Let's start with this: Buffalo is a really good team. Josh Allen is the best quarterback to come out of the 2018 NFL Draft. Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., is one of the most difficult venues in the NFL for visiting teams.
The Steelers opened their 2021 regular season schedule against that really good team quarterbacked by the best player at his position to come out of a 2018 draft that also ushered Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold and Lamar Jackson into the NFL, and they had to do it with four new starters along the offensive line, including rookies at center and left tackle, with 69,787 making the working conditions similar to carrying on a conversation inside a speaker at a Pearl Jam concert..
It's important to state those factors and get them into the open at the top, because there is going to be much mitigation taking place in the analysis of the Steelers' 23-16 victory over those Bills and Josh Allen at Highmark Stadium on Sunday, what with an NFL regular season now lasting 17 games and with Pittsburgh's version of those 17 being judged as the league's most difficult based on last season's records. But while it is stipulated that what the Steelers accomplished in their opener doesn't stamp them as a contender any more than it would have labeled them an also-ran had the outcome gone the other way, it was revealing in some potentially significant ways.
With a new coordinator and a reconstructed offensive line, it was assumed the Steelers offense would open this 2021 regular season as a work in progress, but could its defense be up to the task of carrying most of the load while that construction was taking place? Bud Dupree and Mike Hilton left as unrestricted free agents, Steven Nelson was a cap casualty, and with the team needing to spend its premium 2021 draft picks on the offensive rebuild, what was to become of that once-proud defense?
On Sunday, it looked to be better than the 2020 version, and the events of the game support the argument.
And there was no easing into it, either, for the Steelers defense, because after Isaiah McKenzie returned the opening kickoff 75 yards, the first snap of the football would take place from the Pittsburgh 24-yard line. On the initial third down of the game – third-and-5 from the 19-yard line, Cam Heyward willed himself into Josh Allen's face and tipped his pass incomplete to force a red zone field goal that simultaneously left the home team with a 3-0 lead and the visitors feeling pretty good about themselves.
A tone was set.
With the Steelers trying to find their offensive footing and recording only three first downs in their first five possessions of the game in what surely looked to be a futile search, the Bills and Allen got to run a bunch of offensive plays all over the Highmark Stadium carpet without ending up with a whole lot to show for it.
A relentless pass rush by the Steelers that caused three holding penalties by the Bills, one of which was declined, sabotaged one possession. A couple of misses by Allen ended another. Watt's strip/sack and a recovery by Heyward ended a third. Then Buffalo finally broke through with a 13-play, 91-yard drive that ended with a short touchdown pass to Gabriel Davis just before the end of the first half to give the Bills a 10-0 lead to take into the locker room.
"We are professionals. There were no guys hanging their heads," said Watt about how the Steelers spent the 12 minutes of halftime. "We knew that we needed to make adjustments. We made them. We came out in the second half and executed."
Suddenly the execution became contagious. Najee Harris ran three times for 12 yards, Ben Roethlisberger completed 4-of-6 for 52 more, and the Steelers offense came away with its first points of the afternoon via a 24-yard field goal by Chris Boswell. The defense bent a little on the ensuing possession, but shortly after the Bills crossed midfield, the Steelers bowed their backs and turned the ball over on downs. Then for a second straight possession, the offense produced points. The young line was providing Roethlisberger with more consistent protection, and he completed three for 37 yards, Pat Freiermuth's block sprung Chase Claypool on a 25-yard run, and even though the drive again sputtered in the red zone, another Boswell field goal made it 10-6. The tide was turning.
More defense. This time, a very alert play by Sutton turned the ball over on downs again when the Bills tried a backward pass to running back Matt Breida as a means of converting a fourth-and-1 from the Pittsburgh 41-yard line. Not only did Sutton diagnose the play, but he tackled Breida for a 7-yard loss to give the ball to the offense at the 48-yard line.
"It was just something that we anticipated," said Coach Mike Tomlin about the backward pass. "They had gotten in that structure a bunch, four or five times in the preseason, just giving the dive to the fullback. So, we figured that would be the next phase of it, to fake that dive to the fullback and flip that ball out there to him. We talked about it, but you can't take anything away from Sutton, just a really aware play and a big- time football play."
The Steelers were taking control of the game, with all three phases working in harmony, and even if they only were making plays in spurts, it was enough. After taking over on downs, a 26-yard pass interference penalty by Levi Wallace on Chase Claypool preceded an 18-yard run by Najee Harris, and then Diontae Johnson made a juggling catch in the back corner of the end zone for a touchdown that gave the Steelers their first lead, 13-10, with 11-plus minutes left in the fourth quarter.
Three plays later, it was more defense, this time in the form of a sack by Heyward on third-and-6 that put the Bills in punt formation. Miles Killebrew found a lane up the middle and blocked the punt, which Ulysees Gilbert scooped and carried into the end zone for another quick touchdown and a 20-10 lead. The Steelers were in control.
"We needed a splash play like that," said Tomlin. "We spotted them three (points) to start the game (after the 75-yard kickoff return). At halftime, I heard a lot of the core special teams players, Derek Watt and others, saying that we had to even the score from that perspective. We needed splash in that phase of the game. And boy, they delivered and delivered big."
In a short span, the Steelers went from the hunters to the hunted, and with 9:35 left in the fourth quarter, the game was theirs for the taking, provided their defense could morph from the unit most responsible for putting the team in position to take the lead into one capable of protecting it long enough to escape with the upset victory.
The defensive effort by the Steelers wasn't one that was shutting down the Bills as much as it was a unit making plays in critical situations to minimize the damage Buffalo's offense was able to do on the scoreboard. And so, it continued. Maybe the Bills moved rather easily to a first down at the Steelers 10-yard line, but from there it became a slog through quicksand, and so it was that a possession consuming nearly five minutes off the clock only netted another red zone field goal.
On the ensuing possession, Roethlisberger made his mark. On a second-and-7, he went down the field with accuracy for a 24-yard gain to JuJu Smith-Schuster, and on a subsequent third-and-8 he hooked up with Claypool for 14 yards and another conversion that also had the Bills starting to dip into their timeouts to preserve clock for their hoped-to-be-comeback.
The Steelers offense didn't turtle, and by the time Chris Boswell lined up for a 45-yard field goal attempt to restore the lead to 10 points, there was 2:47 remaining and the Bills were out of timeouts. Smith-Schuster covered Buffalo's onside kick attempt with 45 seconds left to send the Steelers into victory formation.
"We're not worried about style points," said Tomlin. "We knew it would be tough sledding. We were playing them in their place. We had a bunch of new pieces. We weren't style point-oriented today. We just had to win this game."
And so it was that the Steelers closed the book on a win that only counts for one and yet was a telling statement by a team that wakes up today still with a long way to go, but on the basis of what happened inside Highmark Stadium on Sunday, it's also a team seemingly with a path to get there.