Welcome to Week Five of the 2022 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’ fifth game of 2022 will take place at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, New York as they face the Pittsburgh Steelers. Here’s what you should know:
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 and ’21 than in recent years, but head coach Mike Tomlin and company navigated through those issues to finish with 12-4 and 9-7-1 records.
Future Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger continued to boast a high football IQ and elite accuracy, and his ability to extend plays both inside and outside of the pocket remained. But perhaps because of his age and having undergone elbow surgery in 2019, recent Steelers offensive coordinators Matt Canada and Randy Fichtner had their 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. The bar was set even lower in 2021 as his yards-per-attempt was just 6.2.
In the wake of Roethlisberger’s retirement, Tomlin and new general manager Omar Khan (who replaced the outgoing Kevin Colbert) decided to bring in former Buffalo Bill and Chicago Bear Mitchell Trubisky. While not extremely athletic nor boasting an elite arm, Trubisky has just enough of both traits to play well. He is effective at play-action, decently accurate and has vision outside of the pocket, despite not being great at handling the timing and rhythm of the passing game.
But Trubisky can only take a team so far – hence the drafting of rookie Kenny Pickett from the nearby University of Pittsburgh. A mobile, aggressive signal caller with good ball location and decision-making skills, Pickett will make his first career start on Sunday.
Pittsburgh’s pass catchers aren’t usually sent in motion before the snap, and they mainly relying on their talent to win at the line of scrimmage via basic isolation routes. A crew consisting of third-year standout Chase Claypool, shifty Diontae Johnson and physical rookie George Pickens, this group has all the talent in the world to be successful. Supplementing them is 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 threat at running back in Najee Harris, who – although lacking breakaway speed – uses his size and strength to produce behind a line that has been undergoing a makeover the last few years. With longtime stalwarts like David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey and Alejandro Villanueva all gone, their replacements – Dan Moore Jr., Kevin Dotson, Mason Cole, James Daniels and Chukwuma Okorafor – haven’t performed as well as their predecessors. The Steelers also like to make use of backup linemen as extra blockers in their power-based 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 ended 2021 29th in that category. So far they are just 23rd in rushing yards gained in 2022.
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.
Things were more of the same in 2021 as they led the league in sacks again for the fifth straight year and were ninth in passing yards surrendered. But a strange development occurred – Pittsburgh was dead-last against the run, which is a rare occurrence for a franchise that has prided themselves on shutting down opponents’ ground games. So far that downturn in production has continued in 2022 and it has also extended to their pass defense, ranking 21st and 24th in those areas.
Pittsburgh’s best pass defender is versatile safety Minkah Fitzpatrick who was acquired from Miami for a first-round draft pick in 2019. 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 Teryl Austin’s preferred Cover One, Two and Three-robber pass defenses.
Fitzpatrick is joined in the Steelers’ secondary by ex-Bill Levi Wallace and former first-round pick Terrell Edmunds (Tremaine’s brother who is out on Sunday with a concussion) but questions persist about their depth at cornerback. Pittsburgh has been relying on vulnerable veterans Ahkello Witherspoon, Cameron Sutton and Arthur Maulet in addition to Wallace and there have been some injuries on that part of their defense as of late.
When Ryan Shazier suffered a career-ending spinal injury years ago, it left a big hole in the coverage abilities of the Steelers’ linebackers. At first the team tried to patch up that gaping wound by emphasizing packages involving three safeties (otherwise known as big nickel) but the drafting of speedy Devin Bush from Michigan in 2019 and the signing of veteran Myles Jack was supposed to allow Pittsburgh to use more traditional nickel personnel. So far that hasn’t happened – Bush is athletic and mostly aligns in Pittsburgh’s 3-4 base defense, but has been playing less and less in Austin’s subpackages.
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 (especially Watt, who tied Hall of Famer Michael Strahan’s single season sack record with 22.5 a year ago) and can also cover and stop the run at a high level. But Watt is out with a torn pectoral muscle, and the Steelers struggle without him – their record with Watt not in their lineup is 0-7. His replacement is Malik Reed.
Playing in front of Watt and Highsmith are defensive linemen Cameron Heyward and Larry Ogunjobi, who combine great technique with high-level quickness and strength, and nose tackle Montravius Adams.
BUFFALO’S DEFENSE ELITE AGAIN
After a 2020 season which saw Buffalo’s defense start slowly and finish strong, this unit – led by stalwarts like Tre’Davious White, Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano and Ed Oliver – has more closely resembled the team’s defenses from 2018-19. That is, in being one of the league’s best.
In 2021 the Bills decided to invest in upgrading their pass rush. Gregory Rousseau, Carlos “Boogie” Basham and A.J. Epenesa injected a shot of youth behind the aging Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison, and defensive tackle Star Lotulelei returned after opting out of 2020. Harrison Phillips also had a breakout season two years after tearing a knee ligament.
Buffalo ranked first in pro football in total yards, passing yards, passing touchdowns, points allowed and third-down defense and third in takeaways and interceptions. It was the first time they had ever led the NFL in points allowed and the first time since 1999 they paced the league in total and passing yards given up. Their sack numbers, while not elite over the full season, also picked up as they notched 24 in their last six games (including playoffs).
A disturbing pattern emerged on Buffalo’s defense last year, however, particularly against the run. In games against the Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers the Bills were gashed on the ground by power running teams. The biggest issue there was poor tackling, a lack of gap integrity and a lack of versatile run-stuffers who can align along the defensive line.
To address this, head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier decided that more youth and talent were needed along their defensive line. Out went Hughes, Addison, Lotulelei and Phillips, and in came talented run defenders like Da’Quan Jones and Tim Settle, and the return of former Bills like Jordan Phillips and Shaq Lawson were also welcomed additions.
But there was one more acquisition Buffalo needed. Beyond improving against the run, the Bills had lacked an elite pass rusher off the edge who could command double teams on a consistent basis since Mario Williams was employed. So to add the proverbial final piece to the team’s puzzle, general manager Brandon Beane signed future Hall of Famer Von Miller – who is still one of the NFL’s best sack artists at age 33. Miller will add to a group that put pressure on opposing quarterbacks on nearly 31 percent of their defensive snaps – tops 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 intentions keep opposing quarterbacks guessing and selective pressure looks at the line of scrimmage and coverage exchanges at the snap are the team’s calling cards. Those blitz looks are usually in the A-gaps from their linebackers to confuse opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks, yet the Bills never had to blitz once against the Los Angeles Rams in Week One while racking up seven sacks (the fourth-most by a team without blitzing once since 2016). It was the third time a McDermott-coached team hasn’t sent more than four rushers at an opposing quarterback in a game – 2020 and ’21 against Kansas City were the other two times, and they’re the only team to have used this approach over the last seven years (they blitzed just three times against Tennessee in Week Two and rarely since).
The Bills’ defense is usually among the top units in the NFL in usage of Cover Two, Four and Six. They mainly utilize nickel personnel, as evidenced by Buffalo using five defensive backs on 90.4 percent of their plays in 2020, the most in the league and nearly 100 percent of their snaps since Week Six against Tennessee last season.
A seismic change in Buffalo’s lineup occurred when White, one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, tore his ACL against the New Orleans Saints last season. His replacement is Dane Jackson, who has flashed some ability when given the chance but with White’s elite ability to play both man and zone coverage gone, will McDermott and Frazier continue to lean on more zone from Jackson, rookies Kaiir Elam and Christian Benford and slot corner Taron Johnson than they ever have? That remains to be seen, and bears watching even more with Hyde suffering a neck injury that will sideline him for the rest of 2022.
Beyond White and Hyde, many others have battled ailments including Oliver, Phillips, Edmunds, Poyer and Benford. However, they’ve persevered – ranking first in total yards allowed, second in takeaways, fifth in sacks and second in points surrendered. They’re also first against the pass and third versus the run, but have been so-so in the red zone.
BILLS’ OFFENSE AN UPPER-ECHELON UNIT
Led by quarterback Josh Allen and a cadre of gifted wide receivers, the Buffalo Bills boast one of the NFL’s elite offenses for the first time since the K-Gun was running roughshod over the league 30 years ago.
Allen’s improved processing skills, ball placement, patience within the pocket and touch on passes allowed Buffalo to become one of the most feared attacks in pro football. Setting Bills’ team records for completion percentage, completions, passer rating, passing yards and passing touchdowns in 2020 (and breaking his own completion record a year later along with the attempts mark), that success continued into 2021 as the Bills averaged 28.4 points a game, the third-best best mark in the NFL. Allen was also seventh and eighth in the league in passing touchdowns and yards, respectively.
In the postseason against the Patriots Allen took his game to new heights. He helped his offense become the first in league history to not punt, kick a field goal or commit a turnover in a single game while scoring touchdowns on every drive. Allen also set career-highs in passing touchdowns (five – the first quarterback to throw that many against Bill Belichick in the playoffs and the most ever by a Bill) and completion percentage (84) while helping the Bills score 47 points, the second-most they’ve ever had in a playoff game (51 in the 1990 AFC title game). He also had more passing touchdowns than incompletions – the first signal caller to do so since Kurt Warner in 2009.
His core of targets is deep and extremely talented. Stefon Diggs, who led the NFL in catches and yards in 2020, is an exceptional route runner who excels in making contested catches and operates well out of bunch and stack formations. His presence along with physical youngster Gabriel Davis (who set a postseason record with four touchdowns against Kansas City) has balanced out Buffalo’s wide receiver corps already boasting veteran Jamison Crowder, speedy slot receiver Isaiah McKenzie and rookie Khalil Shakir. Fourth-year tight end Dawson Knox also enjoyed a breakout season with nine touchdowns, which tied him for first among all tight ends with Travis Kelce, Mark Andrews and Hunter Henry and surpassed Pete Metzelaars, Jay Riemersma and Scott Chandler’s team mark of six.
The Bills’ offensive line is composed of Dion Dawkins, Rodger Saffold, Mitch Morse, Ryan Bates and Spencer Brown. This unit held their own in pass protection in the past and mainly execute outside zone runs along with zone-read and run-pass options, pin-and-pull concepts, traps, counters and split inside zone sprinkled in for running backs Devin Singletary (who brings shiftiness to the table), Zack Moss (power) and James Cook (speed and route running).
But the story was different for the Bills’ starting five in 2021, as they were iffy in providing push in the running game and in pass protection. Despite the Bills having the second-best running game in football over the last month of the season, most of that production came from Allen’s legs and few came from their backs – leading to the ouster of offensive line coach Bobby Johnson and guards Daryl Williams and Jon Feliciano and the importation of Saffold and veteran position coach Aaron Kromer.
Buffalo’s offense is a Patriots-style system built upon concepts involving option and crossing routes from the slot, downfield routes from the outside, run-pass options, 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 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).
The Bills’ multi-receiver sets are traditionally their offensive calling card. In 2020 they used four wide receivers or more 155 times – the second-most in the NFL at the time – 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 – now the head coach of the New York Giants – also called for a passing play on 64 percent of their first downs, according to ESPN Stats and Information – no team with a winning record in the last 20 years did it more than Buffalo – and that rate continued in 2021 with “11” personnel used on 71 percent of their plays (usage of “10” personnel dropped to seven percent).
So far it appears that new play-caller Ken Dorsey has expanded upon that with more diverse formations and personnel packaging with multiple tight end looks as well. It helped the Bills to a 31-10 win over the Los Angeles Rams in Week One – the second-largest victory over a defending Super Bowl champion in Week One all-time (behind Denver downing Baltimore in 2013), converting nine of 10 third downs (tied for the best conversion rate in a game over the last 10 years) and not punting for the third time in four games. That continued against Tennessee, where he decided to utilize seven different personnel groupings to score 41 points and against Baltimore – a game in which they trailed by 17 points at halftime but rallied to win 23-20, their largest comeback since a 34-31 win over New England in 2011.
STATS AND MUSINGS
- Allen has compiled 27 career regular season games with a passer rating of 100 or better and has reached that mark in 10 of his last 19 outings. In those games Buffalo’s record is 25-2. He also owns the highest playoff passer rating in league annals, and Allen also set a new club record for completion percentage (83.9) against the Rams.
- Only Steve Young has had more career regular season games (eight) with 300 or more passing yards and 50 or more rushing yards than Allen (five).
- Buffalo’s franchise quarterback has seven career games with three passing touchdowns and a rushing score – only Drew Brees (nine) and Tom Brady (eight) have more all-time. He also became the first signal-caller to throw for 250 yards, run for 50, toss three touchdowns, run for one, complete 80 percent of his throws and win a game in league history against the Rams.
- Allen surpassed Jack Kemp for third in franchise history in passing yards. Only Jim Kelly and Joe Ferguson have more.
- Allen also tied Peyton Manning (147) for the fourth-most touchdowns all-time in a player’s first five seasons.
- Another Allen stat – he currently ranks 11th all-time in rushing touchdowns among quarterbacks with 33. He needs five more to move past Steve McNair and Tobin Rote into fourth place (behind Cam Newton, Young and Kemp).
- Since 2017 the Bills are 42-4 when leading at halftime.
- The Bills won a one-score game for the first time since their wild-card victory over Indianapolis in 2020. Their last regular season victory in such a game was in Week Eight vs. the Patriots that same season, and it was the first time in franchise history that the team won a game in which they never led until the last play of regulation.
- Buffalo set multiple team records in 2021 including highest point differential (+194), most first downs (398), most total yards (6,493) and average margin of victory (22.1 – the fourth highest since the merger).
- Miller is the first defensive player in league history to sign two contracts worth at least $100 million. He is also vying to be the second player to win a Super Bowl with three different teams (Matt Millen was the first).
- According to WGR 550’s Joe DiBiase, Pickett will be the ninth non-Bill to make his first career start in Buffalo – Dwayne Haskins in 2019, Kellen Moore in 2015, Drew Bledsoe in 1993, Jeff George in 1990, Richard Todd in 1976, Scotty Glacken in 1966, Joe Namath in 1965 and Don Breaux in 1963 are the others.
- According to NFL Research, Pickett will attempt to be the first rookie quarterback to defeat the league’s top pass defense in his first career start since Roethlisberger in 2004.
- Poyer became the first Bill since Henry Jones in 1992 with four interceptions in his first three games of a season. He’s also the first NFL player to achieve that feat since Marcus Peters in 2016.
- Buffalo became the second team to shut out Lamar Jackson in a second half – they did it previously in their 2020 playoff matchup.
- This Sunday will mark the fourth straight year in which the Bills and Steelers have faced one another. Buffalo won the first two matchups but Pittsburgh was victorious last year.
- The Bills tied a franchise record by allowing less than 300 yards of total offense in eight consecutive regular season games (1999-2000).
- Under McDermott Buffalo’s record against rookie quarterbacks, including playoffs, is 8-3 while accumulating 17 interceptions and 30 sacks.