The Buffalo Bills went into Heinz Field on Sunday night and defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers, 17-10. The Bills controlled their own destiny, as did the Steelers, as either team would have been the front-runner for the No. 5 seed in the AFC Playoff race with a win. Buffalo clinched at least that seed as a result of their win. Pittsburgh still controls its own playoff destiny, but now they cannot finish higher than sixth in the conference.
The Bills did a great job of controlling most of Pittsburgh’s players to watch, limiting the Steelers to only 229 yards of total offense. Here’s how our five players to watch for Pittsburgh played.
QB Devlin “Duck” Hodges
Buffalo made Pittsburgh’s third-string quarterback look like an undrafted rookie, as they confused and pounded him all night. The Bills did what they do best, showing what makes their defense so special, by flashing multiple pre-snap looks that weren’t what Pittsburgh expected. Hodges was able to hit on some deep shots to James Washington, but when he was asked to complete little throws to keep drives moving, he failed most of the night. Hodges threw plenty of ducks, as he was intercepted four times. He also took four sacks and fumbled once, although that fumble was recovered by the Steelers. Part of the appeal of Hodges was that he avoided turnover-worthy plays, but this week he very clearly was unable to do that. A turnover-worthy play, in my eyes, is one where a turnover actually occurs, and Buffalo forced Hodges to commit four of them. His final passing line (23-of-38, 202 yards, one touchdown, four interceptions) actually looks better on paper than it did in real-time. Hodges threw two interceptions in the end zone, one where he badly misread the field with free safety Jordan Poyer, and another while head coach Mike Tomlin was clearly telling him to “clock it” rather than run a play. His other two picks were great plays by Bills corner Tre’Davious White. It was not a banner day for the Duck.
RB James Conner
On the first offensive play of the game, Conner gained 15 yards on a run. On his first carry of the second half, Conner gained 17 yards. On his six other carries, he only managed to gain 10 yards, as the Bills were able to bottle him up for most of the night. Granted, he was only given those eight carries, and it’s hard to say whether Pittsburgh was more cautious than they normally would have been with Conner returning from a shoulder injury. Much like the Pittsburgh passing game, Conner was only effective in fits and spurts thanks to another strong effort from Buffalo’s defense.
WR James Washington
The big-play threat showed exactly what makes him such a tough mark. Washington was able to break free deep on a few occasions and pick up big chunk plays for Pittsburgh’s offense. He made five catches on the night for 83 yards, but it’s possible that one target he didn’t see was the one that could have turned the game for the Steelers. On the first of Duck Hodges’s two end zone interceptions, Washington came open on a crossing route against Buffalo’s zone. Sure, safety Jordan Poyer would have converged, but if Hodges threw the ball to the right spot, it would’ve been a tougher play for Poyer to make than the one he did make, which was an easy interception. Washington was targeted 11 times on the night, more than any receiver for either team.
EDGE T.J. Watt
J.J. Watt’s brother is making a name all his own, and he may be rewarded with an All-Pro selection this year. T.J. had another great game, as he was constantly disruptive to Buffalo’s rushing attack and passing attack alike. He finished with four tackles, 2.5 of which went for a loss. He added half a sack, a pass breakup, and two quarterback hits on the night. He also forced Buffalo running back Devin Singletary to fumble on a great hustle play, then he narrowly missed making Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen fumble later on a scramble. Watt is one of the league’s best edge rushers, and if I had an All-Pro vote, he would definitely receive mine.
FS Minkah Fitzpatrick
The stats tell me that Fitzpatrick had two tackles on the day but, truthfully, I don’t recall seeing the impact free safety at all during the game last night. Buffalo did a nice job protecting the ball, as Josh Allen only threw one interception on a pass that glanced off receiver Cole Beasley’s hands. The other turnover came on the aforementioned Singletary fumble. Fitzpatrick has been tremendous for the Steelers since they acquired him from the Miami Dolphins, but he was a non-factor in the game Sunday night.