The Pittsburgh Steelers OLB TJ Watt made news with an NFL record breaking contract extension. Watt justified it immediately, spearheading the defense to what could only be described as an inspiring effort that kept the Steelers alive until the offense could find itself and rallied to defeat the heavily favored Buffalo Bills in the 2021 season opener.
A Tale of Two Halfs
Isaiah McKenzie took the opening kickoff back 75 yards to set up QB Josh Allen and the potent Bills offense at the Steelers 24-yard line. The Steelers defense was up to the task and forced 2020’s 2nd ranked offense to settle for a FG. The key play was made by Cam Sutton when he slashed in to tackle Stefon Diggs for a loss of 2 on 2nd down. It was only the 2nd play of the game, but it was indicative of the game, as Sutton played a great game and Diggs, who led the NFL in both receptions and yards, was kept in check all afternoon.
The first half was very similar to the slug fest that took place in week 15 of 2020, as neither the Steelers nor Bills had much offensive success. The questions about the Steelers offense and particularly about the offensive line were proving to be valid. The sobering numbers for the offense in the first half included: only 3 first downs, 1/6 on 3rd down and 54 total yards. Najee Harris held to 8 yards on 7 carries. Ben Roethlisberger was out of sync with his WRs, completing only 6/12 for 57 yards and the inexperience offensive line struggled to find confidence or rhythm as Roethlisberger was sacked twice.
While the offense struggled, the defense was spectacular. Watt and Cam Heyward combined to bring Allen down for 3 sacks and forced Allen to fumble twice, 1 recovered by the Steelers. Alex Highsmith performed strong and Melvin Ingram was particularly savage as the trio of OLBs rotated much of the game and were drawing holding penalties, many of which weren’t called, and kept Allen from getting comfortable in the pocket. The Steelers game plan of taking Diggs away and forcing other WRs to beat them was working until late in the 2nd quarter, Allen connected with rookie WR Gabriel Davis for 36 yards and had a beautiful 3-yard TD to Davis despite incredible coverage by Sutton.
The Bills held a 10-0 lead and were dominating time of possession, but the Steelers offense came out in the 3rd looking a little different. Harris eclipsed his first half total with a 9-yard burst, then found his way for another 2 yards to get a much needed first down. Roethlisberger connected deep with completions to Eric Ebron for 19 and a spectacular grab by Chase Claypool for 22 yards. While they couldn’t cap of the drive with a TD, getting a FG put the Steelers back into a one score game, and that is when the game changed.
How the Game Changed
The Bills chipped their way to 3 first downs to the Steelers 35 and decided to go for it on 4th and 8. Allen challenged Sutton by throwing it deep to Davis, but Sutton had the WR smothered and the Bills turned over on downs. The Steelers came back with an 11-play 62-yard drive but left Mike Tomlin with a decision on 4th and goal from the 2.
Tomlin decided to take the FG and make it 10-6. This was a key decision and the right one. Not getting points when the team needed them desperately would have been disastrous. Chuck Noll once said “To win a game, you must first not lose it.” The Steelers were playing smart and taking what the Bills were giving them.
The Bills however, got reckless again when they went for it on 4th down again, this time a 4th and 1 from the Steelers 41. It was a gimmick play and a disaster as Sutton darted in to take Matt Brieda down for 7-yard loss. 5 plays later, Roethlisberger tossed a TD to Dionte Johnson and the Steelers took the lead for good. Following a 3 and out, the special teams came to the party, Miles Killebrew blocked the Bills punt and Ulysees Gilbert scooped up the loose ball to run it in for a TD and 20-10 lead.
The Bills reckless and arguably overconfident play saw them give up 20 unanswered points. To their credit they responded with a 9-play 67-yard drive to the Steelers 7, though it nearly ended up in disaster as Joe Haden forced Devin Singletary to fumble that fell out of bounds. The Bills took the FG to make the it a one score game with 5:23 left. Roethlisberger then showed the benefit of having experience at QB. He calmly guided their way into FG range and Chris Boswell split the uprights to seal it with a 45 yard FG at make it academic with a 23-13 lead.
Takes and notes from the Game:
- The young offense had a rough afternoon, but got better as the game went on. Najee Harris had a terrible first half, but began having success. While he only had 16 carries for 45 yards, the quality of his runs and ability to make plays became more apparent.
- Roethlisberger was terrible for much of the first half, but a lot of it was not having timing with his targets. Johnson and Harris were both notably out of position to the spot he was throwing it to, and this is certain to come up in film.
- Pat Freiermuth had a notable first career reception (24 yards) and was solid as a blocker. He’s going to get more playing time.
- Cam Sutton was phenomenal in his first “official” start at CB. 5-star performance.
- T.J. Watt – First Steeler to have 50 sacks in his first 5 seasons and had his 11th 2 sack game (2nd only to LaMarr Woodley for Steelers record of 13)
- Cam Heyward tied Keith Willis for the most sacks (officially since 1982) by a Steelers DE with 59.
- The Steelers extended their NFL record streak of games with a sack to 74.
- Chase Claypool has tremendous ability and potential, he just needs to continue to work hard.
- The young OL is going to get better, while they struggled a lot early on. This should be expected with Kendrick Green and Dan Moore starting as rookies on the road. but performed very well and especially so in the 2nd half. There was some great blocking during the game including the oft-criticized Chukwuma Okorafor on Claypool’s big 25-yard run and as a unit when Ben began finding targets 15-20 yards downfield. They got better as the game went on and earned a victory.
- The Bills had a chance to go up big early when Allen overthrew a wide open target – which will be on their minds all week. But it goes back to taking Diggs out of the game. Diggs had 9 catches for 69 yards, but was not a game breaker like in the contest last year and was kept out of the end zone.
- The “experts” who picked the Bills universally looked pretty foolish, but they are hardly “experts” anyway.
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