The Pittsburgh Steelers come to Orchard Park this week for an opening-weekend clash with the Buffalo Bills. This is the third consecutive year that the teams have met, but it’s the first game that won’t happen during primetime tv. Buffalo beat Pittsburgh at Heinz Field 17-10 in 2019, and last year they beat them 26-15 at Highmark Stadium.
In both contests, the game turned on big defensive plays. In 2019, a Tre’Davious White interception turned the tide in Buffalo’s favor, while Taron Johnson returned his interception 51 yards for a touchdown in 2020 to give the Bills a lead they would not relinquish.
With a new season comes new plays, however, and new players come along with it. Here are the Steelers we’re watching for this weekend.
QB Ben Roethlisberger
“Big Ben” seems to contemplate retirement a lot these days and, at age 39, it’s hard to blame him. He’s ticketed for Canton and the Hall of Fame on the first ballot he’s eligible, but he’s not the player he was in his prime. Roethlisberger averaged just 6.6 air yards per target last year, his lowest total since the 2006 season. Whether due to a loss of arm strength or a patchwork offensive line that necessitated quicker throws, Roethlisberger had the look of a guy last year who could not consistently beat you downfield. Watching him against Buffalo gave me flashbacks to end-of-career Jim Kelly, another big, strong-armed quarterback known for his toughness. Like Kelly in 1995 and 1996, Roethlisberger still has the guts, the accuracy, and the acumen to be a great quarterback. His brain, though, seems to forget that his physical skills have diminished, which leads him to make some head-scratching throws that he probably could have turned into highlight-reel plays a decade ago. Every time that we see Roethlisberger against the Bills could be the last given his age, so I’m happy to watch him for that very reason. Holding him in check is essential for a Bills victory.
RB Najee Harris
Speaking of players who need to be contained, Pittsburgh’s big, bruising rookie running back needs to be contained in order to keep the Steelers chasing yardage in negative-script situations. If Harris finds running room, that will open up the play-action game, and if the play-action is on, then Roethlisberger can be presented with quick, “either-or” decisions that accentuate his strengths. If Buffalo can contain the run, forcing Pittsburgh into “and-long” down-and-distance situations, then the Bills’ newly renovated pass rush can wreak havoc. Containing Harris in his professional debut is a huge key to success.
WR Chase Claypool
Buffalo has struggled with big, strong wideouts over the years, and I fear that Claypool (6’4” and 238 lbs) will be able to beat Levi Wallace (6’ and 179 lbs) far too often. I’m less concerned about Pittsburgh’s speedier wideouts like Dionte Johnson and James Washington given the Bills’ success in shutting down the deep ball during head coach Sean McDermott and assistant head coach/defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier’s tenure. Expect some creative coverages to give Roethlisberger narrower windows when throwing to his biggest target, but if Claypool is one-on-one with Wallace, that’s a mismatch in Pittsburgh’s favor.
EDGE T.J. Watt
Watt has sat out of all team activities throughout training camp, leading to some speculation that he wouldn’t play this weekend. However, Watt returned to full practice participation this week, and then he signed a new contract that makes him the NFL’s highest paid player on defense—so he’s playing. The two questions that remain are these: How often will he play? How successful will he be? If Watt can contribute in obvious passing downs, he has the ability to demolish a blocking scheme and influence the game even if he plays fewer snaps than normal. I expect that he’ll be full-go, so the Bills will need to make sure they know where he is at all times.
KR/PR Ray-Ray McCloud III
Old friend alert! McCloud found his stride as a returner last year, finishing in the top ten in yards per kickoff return (23.8, good for eighth in the league) and in yards per punt return (10.3, good for fourth in the league). With a new punter in Matt Haack whose specialty is pinning players inside the 20, the chess match on special teams will be fun to watch. Also of note: all seven of McCloud’s career fumbles have come on special teams, with four of those coming on muffed catches. If Haack can hang one high, the Bills may have a chance to make a huge play.