The Game Matchups Preview series is dedicated to breaking down how the Buffalo Bills match up with their opponent in each game of the 2022 NFL Season. This series will look at five key matchups; Bills Pass Offense vs. Opponent Pass Defense, Bills Rush Offense vs. Opponent Rush Defense, Bills Pass Defense vs. Opponent Pass Offense, Bills Rush Defense vs. Opponent Rush Offense, and Bills Special Teams vs. Opponent Special Teams. This entire analysis will conclude with three sections; “Why Buffalo Will Lose”, “Why Buffalo Will Win”, and a score prediction for the game.
Below I present 2022’s fourth iteration of this analysis for the Bills’ Week 5 clash versus the Pittsburgh Steelers. Included is a scale ranking the advantage in each matchup from 👏 (Minimal Advantage) to 👏👏👏👏👏 (Massive Advantage).
Bills Pass Offense vs. Steelers Pass Defense
It seems each week Josh Allen does something new that furthers his argument for best Quarterback in the NFL. In Week #4 that something was a 17-point comeback, in rainy Baltimore, against a secondary featuring two All-Pro Cornerbacks. Vintage Josh Allen appeared in the second half where he often evaded pressure only to sling rockets to the boundary past dejected defensive backs. Mind you, much of this was accomplished with his only truly healthy receiving options being Stefon Diggs (WR), rookie Khalil Shakir (WR), and Devin Singletary (RB). The Bills don’t expect to be any healthier this week at WR/TE but with the level Allen is playing at right now, it’s possible that the talent level at those positions is of little concern.
Each of the Bills’ first four games have been against at least one All-Pro DB and this week is projected to be no different, until injuries befell the Steelers. Pittsburgh’s Week 5 injury report is reminiscent of Buffalo’s Week 3 report, with Pittsburgh’s entire starting secondary listed. That includes Cameron Sutton (CB), Ahkello Witherspoon (CB), Levi Wallace (CB), Terrell Edmunds (S), and All-Pro Minkah Fitzpatrick (S). Due to this, it’s likely that some of the Steelers reserves will be forced into duty with their only experienced option being Nickel CB Arthur Maulet. Outside of Maulet, 3rd-year Special Teamer James Pierre is their only healthy boundary corner, while 2021 7th Round Pick Tre Norwood (S) and career Special Teamer Miles Killebrew (S) are their healthy third-level players. In any given week, these injuries would be difficult to overcome but against the Bills’ high-powered air attack it may be impossible to do so.
The Steelers can make life more tenable for their secondary though, by producing up front. This will be much more difficult to accomplish sans All-World edge rusher,T.J. Watt, but Pittsburgh still does have some solid pass rushers. Alex Highsmith has taken a big step in Year 3 and through four weeks is 2nd in the NFL with 5.5 sacks. An incredibly intellectual and instinctual rusher, Highsmith may not be T.J. Watt, but he will still be a problem for Buffalo. Inside is another issue, this time in the form of Cameron Heyward (DT). Assuming he can work through a few injuries, the future Hall of Famer could be a Game Wrecker on Sunday. A back-to-back to back All-Pro, when Heyward plays at the top of his game his production is not unlike that of Aaron Donald. Highsmith and Heyward have the ability to play equalizer in this matchup, a matchup which otherwise is incredibly lopsided (pending final injury reports).
EDGE: Bills 👏👏👏👏
Bills Rush Offense vs. Steelers Rush Defense
The Bills have an issue, they can’t consistently run the ball. In the first four weeks Bills RBs are averaging 16 carries per game for just 68 yards, much of which has come in garbage time. The result is Josh Allen accounting for 83.1% of the Bills Offensive Yardage and 100.0% of their Offensive Touchdowns. Most advanced metrics point to major issues in the trenches for Buffalo however their RBs are not doing much to improve the situation. Of their three RBs, only Devin Singletary has proven to be a consistently reliable option while Zack Moss is oft tackled behind the Line of Scrimmage and James Cook seems ill prepared to take on a featured role. The question now is whether the Bills see a solution on their active roster or not.
Week 5 does not exactly present an environment for Buffalo to correct their run game. The Steelers have a uniquely talented front seven which begins with a stout DL and ends with a potentially impressive linebacking group. Heyward and Highsmith are the headliners up front but Larry Ogunjobi is also an important cog in their attack. At 6’4″ 305lb Ogunjobi is playing on his third AFC North team in his sixth season as a disruptive force in the middle of the DL. His presence along with Heyward will present issues for the likes of Rodger Saffold (LG), Mitch Morse (C), and Rick Bates (RG). Behind them the duo of Myles Jack and Devin Bush is potentially dominant twosome but throughout their career inconsistencies have disallowed the use of that adjective. Still, in any given week the two of this players do possess the ability to alter games, something they may have to do in Week 5 to make this a contest.
Each of these Linebackers will play heavily in slowing down the Bills auxiliary run game which is found in the legs of Josh Allen. Through four weeks Allen ranks 11th in the NFL in Yards After Contact per Attempt (2.7) and 6th in Yards per Attempt (6.1). A weapon Allen seems more hesitant to use as his career progresses he is still a premier running option at Quarterback. This will force the Steelers’ DL to maintain some facet of a pocket as they rush Allen while their LBs will need to consistently spy Allen. The athleticism is there to do just that but the same was the case in Baltimore where Allen ran the ball 11 times for 70 yards and 1 Touchdown. Without Allen this matchup would be a huge advantage for the Steelers but with Allen there is an argument to be made that Buffalo holds the upper hand.
EDGE: Steelers 👏👏
Bills Pass Defense vs. Steelers Pass Offense
It is not hyperbole to say that Jordan Poyer makes a tangible difference to what without him is still a potent NFL secondary. In 2022, without Poyer, the Bills are conceding a QuBeR of 64.01 to opposing Quarterbacks but with him are allowing one of just 18.49. Poyer’s importance to the Bills increased tenfold with Micah Hyde’s season ending injury but if his AFC Defensive Player of the Week showing against Baltimore proved anything, it’s that he is up to the task. Moving forward he will need to maintain a high level of play while simultaneously playing Sensei for Dane Jackson, Kaiir Elam, and Christian Benford. Help is coming though, when that is remains to be seen, but if Poyer is able to keep the Bills afloat until Tre White returns big things could be on the horizon for the Bills.
This week, the Bills young secondary will be looking to feast on rookie QB Kenny Pickett. Buffalo’s defensive concept is designed to confuse opposing Quarterbacks goading them into putting the ball into harm’s way. In 2021, they did exactly that to then rookie QB Davis Mills holding him to 11/21 passing for just 87 Yards, 0 Touchdowns, and 4 Interceptions. That was a Texans team though which was completely devoid of talent at the skill positions, an area where the Steelers possess copious amounts of talent. Diontae Johnson (WR) has all the makings of a bonafide #1 WR, George Pickens (WR) is proving to be an imposing rookie, and Chase Claypool has freakish athleticism as evidenced by his 9.98 RAS. Equally as important is TE Pat Freiermuth and RB Najee Harris, who Pickett will likely look to often as pressure release valves in a game where he will likely see a ton of pressure.
That pressure comes in the form a Bills’ front four that produces pressure towards the top of the league (27.7% Pressure Rate) without the assistance of the blitz (8.8% Blitz Rate). Von Miller speaks for himself but the ascension of 2nd year DE, Greg Rousseau, has taken the Bills pass rush even further. Known as Groot, the long-armed DE is making a name for himself in 2022 is tied for 5th in Sacks with 4.0. Miller, Groot, and whatever rotation of DTs is healthy for the Bills should make life difficult for a Steelers OL that is currently giving up a pressure rate of 16.8%. If a struggling Steelers OL can’t significantly improve this week, the result will be a young QB consistently under duress trying to process an incredibly complex defense in front of a raucous crowd of fans clamoring for a 4-1 start. That is a recipe for disaster.
EDGE: Bills 👏👏👏👏
Bills Rush Defense vs. Steelers Rush Offense
Bills linebackers Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds are quickly entering the conversation for best LB duo in the NFL. Through four weeks, the two have combined for 53 tackles and missed just 1, a Missed Tackle Rate of 1.9%. Add in that they are each making Tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage and Buffalo’s LBs are becoming a real weapon in Leslie Frazier’s defense. Even after contending with the leagues 2nd most efficient rusher, Lamar Jackson (8.5 Y/A), the Bills still rank 4th in Rushing Y/A against at 3.5. In years past what was the Achilles Heel for the Bills has now become a strength.
This week the Bills will contend with one of the more talented RBs in the league, Najee Harris. Harris earned Pro Bowl honors in his rookie season leading the NFL with 381 touches while racking up 1667 scrimmage yards. An impressive rookie campaign for sure, but he is now seeing a slight regression in his sophomore season.
To date, Harris has a Yards per Touch of 3.7, down from 4.4 in 2021, which is in large part due to issues gaining consistent yards on the ground. To provide an environment which facilitates more consistency, the Steelers have looked to get the speedy rookie Jaylen Warren (RB) and the freakish Chase Claypool (WR) involved in the run game. The goal here is to expand the box and reduce the reliance on an OL which has struggled mightily in opening lanes for Harris.
That OL has remained almost completely intact through the regular season featuring Dan Moore (LT), Kevin Dotson (LG), Mason Cole (C), James Daniels (RG), and Chukwuma Okorafor (RT). The hope in Pittsburgh was that the consistency provided by another year of Moore, Dotson, and Okorafor, coupled with the additions of Cole and Daniels would generate a whole is greater than the sum of their parts scenario but as of yet that has not come to fruition. Pressured Quarterbacks, RBs hit behind the Line of Scrimmage, and a lack of push up front have been a primary cause of the Steelers 1-3 start.
Against Buffalo, the Steelers struggling OL will be forced to contend with a dominant DL which is buffeted by block soaker DaQuan Jones. If the Bills see fit to bring back Ed Oliver and/or Jordan Phillips this week the result could be disastrous for Pittsburgh.
EDGE: Bills 👏👏
Bills Special Teams vs. Steelers Special Teams
At this point in the season, Tyler Bass has made 20 out of his 21 kicks with the only miss a blocked FG against the Dolphins. He has now pushed his regular season streak of XPs made to 83, an incredibly impressive number in an era where an XP is equivalent to a 35 yard FG. Punter Sam Martin has lived up to the hype coming to Buffalo as his 7 punts have resulted in 2 fumbles and 3 pinning the opposition within the 20. The only question for Buffalo is who will return Punts and Kicks with the injuries to Jamison Crowder and Isaiah McKenzie. Khalil Shakir seems likely to get a shot at Punts with Kicks possibly falling to James Cook, at least for now.
One of the premier Kickers in the NFL does the job for the Steelers in Chris Boswell. Bowell has made 14 out of 16 kicks this season with his only 2 misses coming from 55 and 49 yards. A career 88.0% Kicker, Boswell has been in the conversation for best Kicker in the league for some time now. Punting for Pittsburgh is Pressley Harvin III who has a career 39.7 Net Average. Thus far in 2022 Harvin has punted 21 times and has given up a return on 47.6% of them. Return specialist Gunner Olszewski handles both Kick and Punt for the Steelers and so far in 2022 has not lived up to his All-Pro billing. He is averaging just 7.2 Y/PR and 9.5 Y/KR but should be looked at as a threat to create a big return in any situation he can cleanly field the ball.
EDGE: Bills 👏
Why Buffalo Will Lose
In the words of the great Admiral Ackbar, “IT’S A TRAP!” Buffalo takes on a team they should beat before they take on a team they consider their greatest competitor (Kansas City). This is the very definition of a trap game and one the Bills cannot afford to take lightly. Yes, Buffalo has some nagging injuries to some key players (See Gabe Davis and Ed Oliver) but if they elect to rest these players in the name of future health they could be falling deeper into the aforementioned trap.
For the Steelers, Kenny Pickett has the ability to be a catalyst for victory. Bills fans remember fondly Josh Allen’s rookie season where he led them to victory in Minnesota as 16.5 point underdogs. The unknown of Pickett may be what the Steelers need to not just cover but to win this game, what says he is incapable of doing that? On defense the Steelers do have a duo of Game Wreckers in Cameron Heyward and Minkah Fitzpatrick. Assuming one or both of them play, they introduce a skillset which is able to single handedly alter the trajectory of a game.
Why Buffalo Will Win
There is an argument to be made that in 2022 the Bills present a mismatch for any team in the NFL. Against the Steelers, the Bills will have their biggest mismatch yet. On offense Josh Allen is playing at an MVP level and will take on a banged-up Steelers defense. Even if the Steelers defense were completely healthy, it’s likely they would struggle slowing down the Bills’ air attack. Leave for a minute the un-guardable Stefon Diggs, who’s covering Dawson Knox? Who is covering (75% of) Gabe Davis? Who is covering whoever plays slot for the Bills?
On defense, the Bills historically devour rookie QBs. This week they take on one making his first career start in Buffalo, an environment even the most seasoned vets detest. The Bills secondary will look to hop any errant throws while Buffalo’s front four will push Pickett to release the ball before he wants to. In the event Pittsburgh decides to run the ball Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano have proved more than capable of slowing down top tier backs this season (See Derrick Henry). The Bills defense is among the league elite and this week they may just show how dominant they can be.
Prediction: Bills 42 – Steelers 13
It is insane that the Bills are 14 point favorites for this game. More insane, they should cover. The health concerns for the Steelers are a real thing and the result could be catastrophic for Pittsburgh’s defense. Add to that the very odd choice to toss rookie Kenny Pickett into the deepest of deep ends for his first career starts and this game has all the makings of a blow out. Saying that, if Buffalo takes Pittsburgh lightly this prediction could be really foolish. I don’t expect the Bills to take any game this season lightly.