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Buffalo Bills 16, Pittsburgh Steelers 23: Rapid recap and notes

A bitter outcome to start the 2021 season.

The Buffalo Bills were hit with a rude awakening at the start of their 2021 season, losing 23-16 against a focused Pittsburgh Steelers. As Highmark Stadium was overflowing and humming with excited fans, the Bills seemed a little too wound up, and rarely found an offensive rhythm against the Steelers. They gave up 20 unanswered points in the second half, weren’t able to put together a comeback, and will start the season 0-1.

Isaiah McKenzie started up the game with a cannon shot through Pittsburgh’s kick coverage, returning the opening kickoff 75 yards. Buffalo gained seven yards on first down, but weren’t able to move the chains and had to settle for a field goal.

From there, the first half was a back-and-forth defensive slugfest from each team. After that opening field goal, the next seven drives from either team ended with a punt. The monotony was broken by... a lost fumble, as T.J. Watt caught a scrambling Josh Allen from behind and forced a turnover. The Steelers didn’t do much with that, though, punting again four plays later.

Finally, something clicked with the Bills’ offense. Allen completed seven consecutive passes, including a 37 yarder to Gabriel Davis, and the team worked its way down the field to the end zone. The drive used up the remaining six minutes of the second quarter, and finished with Davis catching a touchdown in the back of the end zone. At halftime, Buffalo had a 10-0 lead. The Steelers, with 54 total yards at the half, were looking for answers.

Pittsburgh found something on the opening drive of the second half. On their first two plays, they ran for more yards (nine) than they had rushed in the entire first half. They put together a ten-play, 69-yard drive, but rookie Najee Harris couldn’t handle an off-target throw on third down, and the Steelers settled for three.

The Bills sustained a 12-play drive in response, but ultimately saw it stall into a 4th-&-8. The field position would’ve set up a 53-yard field goal, but the Bills kept Allen and the offense on the field. Allen’s hard count appeared to trigger an offsides lineman, and Buffalo snapped the ball and tried a deep throw, which ultimately fell incomplete. The referees didn’t follow up with a penalty call, though, and instead of a field goal or an extended drive, the Bills were left with nothing.

The Steelers took that gift and continued their comeback. Pat Freiermuth had a 25-yard catch, Chase Claypool a 24-yard run, and before long Pittsburgh was knocking on the door of the end zone again. The Bills’ defense held again, and with another field goal, Pittsburgh trailed Buffalo 10-6.

Once again, Buffalo was out of rhythm on fourth down. Facing a 4th-&-1, Buffalo lined up in a heavy package, but tried a tricky outside run. It didn’t fool the Steelers, who smothered it for a seven-yard loss. With great field position and new momentum, it only took four plays for the Steelers to score their first touchdown of the game, and take the lead, 13-10.

The Steelers kept up their pile-on with the next drive. Buffalo went three and out, after Emmanuel Sanders dropped a pass and Allen took a sack. On fourth down, Miles Killebrew blocked Matt Haack’s punt, and the Steelers took it into the end zone for their 20th unanswered point.

With a sudden ten-point deficit and ten minutes remaining in the game, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll reached into his running playbook. Devin Singletary rushed for 46 yards on three consecutive carries to bring the Bills into the red zone. The drive sputtered before the end zone, but Buffalo’s field goal brought them within one score of the Steelers.

Buffalo knew the stakes by settling for three—they had a chance to tie it up, but needed to prevent a score. Today, their defense wasn’t able to come up in the clutch. Ben Roethlisberger converted a 3rd-&-8 with a 14-yard pass to Chase Claypool, which put the team in field goal range. Buffalo stopped the team before the end zone, but Chris Boswell had a perfect field goal that put the Steelers right back into the driver’s seat of the win.

Scoring ten unanswered points in the final three minutes was too tall an order for the Bills. The Bills made it close enough for a field goal, hoping to preserve a little clock in the event of an onside kick. But Juju Smith-Schuster recovered the kick, and Pittsburgh wrapped up what must be a cathartic win for their team.

Injury report

  • After fair catching a punt in the first quarter, Isaiah McKenzie went into the locker room with what appeared to be a flare up of his shoulder injury. He must’ve received a cortisone shot or something to that effect, because he was back the next time the Bills returned a punt.
  • Midway through the third quarter, Gabriel Davis jogged off the field with a limp after trying to catch a pass. He was able to return to the field before the end of the game.

Quick hits

  • Buffalo opened up with a three and out, but still scored a field goal thanks to great field position. This was the first Bills score on the opening drive of a season in a decade.
  • The good: The Bills had nearly 400 yards of offense today, very little of that in garbage time.
  • The bad: Only three drives made it to the red zone, and only one of those ended with a touchdown.
  • The Bills totally shut down the Steelers’ offense in the first half, with only 54 total yards allowed. But Pittsburgh quintupled that total after adding 199 yards in the second half.
  • The Bills’ offense was only 7-for-17 on third-down conversions. That’s still better than Pittsburgh’s 4-for-12, but not by much.
  • Last season, the Bills were 8-of-10 converting fourth downs. Today against the Steelers, they were 1-for-3.
  • It seemed like the Bills were fighting the referees all day. Tre’Davious White had an INT taken away by a dubious holding call. Holding and pass interference calls landed at the worst times for Buffalo. An uncalled encroachment penalty gave the Bills zero points when they could’ve had three.
  • Devin Singletary was given a lot of faith today, with Zack Moss a healthy scratch and Matt Breida barely playing. And it was a solid performance that shouldn’t be overlooked. He had 11 carries for 72 yards, an average of 6.5 yards per carry. But he also fumbled the ball twice, although neither of those were lost.
  • Josh Allen still hasn’t improved his fumbling tendencies. He had two more today, bringing his career total to 33.
  • The Bills really struggled to protect Josh Allen today. He took three sacks, and was hit on at least eight other occasions while throwing the ball.
  • Not a great debut for free agent Emmanuel Sanders. He caught four of eight targets, losing multiple contested catches.

Next week

The Bills travel to Miami to take on the Dolphins on Sunday at 1 p.m. EDT. The 0-0 Dolphins are playing against the New England Patriots today at 4:25 pm.