Pittsburgh Steelers vs Buffalo Bills Part II
To quote Michael Buffer “IT’S TIME!” Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season is finally upon us! Sunday, September 12 at 1 pm EST, we will see the Pittsburgh Steelers vs Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, NY.
In Part I, I recapped the 2020 season for both teams. Now let’s get to the upcoming week 1 tilt between Pittsburgh and Buffalo.
The Big Question
This year there are a few questions that the Bills will need to answer. The primary question on everyone’s mind (anyone not part of the Bills Mafia) is whether or not Josh Allen can continue his impressive MVP caliber play into his fourth year.
The simple answer/expectation should be “yes”. I am a firm believer that once you see a player demonstrate a particular skill for an entire season early on in his career, it should be repeatable. Josh spent the entire 2020 campaign lighting the NFL on fire with his newfound accuracy, patience, smart decision making, and ability to make the correct pre-snap read on opposing defenses.
The offense surrounding #17 to start the year is largely the same as it was last season. Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, Gabe Davis, Devin Singletary, and Zack Moss are all returning this season.
There are also a couple of new additions looking for Josh Allen’s attention on the field this year. Emmanual Sanders and Matt Breida have joined the Bills and should make things very interesting for opposing defenses.
The offensive line is also largely intact as Mitch Morse resumes his role as starting Center, with Cody Ford and John Feliciano at Guard, and Dion Dawkins and Daryl Williams at Tackle. The question here will be how much have the Bills improved their run blocking for Devin Singletary and Zack Moss (two smaller backs that do not typically make their own space.)
This is going to be a very exciting game for the 11 men facing Big Ben each snap. The Buffalo Bills defenders are also a very familiar site in Orchard Park, with several of the starters returning to the fold in 2021. Tre White, Levi Wallace, “Mr. Pick-6” himself, Taron Johnson, Micah Hyde, and Jordan Poyer will all roam the backfield. Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano prowl like wild animals behind the defensive linemen, ready to pounce on ill-advised passes over the middle or a QB that doesn’t run for his life when #58 charges.
They also have the added bonus of a shining Star (Lotulelei… see what I did there?) back from a season-long COVID-19 opt-out hiatus at Defensive Tackle. The return of the veteran combined with a young go-getter like Ed Oliver with a year of NFL experience under his belt in the middle of the defensive line should prove menacing to opposing offensive lines.
Young and Old
The familiar faces of Mario Addison and Jerry Hughes will bookend the line at Defensive End. Subbing them out will be second-year DE #57 A.J. Epenesa, and rookie Greg Rousseau. The promise of young, very talented up-and-comers combined with proven commodities in Hughes and Addison should give Buffalo a chance to regain its status as one of the elite defenses in the AFC and possibly the NFL.
The Big Question
There are actually several questions to be answered here as well, which will largely determine what the 2021 version of the Black and Gold will look like on both sides of the ball.
First and foremost is the health of Big Ben and his right arm. He underwent surgical reconstruction of his elbow in 2019. Some believe that the surgery limited his abilities last year and forced many short passes. We will never know the truth now, but the 39-year-old QB has said that his arm has never felt better. We will see….
The second is the offensive line. The Steelers look very different upfront this year compared to last and have lost a lot of experience. They cut David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey retired, Matt Feiler went to the Chargers, and Alejandro Villanueva departed Steeltown and headed east to Baltimore. The sole remaining familiar face is OT Chuckwuma Okorafor.
Kevin Dotson, Trai Turner, J.C. Hassenauer, and Joe Haeg are some of the faces you will see protecting Roethlisberger as well as rookie RB Najee Harris (more on him upcoming.)
The third question is whether or not Diontae Johnson can get over “the yips” as Cris Collinsworth put it. There is no question the kid has all the talent, ability, and quickness to give opposing defensive players fits once he catches the ball. DJ could be Antonio Brown Jr; he’s that quick. But the issue is catching it first. He dropped several key passes late in the season and was actually benched for part of the Bills game because of it. Catch the damn ball kid!
Like the Bills, Pittsburgh has a familiar cast of characters at WR. Diontae Johnson, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, and Chase Claypool are all back and vying for Ben’s eye to gaze their way. Eric Ebron and rookie Pat Freiermuth are the Tight Ends with fellow Steeler T.J. Watt’s younger brother Derek lining up at fullback.
NA-Jee, NA-Jee, NA-Jee!
With the 24th pick in the 2021 NFL draft the Pittsburgh Steelers select, Najee Harris, running back, Alabama.
There is no denying that this kid looks the part. He’s got legs as big as tree stumps, great contact balance, and above-average agility for a man the size of a linebacker. Najee is 6’2 and 230 pounds of mean, and he wants the ball early and often. He comes from a school that features only the best of the best (Roll Tide!) and this kid looks every bit the part of a future stud NFL running back.
The only real question is whether or not the O-line can consistently open gaps for him to run through. You can have all the talent in the world, but if your line has more leaks than Edward Snowden, there isn’t much hope of gaining any real yardage after the handoff (see Joe Mixon waving his hand over there?)
Najee was also an accomplished pass catcher at ‘Bama so there should also be plenty of opportunities to capitalize on screen plays should the line fail in front of Roethlisberger.
Much like the offensive side of the ball, the Steelers are missing some key figures on defense as well. Stephon Tuitt is one. The 28-year-old stand-out defensive end is on IR to start the season, and returning DE Chris Wormley will attempt to fill his shoes.
The other big story on the defensive side of the ball is phenom Linebacker T.J. Watt and his ongoing contract negotiations. As of right now he is still not under contract, nor has he participated in team drills. It’s confusing because as far as anyone outside the locker room could tell, T.J. and the Steelers’ top brass were on the same page regarding his contract. Most figured the contract would be settled after the Carolina pre-season game, but that did not come to pass.
The Steelers are well known for refusing to negotiate contracts during the regular season. Should Watt hold out, there are going to be some big shoes to fill in Pittsburgh’s defensive core.
Josh Allen: 29-45/275/3 + 1 interception, 8/35/1
Stefon Diggs: 11/135/2
Cole Beasley: 7/30/0
Devin Singletary: 10/45/0
Zack Moss: 12/40/1
Dawson Knox: 3/20/1
Ben Roethlisberger: 25-39/210/2 + 2 interceptions
Diontae Johnson: 9/80/1
Chase Claypool: 4/65/1
JuJu Smith-Schuster: 5/35/0
Najee Harris: 14/85/1, 6/30/0
There is obviously no way to predict exactly how things will transpire between these two teams in week 1. But with the loss of several key figures on both sides of the ball for Pittsburgh, and conversely much the same cast of characters for the Buffalo Bills, I expect Buffalo to once again come out on top when the final whistle blows.
Look for Josh Allen to test the middle of the field early and often with passes to Beasley and Diggs. The Bills running game will also try to get on track in this one and hopefully find some room on Wormley’s side of the field.
I fully expect T.J. Watt to be signed and suited up for Sunday’s contest in Buffalo, but if he’s not, look for Josh to take full advantage of a lesser Linebacker and hang in the pocket with much more comfort than if Watt were breathing down his neck.
Pittsburgh has openly said they want a bell-cow back and there is no reason not to test the rookie right away. The biggest weakness the Bills defensive core had last year was stopping the run. If they are no better this week, Najee could have a field day feasting on mediocre run defense.
I don’t believe the Steelers defense is able to handle the Bills offense this week.
Buffalo Bills win this contest by a score of 35-24
You can find all my articles including Part 1 (2020 Bills/Steelers in-depth recap) of this two-part series anytime on Sports Obsessive.