8:20 PM EST, NBC – Line: Bills -2.5, Over/Under: 46.5
Division leaders coming off polar opposite emotional extremes turn right around to face off on primetime, as the surging Buffalo Bills play host to the formerly unbeaten Pittsburgh Steelers, from Bills Stadium in Orchard Park, New York. That sound that you heard on Monday Night was the popping of champagne bottles from various members of the famed 1972 Miami Dolphins, celebrating the fact that their perfect campaign (the only of it’s kind in NFL History) is once again safe and sound as the Steelers (11-1, 1st in AFC North) finally met defeat following a franchise-best 11-0 start. If we’re going to be completely honest with ourselves, it felt like this was coming for some time now, for while Pittsburgh continued to find ways to win week after week, they simply didn’t exhibit that aura of dominance that we’ve come to associate with so many of the sides that had managed to enter the month of December unblemished. (Head Coach) Mike Tomlin had openly lamented their flaws in recent weeks, particularly after their thrice-postponed meeting with the Baltimore Ravens, in which his charges struggled to escape with a 19-14 victory against a bitter rival that had been decimated due to COVID-19 and couldn’t practice for nearly twelve days as a result. We’ll get into their flaws and how they led to this point shortly, but all is not lost for the Steel Curtain, who even after Monday’s 23-17 loss to Washington remain in first place in the AFC on the strength of owning a better conference record than the current No. 2 Seed, reigning Super Bowl Champion, Kansas City Chiefs. Remember, due to the National Football League expanding the Playoffs to seven teams from each conference, only the top seed will be receiving a First Round Bye, which judging from how they’ve looked of late, should be viewed as a necessity for everyone remotely associated with this organization.
Though their perfect run just ended on Monday, the Steelers haven’t been playing at a high level for weeks now, and it’s really no surprise that they were finally felled, even by an inferior opponent such as Washington. So what’s gone wrong in Western Pennsylvania, you ask? Well, the biggest issue afflicting Pittsburgh has been how one-dimensional they’ve become on the offensive side of the football, where the running game has become little more than an afterthought for the better part of the last six weeks. After churning out a solid 129.7 rushing yards per game during the first half-dozen outings of the season, this Offense has decided to put all of their eggs in the proverbial basket of the passing attack, mustering a scant 55.5 yards on the ground over the last six outings. Furthermore, they’ve attempted only 19.2 rushes per game during this period, which has led to a paltry 2.9 yards per attempt. Seriously, it’s a wonder that they were able to play above .500 football over that span, let alone go 5-1. Think about that for a moment; Tomlin’s charges were held below FIFTY rushing yards in three consecutive games, and were relegated to a season-low TWENTY-ONE in Monday’s defeat. For all intents and purposes, the transition to a short passing attack to accommodate the return of a healthy Ben Roethlisberger (66.9%, 3,105 YDS, 6.11 NY/A, 27 TD, 7 INT, 65.1 QBR), who missed all but six quarters of football in 2019 due to an elbow injury, has replaced the ground game, with (Offensive Coordinator) Randy Fichtner looking to flood the field with arguably the deepest young Receiving Corps in the league. The quartet of (Receivers) JuJu Smith-Schuster (73 REC, 600 YDS, 8.2 Y/R, 6 TD), Chase Claypool (47 REC, 649 YDS, 13.8 Y/R, 8 TD), James Washington (25 REC, 343 YDS, 13.7 Y/R, 4 TD), and Diontae Johnson (65 REC, 654 YDS, 10.1 Y/R, 5 TD), alongside (Tight End) Eric Ebron (49 REC, 481 YDS, 9.8 Y/R, 4 TD) has provided no shortage of options on all levels of the field, with opposing Defenses scarcely able to contain them all. While this approach remained somewhat tempered in the early stages of 2020, the Offense is veering back into the realm of two years ago when Big Ben led the NFL in both passing attempts (675) and completions (452) by a wide margin. If memory serves us right (and it usually does), Pittsburgh missed the Playoffs that year in large part to a similar dichotomy on Offense (2nd in Passing/31st in Rushing), which led to one of the worst turnover differentials in the league at Minus-11. Needless to say, this isn’t necessarily the manner that we would’ve thought Tomlin would prefer to handle his 38-year old Quarterback entering the twilight of his career. The two-time Super Bowl Champion has attempted over forty passes on seven occasions thus far, with all but two of them coming in his last five starts, a period of time in which he’s averaged a staggering 47.6 attempts, topping over fifty in the past two outings alone. Now we get it, Roethlisberger has long been accustomed to chucking the football downfield and spraying around a flurry of short ducks probably goes against every fiber of his being, and while we’re sure that the Steelers have been absolutely elated to have him back in the saddle for the duration of a campaign, putting such pressure on his broad shoulders at this stage of his career is akin to playing with fire. Fortunately, the Defense has consistently played at an elite level, which has helped mask their lack of run game, with Pittsburgh pacing the league in points allowed (17.6), takeaways (23), interceptions (16), first downs allowed (205), and sacks (44). Furthermore, no unit has been more adept at getting their opponent off the field quicker than Tomlin’s, with teams averaging a mere 2:24 per drive (1st Overall). (Defensive Linemen) Cameron Heyward (39 TKL, 9 TFL, 17 QBH, 3.0 SK, 1 INT, 2 PD) and Stephon Tuitt (35 TKL, 8 TFL, 19 QBH, 8.0 SK, 2 FF, 2 PD), (Edge-Rusher) T.J. Watt (44 TKL, 19 TFL, 37 QBH, 12.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 INT, 6 PD), and (Safety) Minkah Fitzpatrick (53 TKL, 1 FF, 1 FR, 4 INT, 9 PD, 1 TD) are bonafide STUDS, proving that even without the likes of (Linebackers )Bud Dupree (31 TKL, 8 TFL, 15 QBH, 8.0 SK, 2 FF, 2 PD) and Devin Bush (26 TKL, 2 QBH, 1.0 SK, 3 PD), who have both been lost for the season due to injury, this group has more than enough firepower to dominate.
When we last saw the Steelers, their perfect run finally came to an end at home to the Washington Football Team, who hung around long enough to steal a shocking 23-17 upset at Heinz Field. The affair started well in the favor of the hosts, who after three successive punts, opened up a commanding 14-0 lead in the latter stages of the First Half, with the aforementioned Roethlisberger finding Johnson and Washington for touchdowns, the latter of which was 50-yard dash to break the game wide-open. Or so one would have thought. Due to the Referees being unable to locate the football, the clock was stopped in the waning moments allowing the visitors to kick what turned out to be a crucial field goal and head into Halftime trailing 14-3. From there, Washington emerged from intermission on a mission, stringing together a 14-play/82-yard drive ending with seven to draw even closer. Pittsburgh would eventually settle for a field goal, and after both teams punted on their ensuing drives, Washington’s Alex Smith (bloody ankle and all) took advantage of great field position to find Logan Thomas for a 15-yard score to tie the game with 9:09 left to play. And this is where the Steelers’ lack of a ground game ultimately failed them; Roethlisberger drove his side down to the opponent’s 28-yard line, and rather than kick a field goal, Tomlin elected to go for it on 4th & 1, with his Quarterback slinging the football unsuccessfully down the right sideline to Tailback, Benny Snell, turning it over on downs. On the following possession, Smith piloted his troops deep into Pittsburgh territory, setting up the go-ahead field goal with 2:07 remaining in the contest. Then on the very first play of the ensuing drive, Roethlisberger’s quick pass was tipped into the air at the line of scrimmage, and intercepted by the visitors, who would kick another field goal for insurance purposes ending the affair altogether. While he finished the night with 305 yards and two touchdowns, the six-time Pro Bowler threw a season-high FIFTY-THREE passes to do so, and though he wasn’t sacked four of his attempts were tipped by the Defensive Line, while his Receivers dropped a season-high seven balls.
Meanwhile, the feelings coming out of Western New York are considerably higher following the Bills (9-3, 1st in AFC East) sterling performance on Monday Night, as they took another step closer towards snapping yet another dubious streak by coincidentally breaking another. At this point we think it’s safe to proclaim that Buffalo has successfully returned after being lost in the proverbial wilderness of mediocrity for the better part of the last two decades; now in his fourth year with the franchise, Sean McDermott has his troops headed towards their third Playoff birth, and after Monday’s 34-24 victory over the San Francisco 49ers (remarkably their first on Monday Night Football since 1999) stand poised to capture their first division title since 1995. This team was always the logical choice to fill the void left in the wake of the New England Patriots’ fall from grace, and they have not disappointed for after the aforementioned Steelers and Chiefs they appear to be next in line within the AFC pecking order. Credit to (General Manager) Brandon Beane, who has hit home run after home run since arriving to Orchard Park alongside McDermott in 2017, for the executive has performed a textbook job of rebuilding a long-sleeping giant into what looks like a sustainable contender for years to come. So how did they get to this point?
Smart hires, diligent work in free agency, inspired drafting, quality player development, and deftly working the trade market have all factored into Buffalo’s resurgence in 2020, with the hard work of Beane and McDermott resulting in perhaps the next powerhouse, and we’re going to hit on the most significant moves, starting with the Offensive side of the football. After making the Playoffs for the first time since the turn of the century, the Bills went against the grain and changed Offensive Coordinators, hiring Brian Daboll to shepherd the development of 2018 7th Overall Pick, Josh Allen (69.9%, 3,403 YDS, 7.25 NY/A, 26 TD, 8 INT, 75.1 QBR), who despite initially drawing a wealth of criticism coming out of Wyoming, has developed into a talisman for the long-deprived franchise. Joined at the hip, Daboll has been absolutely ESSENTIAL to the development of his young Quarterback, further fleshing out the Offense with each passing season, and now in their third year together they’re reaping the benefits of their partnership. Along the way, Beane has masterfully rebuilt the supporting cast around Allen, starting from scratch along the Offensive Line, while adding understated veterans such as John Brown (29 REC, 386 YDS, 13.3 Y/R, 2 TD) and Cole Beasley (66 REC, 797 YDS, 12.1 Y/R, 4 TD) to the Receiving Corps via Free Agency, and (Tight End) Dawson Knox (13 REC, 138 YDS, 10.6 Y/R, 2 TD) and (Tailback) Devin Singletary (159 TCH, 773 YDS, 4.9 Y/T, 1 TD) through the Draft. After ranking 30th in both points and total yards in year one of their marriage, they took marginal steps towards becoming the big play machine that they have matured into this year, finishing 23rd and 24th in those respective categories in 2019, before skyrocketing to eighth and tenth respectively in 2020. Of course, the crown jewel of the Offseason was the addition of Stefon Diggs (90 REC, 1,037 YDS, 11.5 Y/R, 4 TD), who is all but assured to be selected to his first Pro-Bowl, providing Allen with one of the best route-runners in the league. Though they paid a steep price for the services of the 27-year old in their trade with the Minnesota Vikings, it has been well worth it; Allen and Diggs have connected for an NFL-best ninety receptions, along with 1,037 yards and four touchdowns, with the Wideout averaging career-highs in catches (7.5) and yards (86.4) per game. To his credit, Allen has improved EXPONENTIALLY in year three, showing a meteoric rise across the board, posting career-bests in a slew of categories including completion percentage (from 58.8% to 69.9%), yards per attempt (from 6.7 to 8.0), touchdown percentage (from 4.3% to 6.1%), yards per game (from 193.1 to 283.6), net yards per attempt (from 5.72 to 7.25), sack percentage (from 7.6% to 5.1%), and QBR (from 47.9 to 75.1). This is the case of a young passer who is finally seeing the field in it’s entirety while having a much firmer grip on Daboll’s scheme, and with the influx of talent at the skill positions is drawing comparisons to the Bills’ attacks from the early 90’s. This matchup with the Steelers and their fearsome Defense should provide quite the litmus test for Allen & Co, who will be looking for revenge after last year’s meeting; on a Sunday Night in Mid-December, Buffalo ran into a brick (or was it steel?) wall in a 17-10 loss at Heinz Field, in which the two sides combined for seven turnovers and a miserable 490 total yards. On that night, McDermott’s Defense certainly did their job, relegating the Big Ben-less hosts to 229 total yards with five takeaways and four sacks, though his Quarterback stood vexed by the Steel Curtain, completing a dismal 13-of-25 passes for only 139 yards, a touchdown and an interception. However, Buffalo did find a good deal of success rushing the football, amassing 130 yards on thirty-eight carries, with the aforementioned Singletary churning out eighty-seven yards on twenty-one attempts and Allen picking up another twenty-eighty yards and a score on seven carries.
When we last saw the Bills, they brought a 21-year drought on Monday Night Football to an end with an emphatic 34-24 victory over the 49ers. Instead of taking place at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, this affair was contended at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona following the barring of any and all sporting events being played in Santa Clara county for a 21-day period due to COVID-19. Ironically, Monday’s trip to the desert marked the second time for Buffalo, serving as the sight of their lone loss in seven weeks; of course that outcome was decided by a remarkable Hail Mary as the Cardinals snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. This time around, there would be no miracle finishes, just clinical football from the visitors, led by their Quarterback who turned in arguably his most impressive performance of the campaign. Allen completed a surgeon-esque 32-of-40 passes for 375 yards and four touchdowns, piloting a juggernaut that would punt just once against one of the better-coached Defenses in the league. In the end, McDermott’s charges totaled 449 yards on thirty-one first downs, holding possession of the football for a commanding 34:58. Allen was in the zone throughout the night, hooking up with the aforementioned Beasley on nine occasions for 130 yards and a touchdown, with much of his damage coming in a prolific First Half, while Diggs hauled in ten catches on eleven targets for ninety-two yards of his own. Oh, and perhaps the biggest turn of events was the play of the Defense, which very well may be rounding back into shape after struggling to find their footing over the first three months of the season. Buffalo shut down San Francisco’s ever-dangerous rushing attack (21 CAR, 86 YDS), and intercepted Nick Mullens twice, the latter picked by All-Pro Cornerback, Tre’Davious White (48 TKL, 1 TFL, 1 QBH, 0.5 SK, 2 FR, 3 INT, 8 PD) deep within the red zone, his third in the last four games.