The Pittsburgh Steelers come to Orchard Park, NY to face the Buffalo Bills in Week 5, and the two teams couldn’t find themselves in more different scenarios. The Bills are 3-1 and looking to make the playoffs for a fourth straight year under head coach Sean McDermott. The Steelers are 1-3 and entering the start of a new era with a rookie quarterback.
Highmark Stadium is no friendly place for opposing quarterbacks, and it certainly hasn’t been hospitable to rookies during head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier’s tenure. The Bills have performed well against rookies over the last five years, as their defensive scheme is complex and full of talented players.
Which Pittsburgh players are we watching this week? Glad you asked.
QB Kenny Pickett
I thought we’d be welcoming old friend Mitch Trubisky back this week, but it will instead be Pickett making his first career NFL start. He entered the game for the second half last week, and he almost led the Steelers to victory over the New York Jets. He rushed for two touchdowns, and he threw 13 passes, all of which were caught. The problem was that three of those passes were caught by the New York defense, which allowed the Jets to complete the comeback victory, winning 24-20. Pickett is a plus athlete with a winning pedigree, and the Bills have a banged-up secondary—so there’s some potential for success here. However, the Buffalo coaching staff can dial up a variety of confusing looks to keep him off balance, and the Bills’ pass rush has been fierce all season long. Pickett is going to make some plays with his arm and his legs on Sunday, but if Buffalo can capitalize on his inexperience, they could run away with this one.
RB Najee Harris
The Alabama product will be leaned on to keep the pressure off Pickett, especially in the early going on Sunday. Harris has 58 carries for 202 yards and a touchdown on the season, modest numbers for a former first-round draft choice. Buffalo is allowing just 3.5 yards per rush, good for the fourth-best rate in the league. If the Bills can stop Harris and force Pittsburgh into 2nd & Long scenarios, they’ll up the pressure on Pickett and up the chances that the rookie will commit a turnover. Stopping Harris and keeping the Steelers behind the sticks is essential to victory.
WR George Pickens
The rookie wideout is unbelievably talented, and his talents were being wasted with Trubisky at quarterback. For the year, Pickens has just 11 catches for 167 yards. Four of those catches came in the second half last week while Pickett was playing quarterback—for a total of 71 yards. If Pickett gives the 6’3”, 200-pound stud a chance to make plays down the field, an inexperienced Buffalo secondary featuring a rookie corner in Kaiir Elam and a backup safety in Damar Hamlin could be susceptible to giving up a big play. If safe Jordan Poyer can play, that risk is somewhat mitigated. But Buffalo has struggled with big, athletic wideouts in the past. The Pickett-to-Pickens connection is going to be a big one to stop this week.
DT Cam Heyward
Last year, Heyward torpedoed the game plan by blowing up the interior offensive line all game long. He was in quarterback Josh Allen’s face from the first minute to the last, whether he was throwing offensive linemen aside to make it to Allen, or he was throwing those linemen into Allen. Heyward is a disruptive force who certainly benefited form playing next to T.J. Watt, but he’s good enough to wreak havoc on his own. With Watt out, the Bills can focus more on protecting the middle. In the run game, I’d like to see a few stretch concepts—as well as some tosses—to make Heyward move east-west rather than north-south. This not only plays away from his strength, but it might take some of his legs from under him, thereby making him less effective in pass-rush situations. The game is always won in the trenches, so the Bills’ interior offensive line combination of Rodger Saffold, Mitch Morse, and Ryan Bates needs to keep Heyward at bay.
CB Levi Wallace
Old friend alert! Wallace is nursing an injured foot, as he is one of five Pittsburgh defensive backs on the injury report this week. If he can play, it’s possible that he’ll end up across from wide receiver Stefon Diggs more often than not, and that’s a matchup that heavily favors Buffalo. As good as Wallace is in zone, he isn’t going to be able to keep up with Diggs, and someone with the size of wide receiver Gabe Davis is the same kryptonite that often vexed Wallace while with the Bills. Wallace has two pass breakups and 10 tackles this year, and he’s allowed 11 catches for 135 yards without a touchdown.