The Pittsburgh Steelers host the Buffalo Bills on Sunday night in search of their fourth consecutive win. While Buffalo is coming off a tough loss at home against the Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers have defeated the Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, and Arizona Cardinals over the last three games, winning each game by seven points or less.
Those victories have brought Pittsburgh back into the forefront of the AFC Playoff picture, and at 8-5 the Steelers are now only one game behind the 9-4 Bills in the Wild Card race. Sunday night’s game, obviously, is huge for both squads.
Which Steelers will the Bills need to shut down in order to escape Heinz Field with a victory on Sunday? Here’s who we’ll be watching.
QB Devlin Hodges
The man known as “Duck” has done enough over the last three weeks to secure the starting quarterback job, wrestling it away from Mason Rudolph in the wake of longtime starter Ben Roethlisberger’s season-ending injury after Week 1. Hodges has made three starts this year, and the Steelers have won all three of those games. He’s completed 75% of his passes in those three games (45 completions on 60 attempts), but he’s only thrown for a total of 496 yards in those starts, an average of 165 yards per game. Given the small total number of attempts, that equates out to 8.5 yards per attempt, which is a phenomenal number. Hodges has taken few risks, but he’s played nearly mistake-free football in his time as starter, and the deep shots he has taken have been accurate. If Buffalo can contain Pittsburgh’s rushing attack and force the Duck to beat them from third-and-long, then they should be in good shape on Sunday.
RB James Conner
Set to make his return this week is Conner, Pittsburgh’s leading rusher who was tapped to replace Le’Veon Bell after a fantastic 2018 campaign. After averaging 4.5 yards per attempt in 13 games last year, Conner has struggled through an injury-plagued 2019 season. He’s only suited up for eight games this year, missing time due to a shoulder injury most recently, and he’s only averaging 3.8 yards per carry. He also injured his knee in Week 2 against the Seattle Seahawks, though he missed no time. Shoulder injuries are no good for running backs, who are hit in that part of the body repeatedly during games. Conner hasn’t played in a month, and over one-third of his yardage this season came in one game (Pittsburgh’s 27-14 win over the Miami Dolphins, a game where Conner gained 145 yards and suffered the initial A/C joint sprain). If the Bills can contain him, it will put pressure on Hodges, which will allow their defense to bring some exotic pressures to confuse the rookie.
WR James Washington
This space was going to be reserved for JuJu Smith-Schuster, who was reportedly set to make his return this week from a knee injury. However, Smith-Schuster reportedly had to leave practice early on Thursday, leaving his availability in doubt. Enter Washington, who has provided a great deep threat for Pittsburgh this year. While rookie Diontae Johnson has been the most-targeted player on the offense, Washington leads the club in receiving yards with 611. He averages 18 yards per reception, which is the fourth-highest total in the league. Buffalo doesn’t really allow big completions (last week’s 61-yard touchdown pass notwithstanding), but that’s a trend they’ll need to continue this week. Making Pittsburgh put together multiple long drives in order to score is in Buffalo’s best interest, as the Steelers lack the offensive personnel to do so consistently. If the Bills prevent chunk plays, they will put themselves in a good position.
EDGE T.J. Watt
The other Watt brother is making a name for himself, and he’s having an excellent year in 2019. He is currently tied for fourth in sacks this year with 12.5, and he has 12 tackles for loss and 29 quarterback hits on the year, as well. He’s been an absolute menace so far, and keeping him off of quarterback Josh Allen is essential for Buffalo to succeed. Expect that the team will use some help (a tight end like Tyler Kroft or Dawson Knox, or a running back like Devin Singletary) for left tackle Dion Dawkins to contain Watt, who has the potential to destroy an offensive game plan all by himself.
DB Minkah Fitzpatrick
Since he was traded to Pittsburgh after the second game of the year, Fitzpatrick has had a remarkable season. In 11 games with the Steelers, he has 46 tackles, five interceptions, nine pass breakups, and two forced fumbles. He has absolutely wreaked havoc in coverage, providing exactly the kind of play the Dolphins thought he would when they drafted him in the first round in 2018. Fitzpatrick is good enough to cover wide receivers man to man, but he can also drop and play zone on the inside and the outside. He can handle tight ends and running backs, as well. He is a menace in coverage who can take away a receiver on his own. I imagine he’ll find himself across from Cole Beasley quite often on Sunday, and whether Beasley can break free quickly or not will be a big factor in Buffalo’s success on offense.