The Pittsburgh Steelers were down 21-0 to the Buffalo Bills early in their Super Wild Card Weekend playoff game on Monday. What looked like it was going to be a Bills blowout, though, because a closer contest, as the Steelers were able to bring themselves within a score at 24-17 in the fourth quarter. Buffalo proved to be too much, though, ultimately emerging victorious by a score of 31-17.
There were certainly some bright moments for the visiting Steelers this weekend, as could be expected with a team coached by someone with Mike Tomlin’s resume. However, the Bills ultimately proved what most NFL fans know: When you have the better quarterback, your team has a much better chance at winning.
Our five Steelers to watch all had an impact on Monday’s outcome. Here’s how they fared.
QB Mason Rudolph
Early on, it was apparent that Rudolph was overmatched by Buffalo’s defense. On Pittsburgh’s first six possessions, Rudolph completed just five of the 13 passes he threw for 82 yards and an interception. That interception came in the end zone, to add insult to injury.
As the game went on, Rudolph found a rhythm, and he was able to move the ball for the Steelers with a quick, precise passing game filled with plenty of underneath throws. He threw a pair of second-half touchdowns, with one going to Diontae Johnson and another going to Calvin Austin.
However, trying to dig out of a 21-0 hole proved to be too much, and even with Buffalo’s extensive defensive injuries, the Bills were able to badger Rudolph into some difficult throws late. He finished 22-of-39 for 229 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception, adding 16 yards on two scrambles to his total ledger.
RB Najee Harris
A few astute commenters mentioned that it was Jaylen Warren, not Harris, who would prove to be the more dangerous of Pittsburgh’s running backs, and that observation proved correct Monday afternoon. While Harris served as the bell-cow, he was noticeably slower than his backfield counterpart, and the Buffalo defense was up to task in containing him.
Given that the Bills knew Pittsburgh’s plan would be to run the ball, Buffalo stacked the box, ran plenty of single-high safety looks, and dared the Steelers to throw over the top. They didn’t, and the run game remained contained even after the Bills were down to a host of reserves playing in the back end of the defense.
Harris carried 12 times for just 37 yards, adding two catches for 15 yards on the day. On one drive in particular, the Steelers seemed to find good rhythm in the passing game using Warren as the lead back. They subbed him out of the game and brought Harris in, but rather than stick with what was working, the Steelers handed it to Harris on first and second down. Harris gained just one yard on those two carries, and after Rudolph threw long on an attempt at George Pickens in the end zone, Pittsburgh was forced to settle for a Chris Boswell field goal.
WR George Pickens
Nobody on either team saw more targets than Pickens did, as the big second-year wideout had 11 passes thrown his way. He caught just five of those passes, though, for a total of 50 yards. On one of his receptions, he tried to lunge forward for an extra yard, fumbling and giving the Bills prime field position in the first quarter. Buffalo cashed in with a long Josh Allen touchdown pass to Dalton Kincaid on the first offensive play, so that fumble literally handed the Bills seven points.
The closest players to Pickens when he fumbled were wearing blue and white jerseys, but after the game, Pickens could only talk about the people on the field wearing black and white jerseys: the officials. It was a disappointing passing of the buck by a player whose antics this season clearly demonstrate someone in need of maturation, which is sad because he is a phenomenally talented player.
LB Alex Highsmith
Pittsburgh blitzed an awful lot this week, which wasn’t terribly surprising given that their best pass rusher, T.J. Watt, was out with a knee injury. Highsmith was one of the players who needed to pick up the slack in Watt’s absence and frankly, he did a fine job. Highsmith had a sack on Josh Allen, and he earned that sack by bulldozing left tackle Dion Dawkins on his way to the quarterback.
The Steelers had two sacks in total (Markus Golden had the other), but they only managed to hit Allen three times total in his 30-plus drop-backs. Highsmith totaled three tackles on the day.
DT Larry Ogunjobi
The middle of Pittsburgh’s defensive line is stout, and they were able to make some plays against the Buffalo running game. However, they didn’t do so consistently enough to keep James Cook from averaging nearly 4.5 yards per carry (18 rushes, 78 yards). Ogunjobi, for his part, had five tackles in what was a pretty solid day for him individually.
The Steelers were able to stop Allen short on one of his “tush-push” sneaks, forcing a fourth-down play where the Bills ran up to the line and did the exact same thing again. It worked the second time, although the Buffalo pattern of going left on every quarterback sneak is starting to become just a. bit too predictable.
Among his five tackles, Ogunjobi had one tackle for loss, stopping Cook for a two-yard loss on second down when Buffalo was at the Pittsburgh 29-yard line. That stop led the Bills to lay up for a field goal try, which kept the Steelers within striking distance at 24-10 late in the third quarter. At the time, it was a pretty big play when Pittsburgh desperately needed one.