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Bills vs. Steelers: The battle of interim offensive coordinators

Joe Brady vs. Eddie Faulkner, featuring a lake-effect winter storm

The Buffalo Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers each faced a crossroads during their respective seasons. Struggling for answers on the offensive side of the ball, both franchises made midseason coaching changes.

Head coach Sean McDermott relieved Ken Dorsey of his offensive coordinator duties after their Week 10 loss to the Denver Broncos. Pittsburgh made the change moving on from Matt Canada after their Week 10 loss against their divisional rivals, the Cleveland Browns.

Both teams were in different places at the time but needed different results. The Steelers, were trying to develop their young quarterback Kenny Pickett, while also fielding an elite defense and being competitive. Changing coordinators with a young quarterback is risky, and an in-season move is rare for Pittsburgh. It was the first time the Steelers have made a head coach or coordinator change midseason since 1941, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, but it was necessary to save the season.

At the time of Matt Canada’s firing, the Steelers ranked 28th in points per game (16.6), 28th in offensive yards per game (280.1), and 31st in passing yards per game (170). Running backs coach Eddie Faulkner took over offensive coordinator duties, but quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan will take the “bulk” of the play-calling responsibilities, according to head coach Mike Tomlin’s comments on the coaching change.

Buffalo, meanwhile, was moving the ball and accumulating yards but were playing sloppy football. With quarterback Josh Allen at the helm, the team was underperforming even though they were seventh in yards per game and eighth in points per game. The Bills’ offense was averaging 26.2 points per game with 370 yards of total offense during that stretch. Turnovers were killing the team through Dorsey’s start to the 2023 season. Buffalo was second in the league, turning the ball over 18 times — including a pair of four-turnover games. Sean McDermott had seen enough, pulling the plug on Ken Dorsey giving the play-calling duties to quarterbacks coach Joe Brady.

Both teams have looked different on the offensive side of the ball since the coaching changes. Over the past eight games, the Steelers have averaged 145.2 rushing yards per game and produced 13 rushing touchdowns. Those totals rank fifth and second in the NFL, respectively, over that period. Their running back duo of Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren were the best two players on offense this season, each producing more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage — making them the first Steelers running backs to do that in the same season since 1986. Together, they had 404 carries for 1,819 rushing yards to go along with 12 rushing touchdowns. As a whole, Pittsburgh’s total yards per game jumped to 304.3, while scoring increased to 19.7 points per game under Faulkner.

The Bills under Joe Brady look different compared to years past under Brian Daboll and Ken Dorsey. After years of passing the ball more than almost every team in the league, Buffalo has flipped the script with Brady. With the passing game struggling at times, the run game has saved the day — and McDermott is happy to see the change.

“You have to [establish the run] in order to move the chains and keep a good offense off the field. And I think that’s all part of being a good offense is being two-dimensional,” McDermott said.

Two-dimensional is the buzzword we’ve heard from McDermott before. Under Ken Dorsey, Buffalo was 20th in the NFL rushing the ball 25.4 times per game. Under Joe Brady, Buffalo has rushed the ball on average 36.9 times per game — good for fifth in the NFL. We’ve seen a huge fundamental change for the Bills, finally taking some pressure off of Josh Allen’s arm.

Running back James Cook and Allen have been the two biggest benefactors of this change. Under Dorsey, Cook was averaging 12 carries a game for 61.5 yards. After switching to Brady, Cook has averaged 16.7 carries per game and 72.4 yards per game.

Josh Allen’s splits are interesting as well. With Dorsey through 10 games, Allen had 48 carries for 246 yards and seven touchdowns. With Brady in seven games, Allen has 63 carries, 278 yards and eight touchdowns.

Earlier in the season opposing defenses were playing back on Allen because he wasn’t running as often as before. It was limiting the offense, even if it was reducing Allen’s exposure to contact outside the pocket.

Former Bills defensive coach Leslie Frazier gave his take on this approach and how it might affect the game.

“If you don’t have to worry about running and making splash plays with his legs, then you’re just going to play coverage like teams have been doing ... It’s worked out well (for opposing defenses.) ... ‘Let’s just sit back and play zone. He’s not running. We don’t have to worry about that,’ and teams are having success.’’

When looking at the passing attacks of both teams, it’s been a bumpy ride at times. Buffalo and Pittsburgh have star power in their receiver rooms with Stefon Diggs, George Pickens, and Dionte Johnson catching passes. Pittsburgh has finally found some consistency with Mason Rudolph at quarterback, after cycling through Kenny Pickett and Mitch Trubisky — but Rudolph is no Josh Allen. Allen has struggled to get Stefon Diggs involved since Brady took over after a hot start to the season. He’s found other targets in the offense, as tight end Dalton Kincaid and wide receiver Khalil Shakir have had break out seasons.

Now the most important stat since Joe Brady took over: a 6-1 overall team record, winners of four in a row and five of the last six. This Bills team won their way back into relevancy this season, clinching the AFC East and the two seed in the AFC — allowing them to be at home for this Super Wild Card Weekend matchup against the Steelers. Pittsburgh has gone 4-3 since firing Matt Canada and scrapped their way into the playoffs by getting the help they needed to sneak in as a seven seed.

Bills vs. Steelers: What to expect on Sunday?

Seeing the differences between the two teams leading up to this weekend, I expected it to be a run-heavy affair from both sides of the ball. Then I saw the weather report.

AccuWeather forecasts point to a high of 24 degrees on Sunday with winds gusting near 50 miles per hour. On top of the wind, AccuWeather’s forecasting predicts more than seven inches of snow at Highmark Stadium on Sunday. It’ll likely be a tough day for both offenses.”

The combination of wind and snow could lead to blizzard-like conditions for the game. Josh Allen is an alien with a Herculean arm, but even he might struggle to pass the ball in conditions like what’s being predicted.

We have seen this before. The Bills vs. Colts snow bowl game in 2017, in which Buffalo won in overtime, was an instrumental game in breaking the playoff drought. We also saw Buffalo fall to an underdog New England Patriots team just a couple years ago in one of the windiest games ever played.

How will the interim coordinators adjust? Neither coach has held this role during a game of this magnitude. Does this hurt Buffalo’s chances on Sunday? Could the Steelers upset the Bills if Josh Allen is limited in the snow? Sound off in the comments!