Think back, if you will, to where the Buffalo Bills were after Week 4, the last time that rookie quarterback EJ Manuel started and finished a game: they'd just beaten the defending champion Baltimore Ravens at home, were sitting at 2-2, and fans were very optimistic about not just the future, but the remainder of the 2013 season.
Manuel, of course, was injured in Week 5, prompting a fourth-quarter loss on the road in Cleveland that kick-started a 1-4 stretch for the Bills, who were forced to play Thad Lewis (1-2) and Jeff Tuel (0-1, plus poor work in relief of Manuel following the injury) under center during that time frame. Today, the Bills are 3-6, squarely in last place in the AFC East and No. 13 of 16 teams in the conference, ahead of 0-8 Jacksonville, 2-6 Houston and, yes, the 2-6 Pittsburgh Steelers.
It's against those Steelers that Manuel will make his return to the starting lineup for the Bills, who despite their current place in the standings are just two games out of the final wild card spot in a muddled and mediocre AFC with seven games to go. Buffalo is hoping that a return to near-full health for not just Manuel, but many other key contributors, will kick-start a second-half surge, taking advantage of the league's second-easiest schedule down the stretch.
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The Whaley connection
The Steelers may be a shell of their usual selves, sitting at 2-6 and looking at the likelihood of a second straight season without a playoff berth for the first time since 2000, but the Bills aren't going to take them lightly. That extends beyond the fact that, even at their current record, the Steelers are a pretty good football team; Buffalo won't sleep on the Steelers simply because these two franchises are kindred spirits.
Doug Whaley, Buffalo's general manager as of this past May, spent over a decade cutting his teeth as a personnel executive under Kevin Colbert, the Steelers' long-time GM. Since Whaley joined the Bills as the understudy to former GM Buddy Nix back in 2010, the Bills and Steelers have shared players and coaches, with the teams built from similar ideologies. It's mostly been a one-way street at this point, with Buffalo snagging Steelers cast-offs left and right; in fact, the Bills currently have two starters (and four contributors total) that made their NFL starts in Pittsburgh.
Kraig Urbik, the Bills' second-highest paid lineman, was claimed on waivers from Pittsburgh in 2010 after the 2009 third-round pick failed to crack the team's 53-man roster. Urbik has been Buffalo's starting right guard for three seasons. The man that beat him out for a roster spot in 2010, Doug Legursky, left Pittsburgh for Buffalo in free agency this past summer and is now the Bills' starting left guard. Frank Summers, the team's new fullback, was a fifth-round pick of Pittsburgh in that same 2009 draft class, and Corbin Bryant, a rotational defensive lineman that the coaching staff is high on, was signed as an undrafted free agent by Pittsburgh in 2011.
The teams share similar offensive and defensive concepts, and they're philosophically simpatico in the front office. The irony this season, however, is that the franchises are viewed as heading in opposite directions.
Bills offense vs. Steelers defense
On paper, this looks like a good week for Buffalo's offense to get back on track, particularly with Manuel under center: the Steelers have the second-worst run defense in the league at present, and have accumulated just 13 sacks in their first eight games. Manuel has been efficient - and, at times, deadly - when he's been kept clean, and Buffalo's running back tandem of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson appears to be healthy and back on track after leading a 241-yard rushing effort against Kansas City last week.
Not so fast, though. The Steelers have their problems defensively - as evidenced by 610 yards and 55 points allowed in last weekend's shellacking at the hands of New England, from which the Steelers will clearly be eager to rebound - but they also pose plenty of their own for opposing offenses.
At this point in his rookie season, the best known way to attack Manuel is to blitz him - his mechanics break down, his efficiency drops dramatically, and that's when mistakes can be made. Dick LeBeau, the long-time Steelers defensive coordinator, is known best for his ability to create pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Buffalo has some intermittent protection issues up front - expect LeBeau to target Legursky, the former Steeler, with his blitzes - and Manuel will be missing arguably his favorite target, rookie Robert Woods (ankle injury), in this game.
Long story short: Buffalo had better find its running game quickly on Sunday, because without it, LeBeau could tee off on Manuel and get his ailing defense right in a hurry. This is a winnable matchup for the Bills, to be certain, but they're going to need to make big plays on the ground to keep themselves consistent on offense. A few big plays in the air wouldn't hurt, either, with Marquise Goodwin - who has only played in part of one game with Manuel this season, but who also has three catches of 25 yards or more in the last four games - a focus in that area.
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Steelers offense vs. Bills defense
Where Pittsburgh's defense is reeling after a down week, their offense is coming off a season-best performance in New England, when Ben Roethlisberger tossed four touchdowns and the Steelers racked up 479 total yards and 31 points in defeat.
The story of Pittsburgh's offense at the moment is their offensive line, where a long list of injuries and personnel shuffling has left Roethlisberger - an extend-the-play expert that holds the ball longer than almost any quarterback on the planet - as the second most-sacked quarterback on the season, with teams bringing him down 31 times in eight games (second only to Ryan Tannehill in Miami, who was sacked a season-low two times by Buffalo in Week 7). They are getting healthier up front - more on that below - but this is a line that the likes of Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus should feast on if they're on their A game.
Pittsburgh counters their issues up front with a solid screen game; receivers Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders can hurt defenses on quick throws, and rookie running back Le'Veon Bell is surprisingly nimble in space for a 230-pound player. Brown leads the NFL in receptions, he and Sanders both are dangerous vertical threats, and Bell has brought new life into a Steelers rushing attack that was brutal in the early portions of the season.
Long story short, Roethlisberger is still excellent, his skill talent is very good, and the Steelers will almost certainly find ways to rack up yards (and, yes, some points) against Mike Pettine's defense. Buffalo's charge defensively will be to limit their effectiveness on the ground, stop the screen game (Kiko Alonso and Nickell Robey help tremendously there), and force Roethlisberger to sit in the pocket and make throws to covered men downfield. That's how everyone defends Pittsburgh, and if the Bills can be disruptive up front, they should be able to build on last week's strong performance against Kansas City.
All-22 film review
A long-time LeBeau understudy, Ray Horton, now calls the defense for the Cleveland Browns - who just happen to be the last team against which Manuel played. Before Manuel was injured in that contest, Horton's defense attacked the quarterback with blitzes quite regularly, with mixed results. The photo gallery above shows how Manuel's mechanics broke down in the face of pressure, how the Browns attacked Buffalo's protections, and how the Bills were able to find matchups and call plays to get out of sticky situations against those rushes. Full write-up
Pittsburgh's protection issues extend beyond the play of the offensive line, but that's certainly where the problems begin. In reviewing tape from their loss to New England - some of which you can see in the stills above - left tackle Kelvin Beachum (a guard by trade, and the team's third option at the position) was exposed as a very obvious weak point. It also shows how New England, like pretty much every team before them, blitzed very rarely, instead rushing four with an occasional spy to keep Roethlisberger in the pocket and cover up as many of his receiving options as possible. Expect a similar game plan from Pettine and the Bills this weekend. Full write-up
Two sleeper Steelers
RG David DeCastro. You may remember DeCastro as the 2012 first-round draft pick that lost his entire rookie season when he was injured during a preseason game in Buffalo last fall. DeCastro is back this season, and was off to a very good start in 2013 before an ankle injury knocked him out of last week's contest. The Steelers missed him - in that All-22 look above, his replacement, Guy Whimper, was a frequent issue up front - and with him back in the lineup, the Steelers will be better in general, but particularly the running game. He's a player to watch against Buffalo's talented defensive line.
DB Shamarko Thomas. If you're a Syracuse fan, or if you're at all aware of the NFL-caliber talent that Bills head coach Doug Marrone developed during his time there, you know who Thomas is. The compact rookie safety has seen an increased role in LeBeau's defense throughout the season, serving as a nickel and dime back alongside starting safeties Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu. When Thomas is on the field, Polamalu shifts up into the box, where he thrives - but Thomas is a key figure in a Steelers secondary that can be hurt vertically if the protection holds up. Don't be surprised if the Bills pick on Thomas when the rookie is on the field.
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Two sleeper Bills
TE Scott Chandler. Bills receivers dropped at least a half-dozen passes last week, exacerbating what was already a mostly bad day for Tuel, and Chandler was at the forefront of those efforts. Buffalo's tight end has struggled in that department all season, mixing in some good performances with several lulls. Coming off a down week, with Manuel back in the lineup and his safety blanket, Woods, out of the lineup, look for Chandler to see a significant number of targets this week, particularly in situations where the team needs to move the sticks. (He also presents a matchup problem for the aforementioned Thomas up the seam, for the record.)
CB Stephon Gilmore. Sure, any team's top cornerback probably can't be considered a sleeper, but Gilmore has endured four mostly quiet weeks since his return from a wrist injury. Kansas City went after Gilmore early and often, with Dwayne Bowe hauling in seven passes before Week 9 was complete. Gilmore got better as that game progressed, but his assignment will be tougher this week matching up against the smaller, speedier receivers in Pittsburgh. Gilmore is a big, physical defensive back, but he'll need to be cognizant of extended plays while chasing those players in the secondary this weekend - even if he's properly physical at the point of attack following the snap. Gilmore, like Jairus Byrd, is bound to have a breakout performance at some point.
It's clear at this point in the season that the Bills can play competitively in any venue against any team. They match up well with these Steelers, but they also haven't been in many (or, perhaps, any) places as hostile as Heinz Field this season, either. Things are finally coming together on the injury front, and sooner or later, the Bills will put together a well-rounded, three-phase effort in a surprising win. Don't be surprised if that happens this Sunday, in a place where the Bills historically struggle, as Marrone and his Buffalo squad look to kick off a second-half surge. Bills 23, Steelers 21