The Steelers bounced back from a very anemic first-half offensive performance and a 10-0 halftime deficit to defeat the Buffalo Bills, 23-16, at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, New York, on Sunday afternoon to kick off their 2021 regular season.
As far as Week 1 victories are concerned, this one had to rank up there for head coach Mike Tomlin, his players and certainly Steelers fans. Pittsburgh entered the game as a 6.5 point underdog, pretty long odds for a team that just won 12 games and the AFC North title one year earlier. But the Bills were considered to be one of the legit Super Bowl contenders in the AFC, while the Steelers were written off as pretenders long before the season even started.
As far as the game was concerned, it actually was a rather ominous start for Pittsburgh, as the Bills’ Isaiah McKenzie returned the game’s opening kickoff 75 yards down to the Pittsburgh 24. Fortunately for the Steelers, their defense, one of the best in the NFL the past two seasons, let it be known right away that it would likely be a force again in 2021 and forced a quick three-and-out. Buffalo placekicker Tyler Bass came on to kick a 37-yard field goal to give the home team a quick 3-0 lead.
It was a defensive battle from there, as the two teams traded punts on their next seven possessions.
With Pittsburgh’s offense struggling mightily to produce much in the way of yards, let alone points, the defense tried to shift the momentum midway through the second quarter when T.J. Watt, he of the recently-inked mega-deal, chased down Bills’ quarterback Josh Allen from behind and stripped him of the football. Cameron Heyward pounced on the fumble, setting the Steelers offense up at its own 45. Unfortunately, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Co. could not take advantage of the present, and Pittsburgh was forced to punt for the fifth time in as many offensive series.
After the Bills got the ball back, they subsequently drove 91 yards on 13 plays and took a 10-0 lead late in the second quarter when Allen found receiver Gabriel Davis in the back of the end zone for a three-yard touchdown pass. Cameron Sutton had great coverage on the play, but Allen made a perfect throw, while Davis displayed great concentration to get both feet in bounds.
Despite the defense’s stout play in the first half, the Steelers as a whole had to be feeling pretty deflated as they headed to the locker room down by 10 points.
While the defense was mostly dominant over the first 30 minutes, the offense was abysmal, tallying just 54 yards on six possessions.
Would the team respond? Would Matt Canada, the team’s new offensive coordinator, make the necessary adjustments that his predecessor, Randy Fichtner, was not known for?
The answer to both questions was yes.
The Steelers took the second-half kickoff and immediately began to move the ball, as rookie running back Najee Harris, the team’s most recent first-round pick, ran for nine yards on the first play. Moments later, Roethlisberger connected with tight end Eric Ebron for 19 yards down to the Buffalo 34. One play later, Roethlisberger connected with receiver Chase Claypool on a beautiful back-shoulder pass down to the Bills’ 12. Unfortunately, the drive stalled from there, and Chris Boswell came on to kick a 24-yard field goal to give the Steelers their first points of the 2021 campaign.
The defense came up big again on the following possession when the Bills decided to go for it on fourth and five from Pittsburgh’s 35, and Sutton broke up a pass intended for Davis.
Roethlisberger connected with rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth for 24 yards on the next possession, as the Steelers drove 62 yards on 11 plays. Again, though, the drive stalled inside the red zone–this time, the two-yard line–and Boswell came on to kick a 20-yard field goal to bring the Steelers to within four points.
The Bills again turned the ball over on downs on their next offensive possession when they attempted a weird-looking backward lateral from Allen to running back Matt Breida on fourth and one from the Pittsburgh 41; Sutton came through, again, tackling Breida for a seven-yard loss.
The Steelers offense finally reached pay-dirt on its next possession. Facing a third and seven from the Buffalo 49, Pittsburgh got a fresh set of downs, thanks to a 26-yard defensive interference penalty on cornerback Levi Wallace on a pass intended for Claypool. Harris raced 18 yards down to the Bills’ five on the very next play to set up a first-and-goal situation. One play later, Roethlisberger found Diontae Johnson in the back corner of the end zone, and the third-year receiver displayed great concentration by first bobbling the pass and then catching it and keeping both feet in bounds for a five-yard touchdown to make it 13-10, visitors. After trailing for three-plus quarters, the Steelers finally had their first lead with 11:19 left in regulation.
The lead would balloon to 10 moments later. After the Steelers defense forced a quick three-and-out, Miles Killebrew raced through to block Buffalo’s punt, and Ulysses Gilbert III scooped up the loose football and scored a touchdown to make it 20-10.
The Bills immediately answered with a field goal to pull to within a touchdown with 5:23 remaining, but Pittsburgh responded with a field goal of its own, as Boswell connected from 45 yards away to re-establish the 10-point lead with 2:42 remaining.
Bass kicked another field goal to pull the Bills to within seven points with 42 seconds remaining, but JuJu Smith-Schuster recovered the subsequent onside kick to secure the Steelers first victory of the season.
Next up for the Steelers is a date with the Las Vegas Raiders next Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field, as the team kicks off its home schedule in front of what figures to be a loud and raucous crowd.