The Pittsburgh Steelers are set to travel to Highmark Stadium for a Wild Card date with the Buffalo Bills this Sunday. While this will be the fourth playoff matchup between these two teams, it’s the first one that won’t be played in Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, PA.
The last time that these two teams met in a game that mattered was in Week 5 of the 2022 season. Buffalo won that contest 38-3. The last time that these two teams met in a playoff game was the 1995 AFC Divisional Round, where the Steelers beat the Bills 40-21.
None of the history matters this week, as the Bills and Steelers face off for the right to advance one more round in the playoffs. If the Bills are going to come out with a win on Sunday, they’ll need to limit their own mistakes while also limiting some of Pittsburgh’s top players.
Here’s our five players to watch for this week’s Wild Card matchup.
QB Mason Rudolph
I thought about leaving the quarterback off the list this week, but after looking at Pittsburgh’s offensive revival with Rudolph under center, it’s hard to ignore just how important he’s been to their recent surge.
Pittsburgh is 3-0 since Rudolph became the starter, and the team has averaged 27 points per game in those contests. Pittsburgh averaged just 17.9 points per game for the season, so it’s clear that Rudolph has given the team a huge boost. In his three starts, Rudolph is 55-of-74 passing (74.3%) for 719 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. His lone struggle came last week against the Baltimore Ravens, a game played in putrid weather conditions.
Well, spoiler alert: This weekend’s forecast is not shaping up to be great, as the weather-folks are calling for 23 mph winds, temperatures in the low-20s, and snow showers during the game. If the Bills can force the game script to shift towards Rudolph having to throw and throw often, they could be in good shape this week. Generating pressure with their front-four and bringing some disguised blitzes at opportune times will give them a chance at some turnovers, especially with what should be a very wet football.
Pittsburgh isn’t a team that wants to sling the rock around the yard, so Sunday’s weather doesn’t influence their game plan much. What can influence the plan, though, is Buffalo’s offense taking care of business, and the defense can help that by putting pressure on Rudolph early and often.
RB Najee Harris
It’s not surprising that Harris’ three best games — or three of his best games — have come in the last three weeks with Rudolph playing quarterback. Now that the Steelers have someone playing quarterback at a solid level, it opens things up in the run game. Harris has been a workhorse of late, carrying 72 times for 312 yards and five touchdowns in Pittsburgh’s last three games.
The game plan for the Bills’ defense seems pretty clear-cut to me. Stop the run, force Rudolph into 3rd & Long situations, reap the benefits. I’m sure, though, that the Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, and Seattle Seahawks all thought the same thing over the last few weeks, as well.
If Buffalo’s defense, which hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher since Travis Etienne gashed them for 136 yards and two touchdowns in that ill-fated London game back in Week 5, can stay as stout as they’ve been against the run, then they’ll accomplish their main goal, which is to make Rudolph be the one to beat them through the air this week.
WR George Pickens
The Steelers have a few high-quality targets in the passing game, but the two top dogs are Pickens and Diontae Johnson. Given the uncertainty around Bills cornerback Rasul Douglas’ status for the game, I view Pickens as the bigger threat thanks to his size, strength, and downfield contested-catch ability.
I imagine that the Steelers would invite a matchup between Pickens and Dane Jackson, Douglas’ replacement last week. Even though Jackson acquitted himself fairly well in that game, he’s prone to penalties, and Pickens has a pretty big size advantage over Jackson. The big wideout is 6’3” and 200 pounds, while Jackson is 5’11” and 180 pounds.
In Rudolph’s first two games at the helm, Pickens caught 11 passes on 15 targets for 326 yards and two touchdowns. He wasn’t targeted once last week against the Ravens. It’s no surprise that Pittsburgh scored much less last week than they did in the first two games with Rudolph at quarterback.
Limiting Pickens is an essential part of keeping this game where the Bills want it. Frustrating Pickens also could lead to the mercurial pass-catcher taking himself out of the game mentally, so devising a coverage plan that limits his targets early could set the Bills up in a good situation late.
LB Alex Highsmith
Someone has to be the main pass rusher with T.J. Watt set to miss the game due to an MCL injury. The Steelers’ second-leading sack man is Highsmith, who finished the regular season with seven sacks and 18 quarterback hits this year. That’s a far cry from his sack production during the 2022 season, where he had 14.5 total sacks, but it’s just two fewer quarterback hits this year as opposed to last season.
Rushing the passer might be difficult if the weather conditions are as bad as expected, but Buffalo’s offensive line will need to pay attention to that Steelers’ defensive front. Highsmith is the main priority in terms of rushing off the edge, so Pro Bowl left tackle Dion Dawkins will need to be on his game.
DT Larry Ogunjobi
Rather than try to pick between the four main outstanding parts of Pittsburgh’s secondary (safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and corners Joey Porter Jr., Patrick Peterson, and Levi Wallace), I think it’s extremely important given the impending weather conditions that the Bills fend off Pittsburgh’s tough interior defensive line.
Last week, Zach Sieler and Christian Wilkins gave Buffalo problems up the middle, as the Bills’ interior trio of Connor McGovern, Mitch Morse, and O’Cyrus Torrence struggled to create much space for the running game. Torrence had an especially difficult game, and if it’s going to be snowy and windy, the Bills will need to run the ball consistently and effectively to keep themselves ahead of the chains.
Between Ogunjobi and his counterpart, fellow veteran Cameron Heyward, the Steelers have a stout interior defensive line. Buffalo’s interior offensive linemen need to be up to a tall task this weekend.