For the second consecutive season, the Buffalo Bills and the Pittsburgh Steelers will meet on a Sunday night in December. Last year, it was the Bills clinching a playoff spot by defeating Devlin “Duck” Hodges in a hard-fought 17-10 victory. This year, the game has a much different vibe.
Pittsburgh was undefeated until this past week, when the Washington Football Team beat them 23-17. Buffalo sits at 9-3, two games back of the Steelers in the chase for the lone playoff bye this season. A victory here gives the Bills a shot, albeit a long one thanks to the Kansas City Chiefs, at clinching their first playoff bye since the 1993 season.
The Steelers have plenty of offensive weapons, a savvy veteran quarterback and the NFL’s best defense, so the Bills have their work cut out for them this week. Here are some key players they’ll need to focus on in order to hand Pittsburgh their second straight loss.
QB Ben Roethlisberger
Big Ben is still plugging away at age 38. Just a year removed from elbow surgery, he’s posted respectable numbers overall, as the veteran has thrown 27 touchdowns against just seven interceptions on the year. Roethlisberger has completed 67 percent of his passes for just over 3,100 yards, as well. A deeper dive into his effectiveness, however, shows a different quarterback than we’re used to seeing. From 2004 through 2018, Roethlisberger averaged 7.7 air yards per attempt. This year, Ben is down to 6.9 air yards per attempt, his lowest total since 2008, which was arguably his worst season as a professional (or second to his 2006 season). A look at his passing chart from NFL.com’s NextGen stats shows that Roethlisberger has only exceeded the average on throws to his left, and he has increasingly relied on shorter throws this season to make Pittsburgh’s offense work. If the Bills can jam the Steelers’ receivers in the short and intermediate areas while offering help over the top in the form of their elite safeties, they can give Pittsburgh some real trouble in the passing game.
RB James Conner
The oft-injured top running back was activated from the COVID-19 list on Wednesday after missing the last two games thanks to the virus. As a cancer survivor, Conner’s diagnosis was worrisome, and we here at Buffalo Rumblings are happy that he is healthy enough to come off the list and are hopeful that he suffers no lingering after effects of the illness. Conner is in the midst of an up-and-down campaign, but he has been good more often than not, averaging 4.4 yards per carry for a total of 645 rushing yards on 145 carries. He has five rushing touchdowns, as well as 25 receptions for another 145 yards on the season. Pittsburgh is just the No. 29 rushing offense this season, but if the combatants in this game are any indication, it doesn’t take a strong running game to win in the modern NFL. I’m more concerned about Conner as a receiver out of the backfield, but if Matt Milano is back to good health, then it should be him following Conner most of the night. That matchup will be vital to Buffalo’s success.
WR Chase Claypool
Pittsburgh and Buffalo really look like mirror-images of each other in terms of offensive personnel. They have a big-bodied quarterback who moves well in the pocket (and when he was 24, he was a pretty good runner, too, though not nearly as good as Josh Allen), they have a solid running back who can make people miss in space, and they have three really good wide receivers. While JuJu Smith-Schuster and Dionte Johnson are definitely dangerous, it’s Claypool who poses the worst matchup for Buffalo’s small defensive backs. At 6’4” and 238 lbs, Claypool is at least four inches taller than every defender in Buffalo’s secondary. He has great speed and leaping ability, and he’s been Roethlisberger’s top downfield threat this year, averaging 13.8 yards per reception. Claypool is just fourth on the team in catches with 47, but he trails Johnson by only six yards for the team lead in receiving yardage (649 to Johnson’s 654). Claypool leads the Steelers with eight receiving touchdowns. When he’s matched up with Levi Wallace, I expect the Steelers to feed him the ball early and often.
LB T.J. Watt
Watt is the best pass rusher who will be involved in this game, and an argument could be made to include him in the conversation for the best pass rusher in the league right now. Watt leads the NFL in sacks (12), tackles-for-loss (19), and quarterback hits (37). While all of those things are impressive, his lead on the second-place player, Aaron Donald, in quarterback hits is the most shocking. Donald has 22 quarterback hits this year. Watt has been that much better than everyone else so far, and the Bills will have their hands full trying to contain him. The last elite pass rusher they saw, Joey Bosa, manhandled the offensive line. We’ll see what Brian Daboll and company scheme up to try to contain Watt this week.
S Terrell Edmunds
Sure, the Steelers have better players on defense—Minkah Fitzpatrick, Cameron Heyward, Joe Haden, Stephon Tuitt—but it’s Tremaine Edmunds’s brother that I’ll be watching on Sunday night. He’s the guy the Bills beat last year for the go-ahead touchdown, as Tyler Kroft beat him to the flag on a third down with the game on the line. While Pittsburgh’s corners are strong, the safeties are beatable, and if Daboll is able to continue scheming as beautifully as he has been, then he’ll be able to isolate Edmunds and put the Pittsburgh defense in some bad situations. Edmunds is a guy I’d like to see the Bills pick on this week.