By Jeremy Hritz
That was fun. The Pittsburgh Steelers started their 2021 season in intense fashion, beating the highly touted Buffalo Bills to begin the year 1-0. There were many big plays especially on the defensive side of the football and reasons for optimism heading into week 2. With that said, here is my list of those Steelers who made the Honor Roll for their performances against Buffalo, and those who made the Needs Improvement list.
Pressure for all sides, pressure from all three outside linebackers. TJ Watt was a man possessed and could not be stopped, while Melvin Ingram and Alex Highsmith applied consistent pressure. Buffalo had no answers for the pass rush, except to hold, and more often than not, they got away with it on several non-calls. It’s exciting to think about what this group is capable of in 2021, not to mention how they will make the backend of the defense even better if they can consistently get this kind of pressure.
I know I recognized the entire OLB group above, but I have to give an individual recognition to TJ Watt. So much for not being up to speed, as Watt had 2 sacks and 1 tackle for loss. He was a force, and his pursuit and relentlessness were unmatched. His chop on Josh Allen was a thing of beauty, forcing a turnover, and if he can play like this all season, the DPOY award is a lock.
There was concern early in the game that Diontae Johnson may have experienced a significant injury, but he returned to the lineup to pull in 5 catches for 36 yards, and an absolute beauty of a touchdown catch to give the Steelers their first lead of the game and the momentum to begin their push for the win. Johnson showed tremendous concentration in a big moment, and it was a step towards rectifying all of those drops from a year ago.
Chase Claypool was excellent, showing the ability to go up, compete for, and come down with the combat catch down the field, in addition to making it difficult for defensive backs to cover him without trying to get an unfair advantage, as he also drew pass interference calls. Claypool very much looked like an offensive weapon yesterday, and his skillset will be beneficial to this offense in 2021.
Miles Killebrew/Ulysses Gilbert
Anytime you record a blocked punt and pick up a special teams touchdown, you deserved recognition, and Miles Killebrew and Ulysses Gilbert are deserving of a spot on the Honor Roll. Killebrew’s block, followed by Gilbert’s scoop and score shifted this game in the favor for the Steelers, and it flipped the pressure onto the Bills. Great play by the Steelers depth, and maybe the reason we are talking about a win this Monday.
I know some Steelers writers would argue otherwise that Tre Norwood had a bad game, but for a 7th round pick to get the start at the slot corner position, and for him to be steady against a Super Bowl contending team in a hostile environment, I though Norwood did well for himself. Though he did have some gaffes, including letting receivers get behind him too frequently, I am encouraged by his performance and believe he will only get better over time.
Let’s just start calling Cameron Heyward Father Defense. He is savvy, intelligent, and powerful, and is always making plays, whether it’s a sack, a pass break up, or tackle for loss, Heyward is always around the ball. The leader of what is the best defensive line in football.
I’ve been critical of Devin Bush all offseason, but against the Bills, he was fast, explosive, sticky in his tackling, and a force in the middle of the defense. Bush finished with 10 tackles and was all over the field. He appears to be fully recovered from his knee injury, and it showed yesterday against the Bills.
While it may get overlooked, Chris Boswell’s field goal late in the 4th quarter from 45 yards out sealed the deal. Boswell was 3/3 on field goals and once again was Mr. Consistent.
The Entire Defense
Seriously, if this is a preview of what is to come this year on defense, offenses, look out. Strong across the board at all levels.
We knew heading into this contest there would be growing pains on the offensive line, and there definitely were against the Bills. Average in pass protection and bad in the running game, the offensive line must improve in order for this team to be competitive on offense. In the first half, the running game looked worse than it did last season, and the Bills defensive line drove the Steelers OL back on seemingly every running play. Lots of work to do here, and while still early, it is concerning.
Ben Roethlisberger was just OK, but the expectation for him is much higher than what his performance was yesterday. He seemed hesitant at times, and he misfired on multiple throws. More than likely this is the result of shaking the rust off and adapting to a completely new offensive group, but Ben needs to be better in order for the Steelers to compete in 2021. He did rebound nicely in the second half.
Look, I’m the biggest Najee Harris supporter there is, and I know it is only his first game, but there were missed opportunities yesterday. First, instead of commiting to a hole and accelerating, he ran too laterally, resulting in lost yardage on a few occasions. On top of that, he was ineffective in the receiving game and failed to capitalize on what could have been some big plays. Sure, the offense line didn’t give much help, but Harris has to be better. Played much better in the second half.
A few nice punts, but a shank from the Steelers end zone characterized Pressley Harvin’s inconsistencies against the Bills. He’s a rookie, so he gets a pass, but he needs to be more consistent as to not hurt the team.
Ray Ray McCloud
On the stat sheet for 1 punt return for 4 yards. Can we get Steven Sims on the 53 this week please?