At long last, the Pittsburgh Steelers finally kick off their 2021 season on Sunday against the Buffalo Bills. After a tumultuous 2020 season, a massively disappointing playoff loss, and an offseason full of changes, the Steelers are hoping to get back a sense of normalcy this year. Obviously, Pittsburgh wants this season to look like last season to some extent. The Steelers went 12-4 and rode 11 consecutive victories to another AFC North title. But the season was marred by an inconsistent offense, culminating in an embarrassing home playoff defeat to the Cleveland Browns. Before we get into the Week 1 preview, let’s go over what went down this offseason.
The theme of the offseason could be characterized as “the same, but different”. Ben Roethlisberger elected to come back for one more season, presumably his last; he’s also joined by his favorite target, Juju Smith-Schuster, who returned on a one-year deal. The defense is back for the most part and figures to be one of the better units in the league. However, there were also significant changes in all phases of the game.
On offense, the Steelers handed offensive coordinator and Ben Roethlisberger confidant Randy Fitchner his walking papers. In response, they elevated the former quarterbacks’ coach, Matt Canada, to offensive coordinator. They also performed a complete overhaul of the offensive line: Maurkice Pouncey retired, David DeCastro effectively retired due to injury, and Alejandro Villanueva and Matt Feiler left in free agency. To complete this turnover, they switched out their offensive line coach for an assistant as well. Pittsburgh then drafted two offensive linemen, both of whom figure to start this season; they also selected running back Najee Harris and tight end Pat Freiermuth to help inject some life into the offense. After a season where they ranked dead last in rushing, the Steelers need to improve their ground game.
On defense, Bud Dupree and Mike Hilton signed massive deals in free agency, which was expected. Unexpectedly, the Steelers released cornerback Steven Nelson; they also released Vince Williams, brought him back, and then he retired. Pittsburgh made some trades in the preseason to shore up the linebacker and cornerback positions, bringing in Joe Schobert and Ahkello Witherspoon. The cornerback position is still somewhat questionable, with Cam Sutton and James Pierre penciled in as the starters there. To make the turnover on this team complete, the Steelers also brought in a new punter and long snapper; this left Chris Boswell as the lone remaining specialist.
Currently, the most pressing issue, as of this writing, is TJ Watt’s contract. Pittsburgh does not sign contract extensions once the regular season starts, so time is running out. Apparently, the sticking point is the amount of guaranteed money. I would be shocked if Watt doesn’t play this week. But he only returned to practice in a full capacity on Wednesday. To make matters worse, defensive end Stephon Tuitt started the season on injured reserve; in addition to dealing with a knee injury, his rehabilitation process was delayed due to the unexpected death of his brother.
Steelers-Bills Week 1 Preview: Overview
With all that in mind, we’ll now move on to actually previewing the Steelers’ Week 1 matchup with the Buffalo Bills. Last year, the Buffalo Bills had a massive breakout year. They won the AFC East and a playoff game for the first time since 1995, posting a 13-3 record. Josh Allen had an MVP-caliber season, aided by a wide-open passing offense led by Stefon Diggs. Buffalo also sported an excellent defense with good players at every level. The Steelers fell to the Bills on the road in Week 14; the Steelers’ offense was still plagued by drops and an ineffective running game, along with a very banged-up defense.
Mike Tomlin is 8-5-1 in season openers. Shockingly, the Steelers have not opened their season at home since 2014; fans may remember this as the game when Antonio Brown kicked the Cleveland Browns’ punter in the face. Of those six non-winning results, five have come on the road. Across the board, the Bills are favored by just under a touchdown (-6.5) and the over-under is around 49.
Steelers-Bills Week 1 Preview: When Buffalo has the Ball
Put simply, the Bills are going to throw the ball. Along with Stefon Diggs, they also have a dynamic threat in the slot, Cole Beasley. They even added Emmanuel Sanders to fill the role vacated by John Brown. All three receivers are excellent route runners and create separation easily. This receiving corps will be a tough test for a reworked cornerback room in Pittsburgh. Last year, Joe Haden missed this game and Stefon Diggs worked Steven Nelson up and down the field. Haden might be able to help slow Diggs down for a while but he’s one of the best wide receivers in the league.
On the other side of the field, Cameron Sutton should be able to hold his own against Beasley. But James Pierre will be getting his first NFL start against the Wiley veteran Sanders. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, the Bills can move all these receivers all over the field to find advantageous matchups. Dawson Knox is the starter at tight end; he’s a relatively inconsistent player and he’s much lower on the totem pole of receiving options.
Ideally, the Steelers will play a lot of Nickel and Dime defense this game to combat this explosive receiving corps. However, Steelers fans know how much defensive coordinator Keith Butler loves to put his linebackers on slot wide receivers. So expect there to be one big play where Stefon Diggs embarrasses Alex Highsmith or Devin Bush in coverage.
The Steelers should be able to shut down the Bills rushing attack. Buffalo does not have an overly dynamic running back between Zack Moss, Devin Singletary, or Matt Brieda. Their offensive line is very solid; even without Tuitt, Pittsburgh’s front seven should be able to consistently win this battle. Unfortunately, Buffalo is not afraid to pivot away from the run game if it isn’t working. Additionally, they could use Josh Allen as a rushing asset; he’s difficult to bring down no matter who you throw at him.
If the Steelers want to win this game, they need to focus on slowing down the Bills’ passing attack. That might mean giving up some plays in the run game, which will surely be anathema to some Steelers’ fans. But in the greater scheme of the entire game, an eight to twelve-yard run is much better than a 25 to 30-yard pass.
Steelers-Bills Week 1 Preview: When Pittsburgh has the Ball
As previously mentioned, the Bills have an excellent defense. They have one of the best cornerbacks in the game in Tre’davious White, two of the best safety and linebacker tandems in the league, and a re-tooled defensive line that could prove dangerous. Like the Bills’ offense and the Steelers’ secondary, this Buffalo defense will put Pittsburgh’s revamped offense to the test.
The Steelers are returning only one starter on their offensive line. Chukwuma Okorafor, who is returning to right tackle after ostensibly losing the battle for the starting left tackle job. Okorafor lost the starting right tackle job to Zach Banner last year. But he won it back after Banner went down with an injury. History repeated itself this year again, with Banner starting the year on IR and Okorafor taking over there. Two rookies will make their NFL debuts: Dan Moore Jr. at left tackle and Kendrick Green at center, along with Kevin Dotson becoming the full-time starter at left guard and Trai Turner taking over on the right.
Among the skill positions, the Steelers still boast one of the deepest wide receiver corps in the NFL with players that can attack defenses in a variety of ways. They also added Najee Harris, the best running back in the 2021 NFL Draft, and Pat Freiermuth, one of the best tight ends in the class. Certainly, people can quibble with how the Steelers allocated their draft resources this year but what’s done is done.
Perhaps the most important change from the offseason is the elevation of Matt Canada to offensive coordinator from quarterbacks’ coach. Fans saw Canada’s influence on the offense early last year with pre-snap motion and jet sweeps. But it waned severely as the season progressed and the offense shifted to the Ben Roethlisberger Variety Hour. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much variety, as the offense almost solely relied upon quick passes. Reportedly, Ben has been more accepting of playing under center and using play-action within Canada’s system. We’ll see if that’s true and how long it lasts.
In terms of what the Steelers can do on offense to beat the Bills, the burden falls on the offensive line. The Bills did an excellent job taking away the Steelers’ quick passing game last year and will surely be looking to do the same again on Sunday. Therefore, the Steelers will need to work in deeper and longer-developing passing concepts. This requires the offensive line to protect longer.
The Bills do not have an individual wrecker on the defensive line. But Jerry Hughes is a severely underrated veteran edge rusher; the Bills also added two big, long defensive ends in the draft, Gregory Rousseau and Carlos “Boogie” Basham. For this aspect of the passing game to be effective, the offensive line will also need to open up the run game. If the offensive line can get some push and get Najee rolling, the Steelers might be able to slow down the pace of the game, open up the play-action game, and also give their defense time to rest.
In short, the Steelers need to play complete football. If there is one matchup they can exploit, the Bills are weak at cornerback across from Tre’Davious White. While the Bills will probably roll double-coverage that way, attacking Levi Wallace with a size-and-speed freak like Chase Claypool or a separation specialist like Diontae Johnson could be effective. But at the end of the day, the Steelers will need to play a near-perfect game if they want to beat the Bills.
Steelers-Bills Week 1 Preview: Prediction
The Bills are one of the best, most complete teams in the AFC. Many expect them to compete with the Kansas City Chiefs for the #1 seed in the conference. Conversely, the Steelers have several questions on both sides of the ball. I still believe the Steelers will figure it out this season and will make the playoffs. But it will take time and I do not think they will be able to come out of the gates hot.
I predict the Steelers to keep it close in the first quarter, give up a few scores in the second, fall further behind in the third, and mount an ultimately doomed comeback in the fourth, losing by a score as the Bills kneel it out. Pittsburgh has a good chance at covering a 6.5 point spread but I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting much money on it.