By Jeremy Hritz
It’s finally here. Steelers regular season football. And what better way to start the year than facing off against the runner up in the AFC, the Buffalo Bills. While many are drawing a hard conclusion that the Steelers have a “cute” chance in this game (Big Ben and the rookies will give a valiant effort but…), but not really a valid chance to win, this is not reflective of the prime opportunity that is in front of the team this weekend.
The last two times the Steelers have battled the Bills, they have lost, and both in embarrassing fashion. In 2019, Duck Hodges threw 4 picks, while in 2020, Big Ben threw 2, including one for a TD, and such mistakes damned those squads to deficits unable to be overcome and ultimately, losses. Thankfully, for the Steelers this year, they are healthier and stronger (in my opinion) on defense, more youthful and athletic on the offensive line, and primed in the running game with Najee Harris, and as a result, they aren’t headed into Buffalo to be “cute.” They are going into New York believing they can win.
Josh Allen had an MVP-caliber season last year, and improved his accuracy significantly with the addition of Stefon Diggs. Against the Steelers last season, Diggs was somewhat contained in the first half, before going off in the second against a defense that did not have Joe Haden on the field. Also missing in action in that contest were Devin Bush and Bud Dupree, but the Steelers defense still managed to keep them in the contest and hold Allen’s completion percentage to 56%. Now, consider that both a healthy Haden and Bush are back on the field, two of the teams best players in coverage, in addition to another strong pass rusher in the form of Melvin Ingram, and also another quality coverage inside linebacker in Joe Schobert, and you have to feel more confident about the unit that will line up opposite the Buffalo offense this weekend.
Defensively for the Bills, they have not been powerful in the pass rushing department, but they made a concentrated effort to address it this offseason by drafting Greg Rousseau and Carlos Basham. The Bills hope these youngsters, combined with their vets, can help create a more disruptive rush to put pressure on the quarterbacks to enhance an already sticky secondary led by Tre’Davious White. The Bills are not as effective in stopping the run, though you wouldn’t think that was the case when the played the Steelers last season, as the held the team to only 47 yards on 17 carries, and a whopping 2.8 yard per carry average. It was this paltry showing from the Steelers in the running game that put the offense behind the chains, and allowed the Bills defense to tee off against the short-passing game. The end result? A 26-15 loss for the Steelers.
This Sunday will be different, not just on defense because of a unit nearly at full strength (still missing Stephon Tuitt), but also because of the complete overhaul of the running game from top to bottom. Sure, there are concerns about the offensive line being that it is 80% new, but anything is better than what was showcased last year, unable to pass protect for more than 2.5 seconds or open a running lane big enough for an ant to run through. While the offensive line will need time to mesh and grow and develop, they have embraced a physical and aggressive mindset, and we have seen glimpses of that this preseason. Factor in one Najee Harris who appears to be everything he has been reported to be, and the running game appears vibrant and ready to surprise the NFL. And consider for a moment what a strong rushing attack can do for the Steelers passing game that includes an extremely talented group of wide receivers and tight ends, and oh yeah, a Hall of Fame quarterback.
With that said, I envision the Steelers winning this game as a result of an outstanding defense effort that doesn’t completely shut down the Bills, but slows them down to keep the Steelers offense hanging around. But more importantly, Harris will have a coming out party on Sunday, rushing for over a hundred yards, contributing in the passing game, and wearing the Buffalo defense down.
It’s going to be a celebratory weekend for the Steelers, and not just because TJ Watt signed his new contract. The Steelers start the year 1-0 with a win against an AFC contender, and start building confidence and the belief that 2021 can be a successful year.
Steelers 26, Buffalo 24
Steelers Player of the Game: Najee Harris – 28 carries, 117 yards, 2 touchdowns