Welcome to Week 15 of the NFL season. Here at 300 Level Media, we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the Buffalo Bills’ upcoming opponent and what each team might do to emerge victorious.
The Bills’ 14th game of the 2019 season will take place at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh as they face the Steelers. Here’s what you should know:
DESPITE INJURIES ON OFFENSE, STEELERS SOLDIER ON
While some things have stayed the same about the Pittsburgh Steelers – namely on defense – some things have changed tremendously this year. Namely due to injuries, Pittsburgh’s offense looks much different than it did at the beginning of this season but Mike Tomlin and company have done a phenomenal job of navigating through those issues and contending for a wild card playoff spot by winning three in a row and seven of their last eight games.
The team’s biggest difference between Week One and now has been at quarterback. Future Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger is out until 2020 with an elbow injury and the Steelers have missed his high football IQ, strong arm, elite accuracy and his ability to extend plays both inside and outside of the pocket. At first the Steelers attempted to move on with potential heir apparent Mason Rudolph as their signal caller, but his recent struggles have elevated third-stringer Devlin “Duck” Hodges to the starting role.
Despite his limits physically, Hodges has a good sense of timing and rhythm and the Steelers have constructed a passing game around those strengths. Able to get the ball out quickly and accurately, Hodges typically has at his disposal one of the more versatile wide receivers in football in John “JuJu” Smith-Schuster but he is out for Sunday’s game due to injury, as is tight end Vance McDonald.
Since Smith-Schuster’s ability to command double teams both in the slot and on the boundary will be missing on Sunday, his responsibilities will fall to second-year man James Washington and rookie wideout Diontae Johnson. Both have played well in his absence, but neither can carry a passing game by himself.
Because of this drop in talent – and factoring in the offseason losses of both Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell – there are some questions about the viability of the Steelers’ offensive scheme. According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit, “(Pittsburgh’s) passing game can use clever intertwined routes underneath or fall into basic iso routes out of spread-empty formations. Despite an outstanding offensive line and a diverse ground game, this offense is more about making individual plays than establishing a rhythm. The Steelers could get away with this when Brown and Bell were still on the roster, but now their skill players are good but not great, and the schematic inconsistency is more damaging.”
The Steelers will get the underrated James Conner – who is adept both on the ground and through the air – back from a shoulder ailment that has sidelined him for five of Pittsburgh’s last six games. That should boost their running game even more, having averaged 140 yards on the ground in their last three contests with backup running back Jaylen Samuels performing in his absence.
Conner runs behind a line that is very good at executing inside zone runs and the excellent duo of guard David DeCastro and center Maurkice Pouncey are among the NFL’s best at their positions. Those two operate along with veterans Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster and third-year right tackle Matt Feiler. The Steelers also like to make use of backup linemen as extra blockers in the running game so that bears watching as well.
PITTSBURGH REMAINS “BLITZBURGH”
After a few down years on that side of the ball, Pittsburgh has morphed back in “Blitzburgh” – an aggressive, complex defense to figure out for any opposing offense and is once again elite. The Steelers have the most takeaways in the NFL with 33, lead the league in sacks with 48, is second in interceptions with 18 and ranks as the fifth-best defense in yards allowed. As a matter of fact, they are on pace to be the first defense to lead the league in both sacks and takeaways since the 1974 Steelers.
The main catalyst for Pittsburgh’s transformation has been the acquisition of versatile safety Minkah Fitzpatrick from Miami for a first-round draft pick. Capable of playing outside cornerback, nickel cornerback, centerfield as a single-high safety or in the box to help stop the run, Fitzpatrick has recorded five picks and two touchdowns, three fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles so far and has become the long sought-after replacement for future Hall of Famer Troy Polamalu.
Fitzpatrick is joined in the Steelers’ secondary by veteran Joe Haden, who is still very good in his 10th season, and former first-round pick Terrell Edmunds (Tremaine’s brother) but questions persist about their depth at cornerback. Beyond Haden and slot blitzer extraordinaire Mike Hilton, Pittsburgh has relied on the vulnerable Steven Nelson, disappointment Artie Burns and rookie Justin Layne.
When Ryan Shazier suffered a potentially career-ending spinal injury two years ago, it left a big hole in the coverage abilities of the Steelers’ linebackers. At first Tomlin, defensive coordinator Keith Butler and general manager Kevin Colbert tried to patch up that hole by emphasizing packages involving three safeties but the drafting of athletic rookie Devin Bush from Michigan and the importation of former Ram Mark Barron allows Pittsburgh to use more traditional nickel packages.
At outside linebacker, Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt – the younger brother of Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt – have become one of the most disruptive pass rushing tandems in football and can also cover and stop the run at a high level. Playing in front of them are defensive linemen Cameron Heyward and Javon Hargrave – both combine great technique with high-level quickness and strength – and Tyson Alualu, who replaces the injured Stephon Tuitt.
BUFFALO’S DEFENSE COMING OFF PERHAPS BEST OUTING OF SEASON
The Bills have had a top-three defense pretty much all season long, but last week was perhaps their finest outing of the year. They held Baltimore to under two yards on 10 of the Ravens’ 30 rushing plays and four of those rushes went for negative yardage. Lamar Jackson and company were held to just 3.6 yards a carry and were averaging 5.6 a clip coming into the game. Furthermore, Baltimore was also limited to 90 yards under their season average and Jackson had just 40 rushing yards – virtually half of his per-game average. The Ravens also converted just three times on 11 third-down opportunities.
It’s been a complete 180-degree turn of events for the Bills’ defense since their mid-season struggles against the run. They’ve made this turnaround due to better gap control by their front seven and staying more disciplined, resulting in fewer lanes to run the football through.
Schematically, the Bills’ third-ranked defense relies on basic zone coverages after the snap, but before the snap it is complex – safety rotations to disguise their coverages keep opposing quarterbacks guessing and selective pressure looks at the line of scrimmage are Sean McDermott’s calling card (those blitz looks are usually in the A-gaps from their linebackers – for more info on McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier’s defense, please read: https://fromthe300level.com/2018/08/pressure-package-how-the-late-buddy-ryan-has-influenced-the-buffalo-bills-defenses-for-over-20-years/?fbclid=IwAR3iYcnJ5qvl8shWHkZJVNO50VJXPeaEx8k0-Rk1VWV_Qx2OEfsAn2NY_ys).
BILLS’ OFFENSE LOOKS TO GET BACK ON TRACK
Going into Week 11 the Bills’ offense was ranked in the bottom half of the league in nearly every major offensive category. To address this lack of production, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll decided to move from the field to the press box in order to call plays and get a bird’s eye view of what was happening on the field.
The decisions to go upstairs and use more of an up-tempo attack have paid off for the most part, as Buffalo has gotten significant contributions from players like Josh Allen, Devin Singletary, John Brown and Cole Beasley over the last four weeks. The Bills also increased their usage of 11 personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers) – a change from weeks prior where the team heavily utilized 12 and 22 personnel – resulting in better production both through the air and on the ground, as evidenced by the Bills now employing the NFL’s fifth-best rushing offense.
One area in which the Bills need to get better at is connecting on deep shots down the field. For all of Allen’s arm strength – and he has one of the strongest arms of any quarterback in the NFL – for some reason he’s continually overshot his receivers on long patterns throughout the season. Whether it’s a matter of not putting enough touch on his passes, the angle of his release or if it’s related to his footwork in the pocket, Allen needs to clean up this area of his game.
Ditto that of Buffalo’s offensive line. In terms of pass-protection, the Bills had perhaps their worst outing of the season against Baltimore’s blitz-happy unit while allowing six sacks and will need to hold up their end of the bargain against a good pass rush like Pittsburgh’s.
Buffalo’s offense is a Patriots-style system that’s built upon concepts involving option routes from the slot, downfield routes from the outside, designed quarterback runs to take advantage of Allen’s mobility, deep dropbacks and alignments that create favorable matchups (and some trick plays with jet motion and sweeps with Isaiah McKenzie).
- The Bills’ defense allowed 257 yards of offense last week against Baltimore and have given up less than 400 yards of offense in 24 out of their last 25 games dating to last year, the best such mark in the NFL.
- Sean McDermott and Mike Tomlin were former college teammates at William and Mary in the early 90’s (Tomlin was a wide receiver, McDermott a safety).
- Pittsburgh has won 12 of their last 15 primetime games at home.
- Devin Singletary ranks third in the league in yards per carry behind Jackson and San Francisco’s Raheem Mostert with a mark of 5.58, and entering Sunday’s game is third-best in Bills history behind O.J. Simpson in 1973 (6.03) and C.J. Spiller in 2012 (6.01). Singletary is also third among all rookies in rushing yardage behind Oakland’s Josh Jacobs and Chicago’s David Montgomery.
- Allen has accounted for one touchdown in 19 straight games, which is the second longest streak in franchise history (Doug Flutie had a streak of 20 games between 1998 and ’99).
- Buffalo hasn’t defeated the Steelers since October 10, 1999 at then-named Ralph Wilson Stadium. The last time they won in Pittsburgh was in the divisional round of the 1992 playoffs (January 1993) and haven’t beaten the Steelers in Pittsburgh during the regular season since 1975 at Three Rivers Stadium.
- This will be Buffalo’s first appearance on NBC’s Sunday Night Football since 2007, a 56-10 loss to the New England Patriots and they will attempt to win their first game on a Sunday night since a 16-13 win over Tennessee in the 2000 season opener. It will also be just the third time since 2000 (a loss on Monday Night Football to the Indianapolis Colts) that Al Michaels will broadcast a Bills regular season game.
- Bills linebacker Tremaine Edmunds will face both of his older brothers on Sunday night (safety Terrell and fullback Trey). Their father, former Pro Bowl tight end Ferrell Edmunds, will be at the game watching.
- The Bills need one more win in order to clinch their second playoff berth in three years.