The Pittsburgh Steelers pulled off arguably the most shocking upset in Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season. They toppled the Buffalo Bills, one of the presumptive Super Bowl favorites from the AFC, by a score of 23-16. The Bills led the game at the half 10-0. The Steelers’ offense was anemic at best, as the running game couldn’t get going and Ben Roethlisberger missed some easy passes. The Steelers punted on every offensive series in the first half, except for the final one where they knelt the ball to go to the half.
But the Pittsburgh defense kept the whole team in this game. Even when the Bills returned the opening kickoff 75 yards, the defense forced a field goal. They prevented the Bills offense from creating explosive plays and only allowed a touchdown when Josh Allen beat perfect coverage from Cam Sutton with an even better throw. Within the defense, Pittsburgh’s pass rush harangued Allen for the entire game. Even if they didn’t get home, they forced bad throws and incompletions or drew holding penalties.
The Second Half Comeback
In the second half, the Steelers’ offense found a rhythm. They seemingly leaned into the concepts introduced by new offensive coordinator Matt Canada. They used more motion and called some creative plays. Additionally, Ben Roethlisberger actually started throwing down the field. He wasn’t perfect but he found a matchup that he liked and repeatedly attacked Levi Wallace. Roethlisberger even beat All-Pro corner Tre’davious White a few times. This helped open up the run game a little bit and Najee Harris finally had some room to run. Pittsburgh’s offense scored on every drive in the second half (albeit mostly field goals), outsourcing Buffalo 23-3 in the second half. They were aided by a massive blocked punt return for a touchdown.
At the end of the day, the Steelers defense dominated one of the NFL’s best offenses for 60 minutes on Sunday. On the other side of the ball, the offense did just enough when it was needed to come back and win the game. Let’s get into exactly how the Steelers won their game against the Bills, starting with the defense.
How the Steelers beat the Bills on Defense: Play Smart, Play Angry
Credit where credit is due: Keith Butler put together an excellent gameplan and the defense executed it nearly to perfection. Many Steelers fans, including yours truly, expected Keith Butler to come out with his base defense and try to have his linebackers cover the Bills’ wide receivers. Luckily, Butler did not do that. He played with five defensive backs for the majority of the game. He also put a ton of trust in seventh-round rookie Tre Norwood to play safety and slot corner. Norwood validated his trust when the Bills repeatedly went after him, as he made several key tackles and a few pass breakups. He got burned by Emmanuel Sanders on a deep route once but Allen overthrew him.
For the remainder of the game, the Steelers played with five or six defensive backs on the field. They did an excellent job preventing explosive plays by staying deep and forcing Allen to dink and dunk. Furthermore, the defensive backs themselves made countless plays in coverage. Norwood, Cam Sutton, James Pierre, and Minkah Fitzpatrick all broke up several passes with perfectly-timed hits. This may have been the best performance from a Steelers’ secondary in a very long time, considering their opponent(s).
The Bills did not make an adjustment until late in the fourth quarter when they finally started running the ball; Devin Singletary, surprisingly, sliced up the Pittsburgh defense, picking up 49 of his 75 yards on that drive alone. The Bills outrushed the Steelers easily, going for 117 yards on 25 carries. Josh Allen picked up some key first downs using his legs, rushing for 44 yards. But even with his third-down conversions, the Pittsburgh defense did a decent job preventing him from picking up massive gains with his feet. Allen’s longest gain went for only 11 yards; more importantly, the defensive line prevented him from consistently getting outside the pocket.
With that, it’s time to talk about the pass rush. TJ Watt, Cam Heyward, Melvin Ingram, and Alex Highsmith were the unquestioned MVPs of this game. All four repeatedly pressured and hit Josh Allen, preventing the Bills offense from getting into a rhythm. The conversation has to start with TJ Watt. Fresh off a brand new contract extension and only two full days of practice, Watt sacked Allen twice, stripping the ball once, hit Allen five more times, and drew at least one holding penalty. He played like a man possessed in all phases of the game.
The other edge rushers, Ingram and Highsmith, also played extremely well. They didn’t get any sacks but they each drew holding penalties and forced errant throws. Finally, Cam Heyward played exactly like he always does. He generated a whopping 11 pressures, tacking on one QB hit and another sack, according to PFF. With Heyward generating pressure from the interior, Allen needed to get rid of the ball quicker and it opened up more opportunities for the edge rushers.
Part of the reason why the entire defense was successful was Pittsburgh’s ability to generate pressure with only four rushers, thereby keeping seven defenders in coverage. According to NFL Network’s Aditi Kinkhabwala, Pittsburgh only blitzed Josh Allen twice on Sunday. One of football’s most accurate aphorisms is that if you can pressure the quarterback with four rushers, you can win games. For this reason, if I’m a Bills fan, I’m not going too concerned about if the events of Sunday’s game will repeat themselves. Very few teams can generate so much pressure consistently with only four rushers; even fewer also have some excellent players on the back end. If the Steelers’ front can play like this every game, maybe the offense doesn’t even need to be that good.
How the Steelers beat the Bills on Offense: Lean into Canada, Eh?
Much was made about the Steelers’ promotion of Matt Canada to offensive coordinator. In his first outing, the results were mixed. The Steelers opened the game with Canada’s patented tackle-tight end exchange and had some cursory jet sweep looks. But for most of the first half, the Steelers’ offense looked exactly like it did towards the end of last season. It was mostly quick passes out of the shotgun with Ben frequently misfiring. The offensive line struggled immensely, allowing the Bills’ pass rush to get home a few times and not getting any push in the run game. Najee Harris tried as best he could but he couldn’t find any holes.
However, in the second half, things started to change. Pittsburgh started using more pre-snap motion and play action. This, along with some creative play-calling, helped break the roadblock. Najee Harris started to find some more openings as the offensive line got more comfortable. Harris still made some mistakes but he ran extremely tough, never leaving the field despite taking punishment from the Bills’ defense.
Attacking Vertically and a More Diverse Offense
Furthermore, Canada and Ben started taking more shots downfield. The Bills started loading the box and playing many more single-high defenses with man coverage on the outside. This allowed Ben to start testing the Bills’ cornerbacks vertically. He obviously wasn’t slinging passes 50 yards downfield. But he drew a couple of pass interference and holding penalties and got some big catches from Chase Claypool, Eric Ebron, and Juju Smith-Schuster. This gave Ben the confidence he needed for some of the later drives when he fired several darts to convert multiple third downs.
It’s clear the Steelers need to run the ball better if they want to keep winning games. But Ben Roethlisberger also needs to play better for the whole game. In short, the Steelers need to have a complete, diverse offense, which was the main problem last year. The offensive line will be the primary determining factor for this offense. If they play as they did in the first half, it will be an ugly season. Conversely, if they can build on the improvements they made in the second half and turn into a league-average offensive line, the Steelers’ offense should be just fine.
How the Steelers beat the Bills: Summary
At the end of the day, the Steelers beat the Bills because of their defense and specifically their pass rush. But the turning point of the game was the blocked punt returned for a touchdown. Full disclosure: I’m not an expert on special teams and how punts get blocked. So I’m not gonna try to explain why that play happened. Regardless, this play killed any momentum that the Bills had left in this game; it even sparked the exodus of Bills fans from Highmark Stadium.
The biggest takeaway from this game was that Keith Butler finally displayed the ability to switch up his scheme/gameplan to put his defense in the best position to win. Typically, people expect Butler to send the house and leave his defensive backs on an island. But he did the exact opposite of that. I expect Butler to return to his old ways at various points in the season. But it’s great to see that he can come out throwing different pitches at an offense.
On offense, the Steelers were able to do basically the bare minimum to come away with a win. It will take time but this offense will keep improving. Additionally, we saw enough on Sunday to feel that there is at least a greater formula on offense. As the season goes on, expect the offensive line to continue to improve, which will open up the offense as a whole.