Holding the heaviest burden of any NFL team in Week Two, the Buffalo Bills travel to Heinz Field this Sunday to square off against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Pittsburgh is coming off an impressive 34-7 road win in their season opener at Cleveland, and they are looking to make a similarly dominating statement in their home opener.
Pittsburgh is just one season removed from a Super Bowl championship and seems to have re-gained some of that playoff luster after missing the playoffs last season. The team has a diverse and potentially lethal offense led by Ben Roethlisberger, a defense that is still as blitz-happy and talented as it ever has been, and a special teams unit that may no longer be quite the Achilles' Heel that it has been in years past.
Offense: It Starts with Willie Parker
For years under former coach Bill Cowher, Pittsburgh was a run-first team. Mike Tomlin has been imported as head coach, and nothing has changed. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians will still run the ball early and often, and Willie Parker is up to the task. Parker made his first big statement in the final game of the 2004 season, and has since enjoyed strong '05 and '06 campaigns as the Steelers' starting back. He has the type of speed and cutting ability that gives even good defenses fits, so expect to see a lot of #39 this Sunday.
Roethlisberger's four touchdowns in Week One, however, prove that Arians' scheme isn't close to one-dimensional. The Steelers have a trio of outstanding receivers in Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes and Heath Miller; these three can beat defenses in any way imaginable. Ward is a team leader and a fantastic possession receiver and red zone target, while Holmes' explosive big plays complement Ward perfectly. Miller is the key, however - tight end is a huge point of emphasis in an Arians offense, so expect to see plenty of looks to Miller as he tries to stretch the scheme of Buffalo's Cover-2 defense.
Defense: Bring the Pressure
Coordinated by Dick LeBeau, Pittsburgh's defense has not changed under Tomlin either. The Steelers still have a very good run defense anchored by nose tackle Casey Hampton, and they also have a strong linebacking corps adept at getting pressure on the quarterback. Expect to see the likes of James Harrison, Clark Haggans, and rookies Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley headed for J.P. Losman all afternoon.
Pittsburgh's big play threat defensively remains strong safety Troy Polamalu, who will also be used on the blitz this Sunday. The Steelers are at their best defensively when Polamalu is making plays on and around the football. His running mates in the defensive backfield (Ryan Clark, Deshea Townsend and Ike Taylor), while solid, are the liability of the defense. Pittsburgh plays pass defense by getting pressure on the quarterback; this defense is, however, susceptible to the big play.
Special Teams: Big Edge to Buffalo
Let me preface this by saying in previous years, including (and especially) 2006, Pittsburgh's special teams were downright terrible. That is changing this year - the units played very respectably against Cleveland, and Tomlin seems to be making improved special teams play his team's biggest priority. Improvements are on the way; at this point, however, the Bills have a clearly distinct advantage in this department. If the Bills are going to stay in this game, they will need big returns by Terrence McGee and Roscoe Parrish to shorten field position; they will also need to contain the Steelers' return men and make Pittsburgh's offense work for their points. This is exactly the type of advantage the Bills need, and have, to make a game out of this Sunday.