with seven, plus 1.5 sacks and three QB hits. With two sacks and two QB hits, Bud Dupree continues to reveal why the Steelers made him their 2015 first-round draft pick. Ryan Shazier continued his standout play, leading the defense with eight tackles.
For the first time in the 2016 season, we’re seeing marked improvement in key phases of the Steelers’ game. Since getting the late start to his season, Bell has developed into a true, game-changing back. Even though every opposing team is geared up to stop him, Bell still gets his yards week after week, in addition to being a dangerous receiver. Now with Ladarius Green and Eli Rogers, the current Steelers offense is more potent and unpredictable than it had been earlier this season. Knowing Roethlisberger’s history and his tremendous bounce-back ability, we can only assume that Ben will shrug off this dismal performance and start playing in line with his world-class abilities.
What we’re seeing on the gridiron now is a talented-but-inexperienced team that’s developing more and more confidence with each successive victory. Steelers Nation has had the thrill of seeing this same process unfold before, going all the way back to the mid-1970s when Chuck Noll’s bevy of outstanding draft picks first started coming into their own. The fact that Pittsburgh could dominate an opponent mainly by using Bell, as they did on Sunday and despite Roethlisberger’s miscues, reminds us of the many times when Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis and their respective offensive lines saved the day, taking up the slack for less-than-stellar play at quarterback.
Fortunately for Pittsburgh, a friendly, late-season schedule affords the opportunity to undergo this very promising transition more gradually and without facing the NFL’s strongest teams again until the postseason. In his post-game remarks, Head Coach Mike Tomlin made a passing reference to the benefit of being able to pile up crucial wins down the stretch while seeing his team continue its development.
As things now stand, the Pittsburgh Steelers are right on track to accomplish what seemed quite unlikely when they slumped to a 4-5 record in mid-November. Despite their nagging inability to translate dominance on the field to the scoreboard, the Steelers quietly have become a rising force in the NFL. Led by their record-breaking quarterback, incomparable running back and All-World wide receiver, Pittsburgh now appears also to be adding the crucial, additional pieces which had been sorely missing earlier this season.
Facing consecutive games against the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers must maintain the same focus they’ve had during their current streak. When performing at the top of their game, few in Steelers Nation have any doubt that the Black and Gold are more than capable of handling the Bengals and Ravens. And nobody honestly expects Roethlisberger to repeat his dismal showing next week in Cincinnati, nor the following week in their Christmas Day matchup at Heinz Field with the Ravens.
Finally, it seems, the planets are beginning to align and the expectations dashed as recently as four weeks ago might now be preparing to blossom in the chill winds of December. Whatever it takes, indeed.