Steelers Lose to Bills 31-17 in AFC Wildcard as They Fail to Execute Familiar Formula

It was a hard fought game. Much harder than the final score indicates. But the end result saw the Steelers lose to the Bills 31-17 in the AFC wildcard ending their 2023 season at Highmark Stadium, in Orchard Park, New York.

Mike Tomlin was right on the money when opened his press conference declaring, “I appreciate the efforts of our guys in there and I just told the guys that, but efforts don’t get it done.”

He is right. The Steelers effort showed. As did their desire.

But in their season ended in Buffalo for two simple reasons: The Bills have more talent, and the Steelers failed to execute a formula that had served them so well for so much of the season.

Josh Allen, Damontae Kazee, Steelers vs Bills, Steelers vs Bills wildcard

Josh Allen romps for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Steelers Earn “A” for Effort, for What It Is Worth…

Give the Steelers and “A” for effort.

Mason Rudolph, starting his first playoff game got off to a shaky start, but rebounded to bring the team to within 7 points in the 4th quarter.

His confidence could have wavered. It did not.

Mason Rudolph spread the ball around. Pat Freiermuth, George Pickens and Diontae Johnson combined for 14 passes. Pickens run once for 15 yards. Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris both had pass receptions for 10 plus yards. Calvin Austin even got a touchdown.

If someone had told you the stat sheet would look like that going into the game, you’d may have very well thought the Steelers were going to win.

  • But they didn’t. None of the three top pass catchers sniffed 100 yards receiving.

On the ground both Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris ran hard, moved bodies and seemed to fall forward. At least that’s the way it felt watching the game – after the offense got moving. But numbers don’t lie. Both backs might have ripped off carries for double digits, but together they didn’t even break the 80 yard number.

The Steelers had effort was enough to deliver quantity on offense; the Bills had enough talent to prevent the Steelers from transforming quantity into enough quality.

On defense the stat sheet isn’t quite as generous, but if I’d told you that Markus Golden and Alex Highsmith both sacked Josh Allen, you’d have taken that as a good sign.

  • Special Teams tells a similar tale.

Chris Boswell was perfect. When the Steelers had to kickoff at a 15 yard disadvantage Danny Smith’s coverage unit stopped Buffalo at the 30-yard line. And if I told you that Montravius Adams blocked a field goal with Nick Herbig flipping the field to recover at the Bills 33-yard line you’d have also thought that was a good sign.

Yet Pressley Harvin averaged just 38.5 yards punting, consistently giving the Bills strong field position.

The Steelers never lacked for effort in this game. They “proverbially ‘left it all on the field.’” But in the end effort proved to be an insufficient substitute for talent.

Talent Trumps Effort

The Buffalo Bills are a good football team. They may have faltered a bit earlier in the season, but at Highmark Stadium you could see they are legitimate be Super Bowl contenders.

James Cook didn’t dominate the Steelers, but he was far more effective than either of Pittsburgh’s running backs. The Steelers have struggled against tight ends all season long. Dalton Kincaid “only” had 3 catches, but he averaged 19.9 on those grabs and one of them was for a touchdown.

Mike Tomlin and Teryl Austin made adjustments to limit him later in the game, but the damage had been done. Talent trumps coaching.

The Buffalo Bills demonstrated their superior talent at several moments during the game, but three stick out to this scribe:

1. Early in the game Patrick Peterson had Josh Allen dead to rights for a sack. Allen wiggled out and ran for 8 yards.

2. Late in the game Allen hit Khalil Shakir for what looked like a short gain. Minkah Fitzpatrick was on him, but couldn’t quite bring him down. Here’s what happened next.

At least four other Steelers had a shot at him in close quarters. Only Cam Heyward got a hand on him and it wasn’t enough.

3. Midway through the second quarter on third and 8 the Steelers were about to collapse the pocket around Josh Allen. You can see what happens next.

Both Levi Wallace and Damontae Kazee tried and missed on tackles and he flat out outran Patrick Peterson.

A fourth, bonus example would be Alex Highsmith wrapping Ty Johnson in the backfield late in the game, only to have him evade his grasp and, if memory serves, earn a first down if not make his 11 yard gain.

Be crystal clear on one thing: In many of the above examples the Steelers had very talented players involved on the wrong side of those plays; Buffalo’s players were simply more talented.

Steelers Forget the Lesson that Got Them There in the First Place

Superior talent doesn’t always triumph in the NFL. The formula for beating a more talented team is hides in plain sight:

Limit turnovers
Create turnovers
Capitalize those turnovers
Avoid costly mistakes

With the Steelers already down by 7 on their second possession, George Pickens coughed up the ball. It took one pass to Dalton Kincaid to make put Pittsburgh down 14 to zero with four minutes left in the first quarter.

Two possessions later, Mason Rudolph had led the team on an 88 yard drive before throwing a bad ball to Diontae Johnson that Kaiir Elam picked off in the end zone. That took at least 3 points off the board – and those extra 3 points would have made a comeback much more manageable – and set up Allen’s touchdown run.

  • The Steelers of course got a turnover of their own and capitalized on that.

But when they were in comeback mode trying to get the ball back only down 17 to 24, Myles Jack committed not one, but two defensive penalties gifting the Bills 20 yards and two first downs. Shakir scored his touchdown two plays after Jack’s unnecessary roughness call. Those costly mistakes came when the Steelers could ill afford them.

  • It says here that the 2023 Buffalo Bills are a better team than the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers.

But it also says that the Steelers could have found a way to win, but didn’t. And that’s a reality filled with irony, because for the better part of the season’s first 12 weeks, the Steelers put on a clinic for rest of the NFL in executing the formula for beating more talented teams.

Alas, so ends the Steelers 2023 season.

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Times Change: Damontae Kazee hit on Chris Olave vs. Gary Jones on Don Bebbe

“Times change Myron,” was the quote Myron Cope used to lead off a chapter in his book Double Yoi. Dan Rooney supplied the quote in response to Myron’s protest over the Steelers decision to ban smoking effective January 1st, 1990 in the press room because secondary smoke had been bothering assistant coaches.

  • Cope pointed out that The Chief, Art Rooney Sr. had been a smoker, prompting the response from Rooney.

When Cope shared that story in his 2003 book, the memory of someone smoking (that’s tobacco smoking kids) in an enclosed era like a pro football press room was already anachronistic. Today its almost impossible to imagine that something like that ever occurred, let alone was ever “normal.”

  • And this week Steelers Nation got another reminder of just how much “normal” has changed on the football field.

What was the best play made last week by the Steelers defense in the win over the Saints? Levi Wallace’s interception? Perhaps Damontae Kazee’s pick? Maybe one of Alex Highsmith’s sacks? Or Robert Spillane’s stuff of Andy Dalton on 4th down?

Damontae Kazee, Chris Olave, Steelers vs Saints

Chris Olave gets a big hit from Damontae Kazee after a tough catch. Photo Credit: Twitter

All good candidates indeed. But you know what? If a  DeLorean burned some rubber on Carson Street, and out strut an analyst from 20 years ago, there’s a fair bet they’d have told you the best play was Damontae Kazee hit on Chris Olave. Alas, thanks to Roger Goodell’s YouTube police, you can’t see the play on this site, but check it out on YouTube, we’ll wait.

Yes, that was one hell of a hit.

In another generation even though Olave held on to the ball, such a hit would have been though of as a tone setter. This isn’t hypothetical conjecture, it actually happened.

The high mark of the Steelers 1993 season came on November 15th, 1993 at Three Rivers Stadium where the Steelers shut out the Buffalo Bills 23-0. Early during the game, another Steelers reserve safety, Gary Jones, delivered this hit on long time Steelers nemesis, Don Beebe. Again, thanks to Roger Goodell’s YouTube police, you can’t see the play on this site, but check it out on YouTube, we’ll wait

It is the exact same kind of hit. The difference is that Kazee got flagged 15 yards for a personal foul, admonished on air by the commentators and then fined for the hit. Gary Jones? Well, you can hear Al Michaels, Dan Dierdorf and Frank Gifford talking about what great of a hit it was.

Yes, as Dan Rooney reminded Mryon Cope, “Times change.”

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Report Card For Steelers 38-3 Loss To The Bills At Highmark Stadium

Quarterback

All things considered, Kenny Pickett looked pretty darn good as he made his first NFL start for the Steelers on Sunday. His stat line read: 34 of 52 passes completed for 327 yards and an interception that was thrown on probably his worst attempt of the day. Pickett showed poise and leadership. He was fiery, like when he got into it with the Bills’ Shaq Lawson late in Sunday’s game thanks to a low and questionable hit by the defender. Unfortunately, Pickett didn’t produce. He could have had more help from his receivers, namely Diontae Johnson, who failed to come up with two catches that may have at least altered the team’s offensive output on the day. Grade: C+

Running Backs

It was another lackluster day for starter Najee Harris, who gained just 20 yards on 11 carries. Harris showed zero explosiveness and didn’t take advantage of the few running lanes that were there against a stout Buffalo defense. Rookie Jaylen Warren looked better, as he rushed for 24 yards on five carries. Unfortunately, most of Warren’s work came in the second half when the Bills’ were up huge and in prevent mode. Grade: D

Tight Ends

It was a relatively quiet day for the tight ends, as Zach Gentry led the way with five receptions for 43 yards, while number one tight end, Pat Freiermuth, tallied just two catches for 12 yards. Grade: D+

Wide Receivers

It was a semi-productive day for the Steelers’ top three wideouts, led by George Pickens, who posted six catches for 83 yards. Johnson nabbed five passes for 60 yards, while Chase Claypool pulled in another five for 50 yards. But as alluded to earlier, Johnson failed to come up with what would have been a highlight reception early in the game that would have set the offense up with a first and goal. Again, would it have been a tough grab for Johnson, who made a one-handed catch near the sideline but failed to drag his right foot in bounds? Yes, but he’s a number-one receiver who signed a contract extension worth $18 million a year. He’s got to come down with some of these tough catches every now and then. Also, it was the fifth-straight game that Pittsburgh’s receivers failed to score a touchdown this season. Grade: D+

Offensive Line

Pickett was sacked three times and didn’t necessarily have all the time in the world when he did try to sit back in the pocket. There were a lot of quick throws to the sidelines to slow down the Bills’ great front seven. Also, the rushing offense was almost non-existent. Grade: D

Defensive Line

Once again, the Steelers defense failed to generate even a sliver of a pass rush and barely inconvenienced Josh Allen as he stood back in the pocket. That starts up front with Cameron Heyward and company. It’s true that Heyward is getting up there and is receiving the brunt of the attention with T.J. Watt absent from the defense, but I think most expected a bit more from the veteran. Rookie DeMarvin Leal did knock down a couple of passes, but that was early in the game before things truly got out of hand. Grade: F

Linebackers

Another uninspired effort by Devin Bush, who may not have even half the playmaking ability the Steelers thought he did when they traded up to select him in the 2019 NFL Draft. Myles Jack did lead the team in tackles with six, but someone had to. Robert Spillane was a non-factor and again struggled to do much in pass coverage. As for the outside linebackers? It was a quiet day for Alex Highsmith, as the front seven failed to record a single hit on Allen all afternoon–the lone quarterback hit was recorded by safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Malik Reed continued to be invisible in place of the injured Watt and has yet to even approach the standard head coach Mike Tomlin loves to set for his backups. Grade: F

Secondary

The tone was set for the day when Allen, facing a third and 10 from his own two-yard line, found receiver Gabe Davis for a 98-yard touchdown pass on the game’s third play. Davis badly beat Levi Wallace on the play before shooting past safety Tre Norwood, who was the last line of defense because Fitzpatrick blitzed up the middle. Allen, who passed for 424 yards and four touchdowns, had a field day with the Steelers secondary, as did Buffalo’s receiving corps, led by Davis, who later pulled in a 62-yard touchdown pass over a determined Fitzpatrick, who tried in vain to rip the football from the receiver’s possession. Wallace did intercept an Allen pass in the end zone early in the game, but all that did was temporarily stop the bleeding. Grade: F

Special Teams

It was a mixed bag. The game started off strong for the special teams unit, as Norwood tackled Taiwan Smith, who muffed the opening kickoff, at the two-yard line. But immediately after the Bills scored on a 98-yard touchdown pass, James Pierre, filling in for an injured Steven Simms, fumbled the subsequent kickoff, and the Bills recovered. Buffalo failed to capitalize thanks to Heyward blocking a 49-yard field goal attempt by Tyler Bass.

Chris Boswell had a rare bad day, going one of three on field goal tries in the windy Buffalo conditions–including a miss from 33 yards out late in the first half.

Pressley Harvin III also struggled with the Buffalo wind and, after connecting on a 69-yard punt early in the game, averaged just 31 yards over his next three boots. Grade: D

Coaching

The Steelers were out-hit, out-schemed and out-coached from whistle to whistle. The Bills are clearly in a much higher class than the Steelers, and Tomlin and Co. could do nothing to close the gap. Grade: F

Unsung Hero

It’s hard to pick one of these in a game like this, so let’s just go with Pickens, who appears to be well on his way to becoming the Steelers’ top weapon.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to the Bills: 2 F’s on a Friday Edition

Taken from the grade book of a tardy teacher who is forced to give out 2 “Fs” to formerly star pupils, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2020 loss to the Bills in Buffalo.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Bills

Bills drop Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger was hard on himself after the game. As he should be. To be clear, Roethlisberger remains the offense’s best player by far. But, as was wont to do earlier in his career, Ben sometimes tries to do too much by forcing things. Such was the case both interceptions against the Bills, which shifted momentum to Buffalo and killed any comeback chances. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner, Benny Snell and Jaylen Samuels couldn’t break the 50 yard mark – together. Yet each had some respectable runs and Samuels had 3 catches. Frankly, the backs showed they can run when they get room. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron promptly dropped his first pass, a throw that would have converted a third down. He was 50/50 on his other throws and was impressive in hauling in the two point conversion. Vance McDonald had 2 passes thrown his way but did not have a catch. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster caught 6 of 7 balls thrown his way and again proved he is the units most reliable receiver. Diontae Johnson dropped two balls and got benched, but came back to make plays in the 2nd half. James Washington only caught two passes but one was for a touchdown and he was open on the 2nd interception. Chase Claypool had 3 catches on 6 yards. Grade C-

Offensive Line
To be fair, the Steelers lost not one, but two starters during this night and suffered another injury that pressed Jerald Hawkins into action leaving the team with only 5 health lineman at one point. Its tempting to factor this into group’s grade. Tempting, but wrong. The Steelers run game and line did show a little spunk when Kevin Dotson was in, but other than that the group got manhandled. Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once, but that came on the first third down of the 2nd half.

Long a team strength, against the Bills this group stood out a glaring weakness. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Tyson Alualu saved the Steelers sack streak becoming the only player to log a sack. Cam Heyward played as a one-man wrecking crew for the first half but got double teamed effectively in the second. Stephon Tuitt could have picked up the slack, but he did not. Grade: B-

Cam Heyward, Ike Boettger, vs Bills

Cam Heyward rushes Ike Boettger. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Linebackers
Once a strength of the defense, T.J. Watt was the only starter from opening day and Watt had an off night although he did defect a pass and hit the QB twice. Avery Williamson and Marcus Allen led the team in tackles. Alex Highsmith had a tackle for a loss and a QB hit but has yet to make good on the flashed he showed before becoming a starter. Ulysees Gilbert III saw his first real defensive action. Given the deck dealt to them, the linebackers turned in an above the line performance. Grade: C

Secondary
Steven Nelson was on fire during the 2nd half as he defected 3 passes. Mike Hilton made a interception and helped force a fumble that Cam Sutton recovered. Terrell Edmunds led the secondary with 8 tackles while Minkah Fitzpatrick missed a key tackle of Stefon Diggs. The secondary did an excellent job of containing Diggs and Allen in the 1st half. The 2nd half was a different story, but overall their play was above the line. Grade: C+

Special Teams
Ray-Ray McCloud’s fumble seems to have spooked him as his decision to return the first kick was a mistake. His second return was solid. The Bills kick and punt returning were hardly a difference maker in the game, but they enjoyed more success than you’d like to see. Chris Boswell made his lone extra point attempt and Jordan Berry’s punting was above the line. Grade: C

Levi Wallace, James Washington, Steelers vs Bills

Levi Wallace intercepts Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Coaching
Playing 3 NFL games in 12 days is taxing and will challenge the management skills of even the best NFL staff. While its popular to take aim at Mike Tomlin (Mexican blogger Carlos Ortega titled a Spanish-language post “Do your F___ing Job) and his coordinators, this site won’t join that frenzy, at least not fully.

Keith Butler had to take the field on the road against one of the hottest QB-WR duos without four of his starters and 1 primary backup. The Steelers did an excellent job of containing them for one half. Certainly, that changed in the 2nd half, but by holding them to 20 non-turnover assisted points, Butler’s boys gave the Steelers a chance to win.

  • The case on offense is less clear.

Clearly the unit remains below the line, across the board. But how much of this is Randy Fichtner’s fault? The Steelers offensive line is a liability plain and simple, and that ripples through every other position. It’s comforting to think that Russ Grimm and/or Mike Munchak could come back and coach up and forge the current front five into a formidable unit, but such fancies are fantasy. This is an aging and injured unit.

  • Still, earlier in the season the Steelers used sweeps and Jet motion effectively.

Save for a handful of plays, that was missing Sunday night. While it Fichtner would be foolish to try to re-invent the wheel he could be more creative.

  • Overall, the analysis here is that Mike Tomlin brought his team to Buffalo ready to play.

During the 29 minutes the Steelers were in control of the game. The pick six changed the tone and tempo of the game, and the 2nd interception killed comeback chances, but responsibility for those errors does not rest with the coaches. Grade: C

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Rebound or Reckoning? Steelers 26-15 Loss Shows Franchise Facing a Critical Crossroads

The Buffalo Bills defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 26-15, as the Steelers logged their 3rd game in 12 days. This is only the Steelers 2nd loss in 13 games, yet the feeling in Steelers Nation is nothing close to what one would expect for a team with a 11-2 record halfway through December.

  • Perhaps that’s as it should be.

It’s not so much that the Steelers lost to the Bills. It’s the way that they lost. This game hinged on Ben Roethlisberger’s pre-half time pick-six. It was, as commentators love to tell us a “momentum changer.” The question now is this: Was this just a momentum changer for just this game or did it change the momentum for the entire season?

Taron Johnson, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Bills

Taron Johnson’s hauls in his lethal pick six. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Contradicting the Conventional Wisdom: Steelers Strong for First 29 Minutes

Roll your eyes all you want. But in this scribe’s estimation, the Steelers actually looked pretty good for the game’s first 29 minutes. Was Pittsburgh perfect? Hardly.

  • Diontae Johnson promptly dropped the first two passes thrown to him
  • Eric Ebron dropped one thrown at him on third down, no less
  • Jordan Berry had punted five times before the 20 minute mark
  • James Conner had been stuffed for 1 yards, zero yards or negative yards several times
  • The Steelers had failed to turn a Mike Hilton interception into money

Clearly, Pittsburgh’s problems had not gone away. But it was also clear that the coaching staff had taken steps to address those problems. And those measures were working, at least on some level.

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton interception, Steelers vs Bills

Cam Sutton recovers a fumble. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Perhaps, best of all, late in the 2nd half Josh Allen brought the Bills into the Steelers Red Zone and some stout play up front by Cam Heyward and Steven Nelson in the secondary helped the Steelers force a field goal. Holding a 7-3 lead while on the road against an all but certain division champion with 1:42 left in the game hardly implies domination.

But when you consider that the Steelers were without Joe Haden, effectively starting their 4th and 5th string inside linebackers and had lost another starter in the first half, a 7-3 lead was a good place to be.

The Steelers had control. Tenuous control certainly, but control nonethless.

  • And Mike Tomlin, to his credit and as his habit, wasn’t content to settle for that.

Ben Roethlisberger got the ball back and proceeded to move the Steelers to midfield with just over a minute left to play. Then Ben Roethlisberger made a bad decision to force a throw to JuJu Smith-Schuster. He made an even worse throw. Taron Johnson took it to the house and put Buffalo up 9 to 7.

The game wasn’t over, but the momentum had changed.

Allen and Diggs Pull Pittsburgh Apart

The Bills got the ball back to start the second half and credit Sean McDermott and his staff for making the ever important “second half adjustment.”

Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs proceeded to pull Pittsburgh apart and in the process they burned 5 minutes off of the clock in their first touchdown drive. The Bills did it again the next time they got the ball, and by time the 3rd quarter was over, Buffalo was up 23 to 15.

Rally, Roethlisberger Fall Short

Things looked bleak. The Bills had scored two touchdowns and the Steelers had done nothing other than send Jordan Berry out to punt twice. But for whatever else you want to say about the Steelers, no one can say they folded.

Ben Roethlisberger and JuJu Smith-Schuster got the Steelers on the board early in the 4th quarter. Eric Ebron atoned for his previous drop by hauling in a 2 point conversion. Suddenly the Steelers were with in 8 points.
Sure the Bills responded with a field goal, but on paper a win was still within the Steelers grasp.

Alas, that was not to be. On third and long, Ben Roethlisberger tried to go deep targeting James Washington. Washington was wide open, but Ben Roethlisberger put the ball frankly in the only spot on the field were Levi Wallace could get it.

He did, and the Bills nickel and dimed the Steelers by running 12 plays to kill the clock.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Bills

Ben Roethlisberger passes during the Steelers loss to the Bills. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Rebound or Reckoning?

After the game Ben Roethlisberger minced no words, explaining “Right now, we’re not playing good football, and it starts with me.” When asked if he and the Steelers had time to right the ship, Ben did not blink, “I hope so. If I don’t play good enough football, I need to hang it up.”

The first time Ben Roethlisberger uttered the “R” word was after the Steelers 2016 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots. After his 5 interception debacle against the Jaguars in October 2017, he openly mused about “Not having it anymore.”

  • That sounded ominous at the time.

But Ben Roethlisberger responded by playing some of the best football of his life in the 2nd half of 2017 and that saved the season as Ryan Shazier’s loss left the defense reeling.

  • Can history repeat?

It would make for a nice story. But NFL season rarely evolve like movie scripts.

The reality is as simple as it is stark. The Steelers defense is depleted. Pittsburgh lacks both the running backs and the offensive line to field a balanced attack. All of that means that hope for any rebound rests squarely with Roethlisberger.

  • If he can deliver, the result will be worthy of a Hollywood movie.

If not, then perhaps its time for Pittsburgh to begin reckoning with how they will manage the post-Roethlisberger era.

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Tre’Davious White’s Interception Ended the 2019 Steelers and Devlin Hodge’s Cinderella Season

Duck Season was in full bloom (or whatever is supposed to happen when ducks are in season) when the Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the Bills for an epic Sunday Night Football Match-up at Heinz Field on December 15.

When I refer to duck, of course, I am talking about Steelers rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges, who was set to make his fourth start against Buffalo. I was tailgating with some friends that night at Heinz Field, and believe me when I tell you, people were believing in the youngster affectionately known as Duck. There were Duck hats. There were Duck t-shirts. There were Duck signs. There were those things people blow into when they want to make righteous duck sounds–including Duck, himself, when he got his nickname by winning a national duck calling contest back in 2009.

  • It was a pretty cool scene, and why not?

After all, here were the Steelers, a team that started 2019 by losing its most precious resource–quarterback Ben Roethlisberger–to a season-ending elbow injury in Week 2. The moment that news broke, nobody gave them a chance to do anything, other than lose 10-plus games. Yet, Pittsburgh entered this important Week 15 contest with an 8-5 record and the inside track on the fifth seed. Buffalo was 9-4, but if Pittsburgh won out, it would enter the playoffs as the top wildcard entrant.

Tre'Davious White, Tre'Davious White interception, Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Bills

Tre’Davious White’s interception was the turning point of the Steelers 2019 season. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via DraftKings.com

Neither team came into the night with a stellar offense–especially the Steelers, who, again, were pretty compromised due to injury.

  • As for both defenses, however? They were unquestionably the reasons for their teams’ seasons.

Experts and fans, alike, predicted the Sunday night showdown would be a defensive struggle, and the game did not disappoint in that regard.

The offensive play on both sides was pretty ugly, as the two teams spent the majority of the game exchanging punts, sacks, three and outs and turnovers.

One Steelers turnover near the end of the first half was especially damning. Shortly after cornerback Steven Nelson intercepted a pass by Bills’ quarterback Josh Allen and returned it to the Buffalo 20, Pittsburgh had a first and goal from the 10-yard line. Trailing 7-3, if the Steelers could score a touchdown on this possession, they not only would have the momentum, but they would get the football to start the second half. Unfortunately, on a first down play out of the wildcat formation, rookie receiver Diontae Johnson fumbled a bumbling hand-off from running back James Conner, and the Bills recovered.

Fortunately for the Steelers, they were able to save face by taking the second half kickoff and marching downfield for the go-ahead touchdown on an 11-yard pass from Devlin Hodges to James Conner.

  • Fast-forward to late in the third quarter. There were the Steelers with a 10-7 lead and possession of the football.

Yes, the offensive play was ugly up to that point. Yes, they squandered a huge scoring opportunity with that fumble near the end of the first half. But this was pretty much par for the course for their 2019 season. Do just enough on offense to claim the lead and allow a defense that had become quite proficient at getting after the quarterback and taking the football away to close out the game.

Not only did the Steelers have the football and a 10-7 lead near the end of the third quarter, they were putting together a pretty impressive drive that had already covered five plays and 25 yards. After a five-yard run by Conner, the Steelers had a first and 10 at the Buffalo 43. Any points on this drive would be huge, and if Pittsburgh could somehow extend its lead to double-digits, that could have been curtains for the Bills.

  • Instead of perhaps continuing to run the football, Hodges dropped back and tried to hit Johnson on an out pattern.

Unfortunately, the timing was a bit off, and Bills’ all-everything cornerback Tre’Davious White stepped in front of Johnson and intercepted Hodges’ pass at the Bills 33 before returning it all the way down to the Steelers 18. It was White’s second interception of the night and far more damaging than the first one way back in the opening quarter.

Pittsburgh’s defense held strong and limited Buffalo to three points. However, following a quick three and out by the Steelers, the Bills drove 70 yards on six plays and took the lead on a 14-yard touchdown pass from Allen to tight end Tyler Kroft midway through the fourth quarter.

  • The Steelers offense–especially Hodges–never quite recovered.

Pittsburgh had a couple of opportunities late in the game to tie the score, but Hodges was intercepted on successive drives to close out the night.

The 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers were never quite the same after that loss to the Bills, and they dropped their final two games–scoring just 10 points each time–to finish the season 8-8 and out of the playoffs.

  • It’s amazing what momentum and belief can do for a team.

Up until that fateful Sunday Night matchup at Heinz Field, the 2019 Steelers had been authoring a storybook Cinderella season much like the 1989 Steelers had done 30 autumns earlier. 

Sure, it was quite apparent that opposing defenses had figured Hodges out by the time Buffalo came to town, but one wonders if the team would have been able to do enough to sneak into the playoffs had that Bills game not gotten away at the end.

We’ll never know, of course, thanks to Tre’Davious White who made the interception that transformed the Steelers Cinderella season into a Pumpkin. 

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Bills – 2 Letter Grade Markdown for Tardiness Edition

From the grade book of a teacher who is marking himself down two full letter grades for being so late, here is the Steelers Report Card for the Sunday Night Football loss to the Bills.

Delvin Hodges, Shaq Lawson, Steelers vs Bills

Devlin Hodges tries to evade Shaq Lawson. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Quarterback
Until Sunday night Devlin Hodges had soared above all expectations. Against the Bills the Duck fell to earth. Devlin Hodges threw a career high 38 passes against the Bills and in the process showed why his best role at this point is as a game manager. He threw four interceptions with each one being uglier than the first. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner return for his first action since getting a few carries against Cleveland and showed that he’s clearly the best rusher the Steelers have. Conner gained 42 yards on 8 carries and caught 4 passes for 9 yards, including the only touchdown. Kerrith Whyte 1 carry for 5 yards, Benny Snell had 2 for 1 yard and Jaylen Samuels had 2 for a loss. The running backs weren’t used enough, but that’s hardly their fault. Grade: B

Tight Ends
With Vance McDonald in the concussion protocol, Nick Vannett stepped into the starting role to catch 5 of 6 passes thrown to him for an economical 40 yards. Zach Gentry saw his first action in several weeks, and caught the only pass thrown to him. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers
James Washington continued to show he is the class of the unit, catching 5 passes for 83 yards. He had 6 more passes thrown his way, but some of those were uncatchable. Diontae Johnson caught 5 of 7 passes thrown his way, but was not a factor. Tevin Jones had two passes thrown his way, including an end zone interception which he didn’t contest. Johnny Holton caught 2 passes for negative 2 yards. The Steelers needed more form their wide outs. Grade: C-

James Washington, Micah Hyde, Steelers vs Bills

James Washington catches a pass in front of Micah Hyde. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Offensive Line
Devlin Hodges was sacked 4 times and hit another 7 times and was generally under duress all night. The Steelers knew the Bills were going to applying pressure yet, the line failed to meet the challenge. In this site’s post-game write up, the line took a lot of heat for the 9 tackles for losses. But 4 of them were the sacks, and in the estimate of Steel City Insider’s “Heinzsight,” on the rest of the losses came on screens or Wildcat attempts. Grade: D

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the defensive line with 9 tackles and batted away a pass at a critical moment. Tyson Alualu had four tackles, a batted pass and forced a fumble that could have been a game-changer. Solid numbers, but the Bills ran the ball reasonably well, and there wasn’t much pressure on Josh Allen. Grade: C

Linebackers
Vince Williams led the unit in tackles splitting a sack with T.J. Watt who also batted away a pass. Bud Dupree had a quiet evening, while Devin Bush had 4 tackles including two for losses. Overall the linebacking was solid, but the Steelers could have used more splash from the unit. Grade: B-

Secondary
Steven Nelson had an interception which should have been a game changer. However, that must be balanced by the fact that John Brown made critical catch after critical catch. Terrell Edmunds led the team in tackles. Joe Haden blew his assignment on one of the Bills touchdowns. Grade: B-

Josh Brown, Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

Steven Nelson can’t prevent Josh Brown from catching a pass for a first down. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Special Teams
Jordan Berry shanked his first punt of the season at the worst possible time. The Steelers gave up a 12 yard punt return, although Diontae Johnson had two solid returns, and Kerrith Whyte did a respectable job on kick returns. Chris Boswell was perfect kicking. Grade: D

Coaching
This was hardly a flawless game from Keith Butler’s defense. But the Bills only went the length of the field twice, and the Steelers defense did an excellent job in forcing a Red Zone turnover into a field goal situation.

  • The defense also secured two turn overs, both of which could have been game changers – had the offense capitalized.

Ah, yes, the offense. Randy Fichtner has taken a lot of heat in some quarters this season for his play calling. To a large extent, this site has refrained from joining the chorus because:

A. The Steelers have been winning
B. The Steelers have been fielding practice squad players at the skill positions

However, Randy Fichnter deserves the criticism he’s getting following the Bills game, and then some. As Ed Bouchette pointed out in The Athletic, after T.J. Watt’s forced fumble, the Steelers held a 10-7 lead, and lined up in the shotgun and called 3 straight pass plays, the second two of which ended in sacks.

The lopsided run pass ratio has come into focus, but as Jim Wexell pointed out, before the score was tied the ratio stood at 22-14. Point taken, but the Steelers didn’t seem committed to establish the run, which is perplexing, given how well James Conner was running.

  • Mike Tomlin has kept his team focused while walking on a tight rope.

His balancing act failed against the Bills costing them a victory in a game that the Steelers could and should have won. Grade: D

Unsung Hero Award
The Steelers offensive line has been a disappointment this season, but offensive lineman have made some great individual, “Heads Up” plays. For the second straight week, an offensive lineman showed some extra hustle at a critical moment by ending a 49 yard interception return by Tre’Davious White at the 18. And for that, for the second straight week Matt Feiler wins the unsung hero award.

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Steelers Loss to Bills Proves Pittsburgh Not Immune to Gravity’s Pull

My, how different things look and feel just a week later. The Buffalo Bills arrival in Pittsburgh Sunday night and their departure after defeating the Steelers 17-10 served as a collective slap in the face for Steelers Nation.

  • The Buffalo Bills not only clinched a playoff spot by snapping the Steelers 3 game winning streak, they did so with the “Bills Mafia” occupying a good chunk of the seats at Heinz Field.

Since then bloggers and credentialed scribes have offered all sorts explanations over what this loss all means. However, there’s no need to complicated conclusions here. The lesson from the loss to the Bills is simple: the 2019 Steelers are not immune from the forces of gravity.

Levi Wallace, James Washington, Steelers vs Bills,

Levi Wallace picks off Devlin Hodges final pass to seal Bills win. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Gravity in the NFL

Discovered by Issac Newton while sitting under the apple tree at Oxford in 1687, Webster’s defines gravity as: the gravitational attraction of the mass of the earth, the moon, or a planet for bodies at or near its surface.

In science, gravity is an external force. In the NFL the pull of gravity can come from external factors. But the good news AND bad news for the Steelers is that in the NFL teams can create their own gravity wells.

A Brief History of the Steelers vs Gravity

The pull of the NFL’s gravity can be felt during a single game, over the course of a season or during an era. And the Pittsburgh Steelers have defied graveity at any number of times in in their history.

During the early and mid-1990’s, the Steelers saw an annual exodus of free agents, many of them Pro Bowl caliber, out of Pittsburgh. Yet Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe kept fielding contenders, until gravity finally won.
From a time, Ben Roethlisberger was the NFL’s most sacked quarterback behind a porous offensive line. Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert defied NFL gravity for a time, employing both an offensive coordinator who was happy to “let Ben be Ben” and a “Plug and Patch” approach to offensive line building.

  • But by 2011 the toll all of the punishment Ben Roethlisberger was taking became evident, and the Steelers altered their approach.

Here in 2019, the Steelers have not only lost their starting quarterback and All World wide receiver but they’ve also had to bench Mason Rudolph and lost JuJu Smith-Schuster, in addition to losing James Conner and having to start any number of practice squad players at the skill positions.

  • Yet, since September, the Steelers have defied gravity until the Bills game.

The question is, does the loss to the Bill suggest the Steelers are succumbing to external forces of gravity, or are they creating their own gravity?

Point by Point: Breaking Down Steelers Loss to the Bills

With the benefit of a few days of analysis, it is easy to see that the Steelers loss to the Bills came down to a handful of critical plays, and one disturbing tendency. Let’s look at each of those elements.

1. Poor Special Teams Play

Jordan Berry first punt went for 22 yards and gave the Bills the ball at the Steelers 40 yard line. Sure, the Steelers responded with a Vince Williams-led gang sack of Josh Allen, but Allen also slipped past pressure on third down, and connected with Josh Brown to convert a 4th and 6.

It took them four more plays, but the Bills turned that 22 yard punt into the first touchdown of the night.

Jordan Berry has had a solid year and he doesn’t deserve to be a scaptgoat, but he picked the wrong night to shank a punt, because it set the Bills up for a relatively easy 7.

2. Failure Capitalize on Turnovers

Steven Nelson has toiled in relative anonymity this season while Minkah Fitzpatrick, T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, Bud Dupree and Joe Haden have grabbled the defensive headlines for the Steelers. So it seem to be a piece of poetic justice when picked off Josh Allen and returned the ball 33 yards to to the Bills 20 with 2:33 left to play.

  • The Steelers defense, it seemed, had notched another game-changing play at a critical moment.

Instead, James Conner stood in the Wildcat, got a low snap which he couldn’t cleanly give to Diontae Johnson, who put the ball on the ground and killed any chance the Steelers had of score before the half.

Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

Steven Nelson returns an interception against the Bills. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.come

Later, in the third quarter, with the Steelers just having taken the lead, T.J. Watt popped the ball from Devin Singletary’s hands and Mike Hilton pounced on it. While Pittsburgh recovered it its own 31, a long touchdown drive would have given the Steelers a 10 point lead. Jaylen Samuels started things off with a 5 yard reception, then Devlin Hodges gave up sacks on back-to-back plays.

Finally, two plays before the Bills 4th quarter touchdown, Tyson Alualu forced another Devin Singletary fumble, but the Bills recovered.

3. Devlin Hodges Throws 4 Interceptions

This was by far Devlin Hodges worst game. And truth be told, each interception was uglier than the previous pick. But the Steelers defense forced a punt after the first pick, held the Bills to zero yards and forced a field goal on after the 2nd. The next two came in the end zone in the final two minutes.

4. Failure to Control the Line of Scrimmage

The Bills sacked Devlin Hodges 4 times, hit him 7 times and kept him under duress all night long. While Steelers running backs ripped off some nice runs, the Bills also recorded 9 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

Is Internal or External Gravity Pulling Pittsburgh Down?

The 2019 Steelers formula for defying gravity has been to mix, mistake free, ball control offense with dominating, turnover producing defense. There’s nothing novel about that. But patching together 8 victories with a practice squad offense is unique.

  • Was the root cause for the formula falling flat against Buffalo caused by internal or external gravity?

The Steelers defense remains sound. The Bills only went the length of the field once. The until also limited points scored off of 5 turn overs to 10. That’s still winning football. Moreover, the Steelers defense continues to produce turnovers.

  • There’s no real gravity, internal or external, pulling Pittsburgh down on defense.

On offense, it is easy to look at Devlin Hodge’s ugly interceptions and/or failure to see an open James Washington over the middle and say, “The undrafted rookie’s been running on air Wile E. Coyote-like and he finally looked down….”

Duck Hodges did fall to earth Sunday Night, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the game is too big for him. The key take away from the Bills game is that Steelers can’t count on Devlin Hodges to win games for them.

  • In other words, if they don’t create any extra external gravity for themselves, Duck Hodges can still fly.

The most troubling tendency coming out of the Bills game is the poor play of the offensive line. The offensive line has disappointed all season, but in the year’s biggest, most important match up it failed to pull its weight.

  • Whether dip in offensive line play is caused by internal or external factors remains unknown, but the Steelers need more consistent play from their offensive line.

We haven’t seen much of that in 2019. For both better and for worse the Steelers offensive line only has two more chances to change that.

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Steelers Smash Mouth Football Dominates Bills Game Ball Winner Voting

Steelers Smash Mouth “3 Yards and a Cloud of Dust” football reigns supreme in the game ball winner voting following Pittsburgh’s 27-20 win over the Buffalo Bills.

Le'Veon Bell, Roosevelt Nix, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs. Bills

Le’Veon Bell rushes as Roosevelt Nix paves the way in Steelers 27-20 win over Bills. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

2016 Steelers vs. Bills, Steelers bills game ball winners, le'veon bell, roosevelt nix, steelers offensive line, bud dupreeAs expected, Le’Veon Bell was the top individual vote getter, pulling in a total of 19 votes between his ballot slot and the write in for #26 L.Bell. However, the second highest vote getter was for the Steelers offensive line who had 15 votes, and Roosevelt Nix came in with 14 votes of his own, quite an impressive showing in this age where the fullback is supposed to be a dying position.

  • Those three were the only vote getters on the offensive side of the ball.

Not surprisingly, Ben Roethlisberger didn’t get any votes on a day where he clearly struggled, but Antonio Brown also garnered zero votes. While Brown didn’t have a strong game statistically, he did make one field flipping catch that set up a touchdown, and he made a few shorter key catches that set up other scores.

Bud Dupree led the defensive voting with 9 votes, followed by Ryan Shazier who earned the support of 8 of our voters. Sean Davis was the next highest vote getter on defense netting 5 votes, and he was followed by Stephon Tuitt and a write in for the entire defensive line, who both got 4 votes a piece.

  • Artie Burns notched his third interception of the season, and that was good enough to earn him 3 game ball votes.

Another minor surprise comes on special teams, as Chris Boswell, who had a perfect day kicking in some horrendous conditions, yet only earned the support of one of our voters.

As always, Steel Curtain Rising thanks all of you who took time out to vote. Now it is on to the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

 

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Rushing with Flying Colors – Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for Win over Bills

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is pleased to see his freshman and sophomore setup up, even if his star senior struggled, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Buffalo Bills.

Bud Dupree, Bud Dupree sacks Tyrod Taylor, Steelers vs. Bills, Steelers Report Card Bills, Steelers grades bills

Bud Dupree sacks Tyrod Taylor in the 4th quarter of the Steelers 27-20 win. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
After playing one solid and another spectacular game away from Heinz Field, road rust hit Ben Roethlisberger, and hit him bad. Against the Bills, Ben Roethlisberger went 17 of 31 for 220 yards and 3 interceptions. Two of those interceptions came in the Red Zone, which is particularly troubling. Ben Roethlisberger was efficient at other times, but his mistakes in the Red Zone made this game far closer than it needed to be. Grade: C-steelers, report card, steelers grades, steelers vs. giants, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers bills

Running Back
236 yards on the ground. 62 yards through the air. 3 touchdowns, no fumbles and a 6.2 yards per carry average on a day when his longest run was 33 yards. Le’Veon Bell set the Steelers single game rushing record, came just a hair below breaking 300 yards from scrimmage and threatened that record as well. Le’Veon Bell took over the game vs. the Bills in a way that only a true great back can. Fitzgerald Toussaint had one carry for 6 yards. Grade: A+

Tight Ends
Ladarius Green 2 passes for 25 yards including an 18 yarder which helped set up Bell’s first touchdown. Green was targeted 6 times, although given Ben Roethlisberger’s erratic passing, those four non-catches might not have been his fault. David Johnson got open and caught a 15 yard pass on 4th and one and provided excellent blocking for Le’Veon Bell on a number of occasions. Jesse James caught one pass on 3 targets for 5 yards. This game was won in the trenches, and the tight ends did their part. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
It was a quiet day, all things considered, for Antonio Brown. Brown caught 5 passes for 78 yards and no touchdowns, although long receptions of 9, 29 and 40 yards setup to scores. Cobi Hamilton had a 15 yard catch that helped set up another Le’Veon Bell touchdown, and Eli Rogers 3 catches for 20 yards. It is clear that this point that the Steelers really need someone to complement Antonio Brown, and while Rogers and Hamilton have been serviceable, they haven’t stepped up. Grade: B

Offensive Line
This is the type of offensive line play that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin had in mind when they authored contract extensions of Maurkice Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert and David DeCastro. B.J. Finney again played in relief of Ramon Foster, and clearly the offensive line didn’t miss a beat. Chris Hubbard also saw extensive time as a third tight end. A running back doesn’t average 6.2 yards without good blocking. What’s more, Ben Roethlisberger didn’t get sacked and was only hit once. Grade: A+

Defensive Line
No Cameron Heyward, no Javon Hargrave? No problem. The Steelers defensive line played in what was clearly its best game of the season. Stephon Tuitt had a half sack, a pass defensed, a quarterback hit and one and a half tackles behind the line of scrimmage. And that probably wasn’t his best play, which came when he chased down Shady McCoy 30 yards down the field while the Steelers held a lead. L.T. Walton saw his first significant action and registered a tackle for a loss. Ricardo Mathews had one tackle. Daniel McCullers name didn’t show up on the stat sheet, but if he hadn’t been doing his job. LeSean McCoy wouldn’t have been doing his Walter Abercrombie imitation so well. Grade: A

Linebackers
Welcome Back Bud Dupree. The Steelers sophomore linebacker had two sacks, but his best play came when Tyrod Taylor evaded him, broke a few other tackles, only to have Bud Dupree come from across the field and stop him for a one yard game.

  • It should tell you something that Bud Dupree wasn’t the best linebacker on the field.

Ryan Shazier earned that honor, who led the team in tackles, sacked the quarterback once, defensed a pass on third down, and had a tackle for a loss. Whenever McCoy or Taylor threatened to run, Shazier was there. Lawrence Timmons and James Harrison had quiet days, although Harrison’s efforts in sealing the edge on the run game should not be overlooked. Grade: A

Secondary
With each game Sean Davis continues to improve. You know a safety is doing his job well when in on two tackles in the backfield. Davis also had a sack and a half. And it was Davis play in coverage that helped set up Artie Burns interception, which prevented Ben’s costly pick from morphing into a momentum changer. Ross Cockrell also had a solid day, as did William Gay who saw a pick six get called back on a penalty. Grade: A

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Special Teams
Chris Boswell knocked in three field goals and three extra points – all on a cold, snowy windy afternoon alongside Lake Eire, all after coming off an injury. Fitzgerald Toussanit had two respectable kick returns, and Antonio Brown made noise as a punt returner. The Bills got nothing in their kicking game. It was a strong game for the special teams, although penalties drop their grade a bit. Grade: B

Coaching
Was Todd Haley hearing echoes of the Dolphins game on Sunday afternoon? Mike Tomlin wouldn’t tell, but the fact is that unlike his trip to Miami, Haley realized he had a back looking to take over the game while his franchise quarterback struggled, and he put the game in the hands of the best player on the field.

  • Both Haley and Mike Munchak must earn credit for the outstanding performance of the offensive line which dominated all afternoon long.

The Steelers defense perhaps gave up a little more than you’d like to see in the 4th quarter, but Keith Butler’s crew negated two of Ben Roethlisberger’s 3 turnovers. More importantly, they directly attacked the Buffalo Bills strength, succeeded in neutralizing their running game.

Mike Tomlin would unquestionably be the first person to insist that he has accomplished nothing yet here in 2016, and far be it for Steel Curtain Rising to take issue with him. But the fact is, with 2 games of December football in the bank, the Steelers are positioning themselves to participate in January football. That’s not something that seemed likely just four weeks ago. Credit Tomlin for that. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
Next summer the Steelers Media Guide will read, “Most Rushing Yards, Game” 1. Le’Veon Bell, 236 (12/11/2016 vs. Buffalo). Willie Parker and John Fuqua’s names will follow.

  • But there’s another name that should be mentioned there, but won’t. So we’ll mention it here.

No running back dominates like Le’Veon Bell did without quality blocking. Bell got that from his offensive line and the tight ends. But he also had a herald in the form of Roosevelt Nix, who cleared the way for Bell time and time again. Nix also had a specular special teams tackle that prevented a return, and for those contributions Roosevelt Nix wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Bills.

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