In his first real game as a 39-year old, Ben Roethlisberger looked a lot like he did in 2020 as a 38-year old. With a young and practically brand-new offensive line in front of him, Roethlisberger seemed hellbent on getting rid of the football as fast as possible against the Bills on Sunday and didn’t appear to be all that interested in standing in the pocket long enough to even attempt a deep pass. That changed a bit in the second half, as Roethlisberger opened things up a bit with slightly deeper throws, primarily to receiver Chase Claypool and tight ends Eric Ebron and rookie Pat Freiermuth. Roethlisberger looked a bit rusty and “off” at first, but he appeared to improve as the game went along and made some spot-on passes when he had to–including a beautiful back-shoulder toss to Claypool early in the second half and perfect passes to Claypool and JuJu Smith-Schuster late in the game when Pittsburgh was trying to run out the clock. Roethlisberger also showed good mobility at times and even scampered for an eight-yard gain late in the final period. For the day, Roethlisberger was 18 of 32 for 188 yards and a five-yard touchdown pass to receiver Diontae Johnson. Grade: B-
It was a rather quiet debut for rookie first-round pick Najee Harris on Sunday, as he carried 16 times for 45 yards to go along with one reception for four yards. Harris was the only back who saw any action on Sunday and, to his credit, he did appear to improve as the game went along, even scampering for 18 yards early in the fourth quarter to help set up Pittsburgh’s lone offensive touchdown. Grade: C-
No tight ends were targeted at all in the first half. As for the second half? Ebron reeled in one pass for 19 yards, while Freiermuth’s first career reception (and lone catch of the day) went for 24. Zach Gentry contributed one catch in the second half but for minus two yards. Given the fact that Pittsburgh didn’t do a ton on the ground, the tight end group certainly didn’t make up for its lack of production by blocking. Grade: C-
Speaking of people who looked a lot like they did in 2020, no Steelers receiver turned in a big performance on Sunday—Smith-Schuster led the way in yardage with 52. Having said that, the group did have a knack for coming up with some huge plays, including Claypool’s previously mentioned back-shoulder catch for 22 yards. Claypool also drew a 26-yard pass-interference penalty in the second half to set up Pittsburgh’s go-ahead touchdown. The second-year receiver from Notre Dame also added another 25 yards on a jet sweep. Johnson, who led all receivers with five catches, displayed great concentration and footwork by staying with a tipped pass before reeling it in and getting both feet in bounds for a score. Meanwhile, Smith-Schuster picked up where he left off a year ago by being more tight end than receiver while pulling in short passes and then bowling over Bills’ defenders to pick up tough yards. Grade: B
The Steelers went into halftime with 54 measly yards of total offense. Roethlisberger didn’t seem comfortable standing in the pocket for very long, while the ground game barely made a dent. Things did improve as the game went along, but the Steelers new hogs are going to have to perform much better if the offense is going to improve as the season rolls along. Grade: D
Veteran Cam Heyward recorded four tackles, a sack and two passes defended, while recovering a fumble. Heyward also was credited with a whopping 12 quarterback pressures. It was a great day for an all-time great Steeler. Tyson Alualu looked solid as usual, as did Chris Wormley. Isaiah Buggs and Carlos Davis also factored into the rotation and reportedly acquitted themselves well. Grade: A
Speaking of all-time Steelers greats, it’s hard to not include outside linebacker T.J. Watt in those discussions in this, just his fourth season. The newly-minted $122 million man had another stellar day on Sunday, collecting two sacks and five quarterback hits, while also forcing the aforementioned fumble that Heyward recovered. Watt was credited with eight quarterback pressures, as was veteran Melvin Ingram III, who seemed almost unblockable in his Steelers debut. The Steelers generated so much pressure with four and five-man fronts, it allowed inside linebackers Devin Bush and Joe Schobert to drop back in coverage most of the day, as Pittsburgh utilized nickel and dime packages in an attempt to slow down Josh Allen and Buffalo’s potent passing attack. Grade: A+
The concern about the Steelers secondary was great heading into Week 1, but the revamped unit more than picked up where the 2020 version left off. Rookie Tre Norwood, a seventh-round pick from Oklahoma, was practically a starter in his very first game. He played the slot and also free safety in dime situations, allowing Minkah Fitzpatrick and his lethal skill-set to roam free. Norwood was credited with six tackles and didn’t seem out of place at all, while Fitzpatrick collected 10 to go along with one pass defense. Youngster James Pierre, who played outside corner in some sub-packages, had seven tackles and an impressive pass defense. As for veteran Joe Haden, you didn’t even notice him all day, which I believe is a good thing for any defensive back. The star of the secondary on Sunday, however, was Cameron Sutton, who played outside in base formations and in the slot in sub-packages. Week 1 was Sutton’s coming-out party, as he collected five tackles, including perhaps the most important one of the day when he stopped running back Matt Breida for a seven-yard loss on fourth and one. Sutton also added two very important passes defensed. Sutton was responsible for the Bills’ lone touchdown, but his coverage on receiver Gabriel Davis was so good, it was hard to do anything but tip your cap to Buffalo on that play. The Bills receivers may have tallied some receiving yards on the day–270–but they weren’t the difference-makers Buffalo needed them to be. Grade: A+
It was a troubling debut to the season for Pittsburgh’s coverage teams, as Isaiah McKenzie returned the opening kickoff 75 yards. But the coverage unit settled down from there, and McKenzie wasn’t much of a factor the rest of the day. The coverage unit more than made up for it early in the fourth quarter went it went into attack mode. Miles Killebrew blocked a Matt Haak punt, and Ulysses Gilbert III scooped it up and scored a touchdown to give the Steelers a 20-10 lead.
Chris Boswell was five for five on attempts–including three for three on field goals–and effectively iced the game with a 45-yard field goal to give Pittsburgh a 10-point lead with less than three minutes left.
As for rookie punter Pressley Harvin III, he struggled a bit punting in the often windy conditions of Highmark Stadium. He averaged 41.4 yards per kick and shanked one off the side of his foot while punting out of his own end zone. It wasn’t all bad for the rookie, as he downed two of his five punts inside the 20. Grade: B+
The fact that Pittsburgh won this game on the road as a 6.5 point underdog should shock nobody who knows anything about head coach Mike Tomlin. Nobody circles the wagon like Tomlin when his team is the underdog. It wasn’t always pretty, but that may have had to do with the fact that so many rookies not only played for the first time on Sunday but were being counted on to contribute heavily. It was also the NFL debut for offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who looked more like Randy Fichtner in the first half before finding the intestinal fortitude to adjust as the game went along.
I thought it was a masterful game-plan by defensive coordinator Keith Butler, as his charges generated a ton of quarterback pressure while blitzing so very little. Grade: A
It’s hard to call Haden an unsung hero but as previously mentioned, he was barely noticed on Sunday. If that doesn’t scream “lockdown corner,” I don’t know what does.