Welcome to Week One of the 2021 NFL season. Here at Buffalo Sports Page, we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the Buffalo Bills’ upcoming opponent and what each team might do to emerge victorious.

The Bills’ first game of 2021 will take place at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, New York, as they face the Pittsburgh Steelers. Here’s what you should know:

PITTSBURGH, PA – JANUARY 11: Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers in action against the Cleveland Browns on January 11, 2021 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

STEELERS TRYING TO CHANGE ON OFFENSE DESPITE ISSUES

While some things have stayed the same about the Pittsburgh Steelers – namely on defense – other things have changed tremendously. Because of many factors, Pittsburgh’s offense looked much different in 2020 than in recent years, but head coach Mike Tomlin and company navigated through those issues to finish with the third-best record in the AFC at 12-4.

Future Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger still boasts a high football IQ, solid arm and elite accuracy, and his ability to extend plays both inside and outside of the pocket remains. But perhaps because of his age and having undergone elbow surgery in 2019, former Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner had his signal caller operate more like a point guard in basketball.

Roethlisberger distributed the ball to his playmakers in a scheme that relied on his receivers running shorter routes like slants, shallow crosses, quick outs and hitches, and occasional deep shots down the field. The quicker passing game – usually out of empty sets with “01” personnel (no running back, one tight end and four wideouts) – resulted in Roethlisberger connecting on just 6.3 yards-per-pass attempt, the lowest mark of his 18-year career, and was sacked just 13 times last season due to the ball coming out of his hands faster in an offense that relied almost exclusively on the shotgun.

Pittsburgh’s pass catchers weren’t usually sent in motion before the snap, with Fichtner mainly relying on their talent to win at the line of scrimmage via basic isolation routes. A five-man crew consisting of versatile fourth-year man John “JuJu” Smith-Schuster, the shifty Diontae Johnson, second-year standout Chase Claypool, contested catch specialist James Washington and speedy tight end Eric Ebron, this group has all the talent in the world to be successful. Supplementing them this year will be rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth, who reminds some of former Steeler Heath Miller in that he is a reliable third-down weapon and can contribute in the red zone.

The Steelers have a new threat at running back in rookie Najee Harris, whose physical style will attempt to mesh with a line that has undergone a makeover. Guard David DeCastro was released, center Maurkice Pouncey retired and tackle Alejandro Villanueva signed with the Baltimore Ravens. Their replacements – veteran Trai Turner and rookies Dan Moore Jr. and Kendrick Green – will team up with Kevin Dotson and Chukwuma Okorafor. The Steelers also like to make use of backup linemen as extra blockers in the running game and that bears watching as well.

Given their long history of being productive on the ground, one would expect Pittsburgh to be excellent in that area. However, in 2020 the Steelers were dead-last in the NFL in rushing and had the least amount of running attempts in the league since Week Seven. New offensive play-caller Matt Canada will try and change that along with utilizing play-action more often, but the problem with that approach is Roethlisberger isn’t a fan of run-fakes due to the need for turning his back to the defense while the play develops. This will be a fascinating development to keep an eye on.

PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA – DECEMBER 27: Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick #39 and cornerback Cameron Sutton #20 of the Pittsburgh Steelers react after an incomplete pass on fourth down and eight by the Indianapolis Colts to turn over the ball on downs in the fourth quarter of their game at Heinz Field on December 27, 2020 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Steelers defeated the Colts 28-24. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH REMAINS “BLITZBURGH”

After a few down years on that side of the ball, Pittsburgh has morphed back in “Blitzburgh” – an aggressive, complex defense to figure out for any opposing offense and is once again elite due to their zone-blitzing scheme. In 2020 the Steelers had the most interceptions in the NFL, led the league in sacks and ranked as the third-best defense in yards allowed. They were also third in points and passing yards allowed and were 11th against the run.

The main catalyst for Pittsburgh’s transformation was the acquisition of versatile safety Minkah Fitzpatrick from Miami for a first-round draft pick two years ago. Capable of playing outside cornerback, nickel cornerback, centerfield as a single-high safety or in the box to help stop the run, Fitzpatrick has become the long sought-after replacement for Hall of Famer Troy Polamalu and is the perfect man to execute defensive coordinator Keith Butler’s preferred Cover One and Cover Three-robber pass defenses.

Fitzpatrick is joined in the Steelers’ secondary by former Cleveland Brown Joe Haden, who is still productive in his 12th season, and former first-round pick Terrell Edmunds (Tremaine’s brother) but questions persist about their depth at cornerback. Slot blitzer extraordinaire Mike Hilton departed in the spring for greener pastures in Cincinnati, which leaves Pittsburgh relying on vulnerable veterans Justin Layne and Cameron Sutton.

When Ryan Shazier suffered a career-ending spinal injury four years ago, it left a big hole in the coverage abilities of the Steelers’ linebackers. At first Tomlin, Butler and general manager Kevin Colbert tried to patch up that gaping wound by emphasizing packages involving three safeties (otherwise known as big nickel) but the drafting of Devin Bush from Michigan in 2019 and the signing of veteran Joe Schobert allows Pittsburgh to use more traditional nickel personnel.

At outside linebacker, Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt – the younger brother of future Hall of Fame defensive end J.J. Watt – have become one of the most disruptive pass-rushing tandems in football and can also cover and stop the run at a high level. Playing in front of Watt, Highsmith and former Pro Bowler Melvin Ingram are defensive linemen Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, who combine great technique with high-level quickness and strength, and nose tackle Tyson Alualu. Tuitt, however, is on injured reserve with a knee issue and will miss the first three weeks of the season.

As well as the Steel Curtain performed last season, their success should be taken with a grain of salt. Facing a rather soft schedule in 2020, Pittsburgh played against just three teams in the top 10 in scoring (the Buffalo Bills, Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts).

ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK – JANUARY 09: Tre’Davious White #27 of the Buffalo Bills celebrates after breaking up a pass during the second half of the AFC Wild Card playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts at Bills Stadium on January 09, 2021 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)

BUFFALO’S DEFENSE IS GOOD AGAIN – AND GETTING REINFORCEMENTS

From 2018-19 the Bills’ defense became one of pro football’s elite outfits. Led by stalwarts like Tre’Davious White, Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano, Levi Wallace and Jerry Hughes – and supplemented last year by the free agent signings of Mario Addison, Vernon Butler and A.J. Klein – 2019’s defense ranked third overall in the NFL. Additionally, they were 10th against the run, fourth against the pass, seventh-best on third down, 10th in sack percentage, 10th in interception rate, second in points allowed and 12th in sacks.

But at various times last season Buffalo’s defense struggled to stop both the run and pass. Granted, the league as a whole saw defensive play decline in 2020 but given the number of resources that general manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott poured into creating depth along the team’s front seven last offseason, it was jarring to see the Bills take too many penalties, create little in terms of a pass rush or be unable to fill gaps against the run.

Despite those issues, there was a turnaround on this side of the ball in the second half of the 2020 campaign. In their last 10 regular season games, Buffalo’s defense combined for 46 sacks and turnovers (27 quarterback takedowns and 19 takeaways) – contributing to the eighth-best takeaway total in the NFL. They also allowed just 18.3 points per game after the bye week and gave up just three points to Baltimore in the playoffs – the least they’ve allowed in a postseason game since 1992 against Pittsburgh.

The Bills’ defense was among the top 10 units in the National Football League in usage of Cover Two, Four and Six, and are also in blitz rate (37.4 percent – although that number increased against Baltimore to 41.5 percent, resulting in four sacks and a pick-six by Taron Johnson). They mainly utilize nickel personnel – Buffalo used five defensive backs on 90.4 percent of their plays, the most in the league – and held opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of just 86.9 in the regular season, the fifth-lowest mark in the NFL.

Schematically, the Bills’ defense mostly relies on basic zone coverages after the snap but before the snap it is complex – safety rotations to disguise their coverages keep opposing quarterbacks guessing, selective pressure looks at the line of scrimmage and coverage exchanges at the snap are Sean McDermott’s calling card (those blitz looks are usually in the A-gaps from their linebackers to confuse opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks).

In 2021 the Bills decided to heavily invest in upgrading their pass rush. Rookies Gregory Rousseau and Carlos “Boogie” Basham, along with second-year defensive end A.J. Epenesa and free agent signing Efe Obada will inject a shot of youth behind the aging Hughes and Addison, and defensive tackle Star Lotulelei is back to clog gaps against the run after opting out of 2020 – but he will miss the opener against Pittsburgh due to a calf injury.

Buffalo’s defense will also need to turn their game up a notch against tight ends. Against Indy, Baltimore and Kansas City in the playoffs, the Colts’ tight ends (Jack Doyle, Trey Burton and Mo Alie-Cox), Mark Andrews of the Ravens and the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce combined for 31 catches, 282 yards and three scores.

ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK – AUGUST 28: Cole Beasley #11, Josh Allen #17, and Gabriel Davis #13, all of the Buffalo Bills, celebrate after scoring a touchdown during the first quarter against the Green Bay Packers at Highmark Stadium on August 28, 2021 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)

BILLS’ OFFENSE EXPLOSIVE

In 2019, the Bills’ inability to score points consistently – they averaged just 19.6 points per game – caught up to them in the playoffs against the Houston Texans. To address that problem, they went out and traded for wide receiver Stefon Diggs from the Minnesota Vikings.

Diggs is an exceptional route runner, excels in making contested catches and operates well out of bunch and stack formations. His arrival along with physical youngster Gabriel Davis has balanced out Buffalo’s wide receiver corps already boasting veteran Emmanuel Sanders and crafty slot receiver Cole Beasley, and their importation initially resulted in the Bills scoring 27 points or more in four consecutive games in 2020 – the first time they accomplished that feat since 2004.

Weeks Five and Six against Tennessee and Kansas City were perhaps Buffalo’s worst outings last year. Third-year quarterback Josh Allen made some poor choices in the passing game – most of his struggles seemed to come when defenses would rotate their zone coverages and change the depth of their safeties at the snap, muddying what Allen was seeing from the pocket. He also stayed on his first read for too long sometimes and would often run if his first receiver in the progression wasn’t open.

Since then Allen became efficient and set Bills’ team records for completion percentage, completions, passer rating, passing yards and passing touchdowns in one season. His improved processing skills, ball placement, patience within the pocket and touch on passes allowed Buffalo to become the second-best scoring offense in the league and the team averaged nearly 37 points a game after their bye week.

Additionally they scored 24 points or more in nine straight regular season games, which is tied for the longest active streak in pro football with the Green Bay Packers, equaled an NFL record with 13 players catching a touchdown and recorded at least 20 first downs in every game in 2020 – just the second team ever to do so in a full season (2012 New England Patriots). In fact, Buffalo tied Kansas City for the league lead in first downs with 397 – all while playing more than half of their games against defenses who finished in the top 10 in total yards allowed, passing yards given up and points surrendered.

Buffalo’s offense is a Patriots-style system built upon concepts involving option and crossing routes from the slot, downfield routes from the outside, designed quarterback runs to take advantage of Allen’s mobility, deep dropbacks and alignments that create favorable matchups (and some trick plays with jet/orbit motion and sweeps with Isaiah McKenzie). They also used more pre-snap motion and expanded upon their play-action and screen game greatly – mostly out of 11 personnel groupings (one back, one tight end and three wide receivers) and 10 personnel (one back, no tight ends, four receivers).

In fact, the Bills used multi-receiver sets so often that they lined up in 11 personnel on 71 percent of their offensive snaps and 10 personnel on 14 percent of their plays in the regular season. In 2020, they used four wide receivers or more 155 times – the second-most in the NFL – and they utilized someone in pre-snap motion 43 percent of the time, a huge increase from their 25 percent rate in 2019. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll also called for a passing play on first down 64 percent of the time, according to ESPN Stats and Information – no team with a winning record in the last 20 years did it more often than Buffalo.

Though the ball was flying through the air with ease, the same couldn’t be said about the ground game. Due to Jon Feliciano and Mitch Morse being in and out of the lineup because of injuries and a lack of consistency along their front five, Buffalo’s starting offensive line was compromised for the first half of 2020 and they struggled to create any sort of consistent push along the line of scrimmage.

Those problems, plus a recent trend of utilizing outside zone runs almost exclusively to the left side of the line, resulted in one of the NFL’s most inconsistent rushing attacks. The offensive line and backs Devin Singletary and Zack Moss racked up 172 yards against the Chargers via runs on zone read-options, pin-and-pull concepts and draw plays, but didn’t have the same success on the ground against San Francisco or Pittsburgh. The running game did pick up steam over a four-week stretch as the Bills combined for 486 yards on the ground and seven rushing touchdowns against Denver, New England, Miami and Indianapolis, but was non-existent against Baltimore and Kansas City.

KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI – JANUARY 24: Dawson Knox #88 of the Buffalo Bills celebrates with Stefon Diggs #14 after scoring a touchdown in the first quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs during the AFC Championship game at Arrowhead Stadium on January 24, 2021 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

STATS AND MUSINGS

  • Diggs became the first Bills wide receiver to lead the league in catches and yards over a full season and was the first Buffalo wideout to be named first team All-Pro by the Associated Press. His 127 receptions were the sixth-most all time. Allen, Beasley and White were named second team All-Pro.
  • Last year Allen became the only quarterback in league history with at least 4,500 passing yards, 35 or more passing touchdowns and eight rushing scores. He was also named Most Improved Player of the Year by the Pro Football Writers of America, and Beane and Daboll were named Executive of the Year and Assistant Coach of the Year by the PFWA – the first individuals from Buffalo to have the honors bestowed upon them since the awards were originally given out in 1993.
  • Buffalo ended the season with 501 points and surpassed the 1991 squad (458 points) as the highest-scoring team in franchise history. They also accumulated 6,343 yards, breaking the ’91 team’s franchise standard (6,252).
  • McDermott has 38 regular season wins as head coach of the Buffalo Bills and moved past Chuck Knox into third place in franchise history. Only Marv Levy and Lou Saban have more.
  • The Bills won 13 games (6-2 on the road, 7-1 at home) for the first time since 1991 and tied the team record for wins in a season set by the 1990 and ’91 squads.
  • Buffalo punted the football just 41 times in the regular season, which is a team record (the old franchise standard for a 16-game season is 54 in 1991) and became just the third team to punt less than 42 times in a season (1990 Houston Oilers, 2019 Baltimore Ravens).
  • Helping keep that punt number low was Buffalo’s third-down conversion rate – 49.7 percent – which was the best figure in the league.
  • Tyler Bass’s 141 points in 2020 surpassed Steve Christie’s team mark for points in a season (140) set back in 1998. He also tied the team record against Indianapolis for the longest field goal in postseason history – set by Christie in Super Bowl XXVIII – and it was the longest field goal by a rookie in league playoff history.
  • The Bills like to use a passing concept called “Jalapeno”, which is a two-by-two set with a pair of post patterns on one side and a deep dig route on the other. Will they continue to use it against Pittsburgh?
  • Could the Steelers use post-wheel combinations against Buffalo? They’re good routes to use against Cover Three and quarters coverage because it sends two receivers through a zone.
  • Johnson’s interception return for a touchdown against Baltimore tied the NFL record for the longest pick-six in league history.
  • Hughes’ two sacks against the Ravens gave him five career sacks in the postseason with Buffalo – only the fourth Bill to do so, joining Bruce Smith (14.5), Jeff Wright (nine) and Darryl Talley (6.5).
  • Against Baltimore the Bills became the fourth team in league annals to rush for less than 40 yards in a playoff win. Two of the squads to do so won the Super Bowl (1999 St. Louis Rams, 2014 New England Patriots).
  • Buffalo was able to defeat disguised Cover Two zones against Indianapolis with a three-by-one formation involving Diggs and Davis each running post patterns (Diggs’ route converted to a seam to beat the split-safety coverage down the middle of the field) and tight end Dawson Knox executing a corner route. Allen pump-faked to Knox to create more room for Diggs to get open, could he do this again to beat the Steelers’ Cover Two?
  • Allen has thrown for 43 touchdowns and no interceptions in his career near the end zone. He was also the most blitzed quarterback in the NFL last year.

Tony Fiorello

Tony’s work has appeared in multiple publications, including Buffalo Hockey Central, WNY Hockey Report, the Tonawanda News, the Niagara Gazette, Community Papers of Western New York, Sports and Leisure Magazine, WNYAthletics and From the 300 Level. He graduated from Buffalo State College in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Follow him on Twitter @anthonyfiorello.

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