Bills vs. Steelers Wild Card Round Preview: A Rust Belt Battle

01/12/2024
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The Game Matchups Preview series is dedicated to breaking down how the Buffalo Bills match up with their opponent in every game of the 2023 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 2023’s eighteenth edition of this analysis for the Bills Wild Card clash with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Included is my “patented” 👏 scale which ranks the advantage in each matchup from 👏👏👏👏👏 (Massive Advantage) to 👏 (Minimal Advantage).

Bills Pass Offense vs. Steelers Pass Defense

In the playoffs, the Bills will go as far as their quarterback, Josh Allen, can take them. That could mean Allen dawns the cape and builds on his phenomenal 20:6 postseason touchdown-to-turnover ratio and Buffalo goes on a run or it could mean he makes one too many boneheaded mistakes and the Bills are forced to stomach an early exit from the postseason. Such is Allen’s style, which is something the Bills have lived and died with in 2023 and was on full display in Week 18. Sure, he had three turnovers, two of which were interceptions in the endzone, but he also had two touchdowns, 426 total yards, and made critical play after critical play down the stretch to help secure Buffalo its fourth consecutive division title. That latter version of Allen will need to appear much more in the coming weeks beginning on Sunday afternoon in Orchard Park when the Bills host the Steelers.Josh Allen 2023 QuBeR

This is a Steelers team that despite a lack of talent is consistently finding ways to win football games. This week the challenge will ramp up however, as Pittsburgh tries to slow down Buffalo’s dynamic offense without All-World edge rusher T.J. Watt who will miss Sunday’s contest with a knee injury. More pressure will be needed from Alex Highsmith, who just last season had 14.5 sacks, while Mike Tomlin and his staff try to find a rotation on the other side to provide even 50% of what Watt brings each week. That likely means more Markus Golden, a journeyman edge rusher with 50.5 career sacks, and Nick Herbig, an undersized rookie edge rusher. Those two may do enough to make Allen uncomfortable in the backfield while Pittsburgh dials up consistent blitzes to throw him further off his game. Whatever the game plan, Pittsburgh will need to do more than just pressure Allen this week, though bringing him down will likely prove difficult considering he has a league-best 3.98% sack rate.

The loss of Watt will also affect the Steelers’ ability to adequately cover Buffalo pass catchers. More time in the pocket means more complex route combinations and more time for Allen to pick and choose which target to throw to. When he inevitably does decide, he will be contending with the likes of Joey Porter Jr. at outside corner, Chandon Sullivan at slot corner, and Myles Jack and Mykal Walker at linebacker. There also remains some intrigue with the impending return of Demontae Kazee from suspension and possibly Minkah Fitzpatrick from injury. Assuming both play, expect each to start at safety and for Pittsburgh to shift Patrick Peterson back to outside corner as they take Levi Wallace off the field. Regardless, the Bills have an advantage here and whether that is Stefon Diggs against one of the Steelers’ outside guys, likely bracketed, or one of Buffalo’s two tight ends matched up with a linebacker/safety, or even James Cook out of the backfield, Buffalo will have multiple mismatches this week. Find those consistently and Buffalo should dominate this aspect of the game with full acknowledgment that a player of Fitzpatrick’s caliber could have final say in where this game goes.

ADVANTAGE: Bills 👏👏👏

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Bills Rush Offense vs. Steelers Rush Defense

The Bills this season have arguably the most complementary rushing attack that they have fielded in the Allen era. As a result of that their RB1, James Cook, was selected as a Pro Bowler and finished third in scrimmage yards (1567) by running backs this season. That being said, the Bills run game still relies heavily on Allen. They rely on him to score touchdowns on the ground, breaking the quarterback rushing touchdown record (15). They rely on him to pick up yardage on the ground, as he led the team in rushing yards in four separate weeks this season. And they rely on him to get first downs, something he did a career-high 57 times on the ground this season. In the playoffs they desperately want Cook, Leonard Fournette, and Ty Johnson to be able to dominate in the run game while understanding that the fallback plan will always be keeping the ball in their quarterback’s hands.

This week the ground game is a weapon that can be utilized effectively against the Steelers. During the regular season, they ranked #21 in yards per attempt against (4.3) due in large part to injuries and issues at linebacker. Both of their primary linebackers, Cole Holcomb and Kwon Alexander, suffered season-ending injuries in November forcing Pittsburgh to scramble for their replacements and toy with differing personnel groupings week after week. For the most part that has meant Mykal Walker and/or Elandon Roberts manning the middle of the field while Pittsburgh switches between Nickel and Dime subpackages to get their best 11 players on the field. Lately, that linebacker rotation has been led by Myles Jack who will likely be called up from the Practice Squad again this week with call-up limits voided in the playoffs. Regardless, speed will be a question at linebacker this week for the Steelers forcing their defensive backs to clean up a lot of plays that get to the second level. While Fitzpatrick, Kazee, and Porter are all above-average tacklers, running at Patrick Peterson and his 20.8% missed tackle rate this season will be a key part of Buffalo’s game plan. This will result in even more pressure on the Steeler’s compromised defensive line to stop runners from finding their way to the second level.

And this is a line that line is still good, not great, without T.J. Watt. On the inside, they have an impressive three-man rotation which includes future Hall of Famer Cameron Heyward, the versatile Larry Ogunjobi, and the young yet talented rookie Keeanu Benton. These three should challenge the likes of Connor McGovern (LG), Mitch Morse (C), and O’Cyrus Torrence (RG) enough to make running up the middle difficult for the Bills which should force them to eye the edges. That’s where the Bills should be able to do their most damage, especially when they get a particular matchup. Nick Herbig is set to get more playing time this week with Watt off the field and while Herbig’s speed is incredibly impressive, at 240 pounds he struggles when powerful offensive tackles get hands-on. Whether it’s Dion Dawkins (LT) or Spencer Brown (RT) this week, in the event Buffalo catches Herbig on the edge an audible to run right at him should be a key component of their gameplan. Force Herbig upfield and hit the hole that opens for a big gain consistently with the likes of Cook or Allen. The Bills can dominate on the ground this week if they avoid the strength, the interior, and attack the weakness, the edge, of this Pittsburgh defense.

ADVANTAGE: Bills 👏👏

Bills Pass Defense vs. Steelers Pass Offense

For the Bills to win their fourth consecutive AFC East title, they needed to go on a five-game win streak and beat the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Dak Prescott, and Tua Tagovailoa. They didn’t just accomplish that but against those three quarterbacks, they dominated. Mahomes, Prescott, and Tagovailoa combined for a Passer Rating of 66.1 and a QuBeR of 22.17. For context, on the season Bryce Young had a Passer Rating of 73.7 and a QuBeR of 22.75. That’s complete dominance against some of the league’s best quarterbacks caused by players like Leonard Floyd and Ed Oliver consistently winning in the trenches and Rasul Douglas, Christian Benford, and Taron Johnson dominating at the second levels. Heading into the playoffs Buffalo will need that pace of play to continue and though they are dealing with injuries right now, with the way Sean McDermott has his guys playing there is little reason to believe they can’t keep this up.

This week though they won’t be contending with a great quarterback, but one who has been playing well enough to lead the Steelers to victory. Since taking over for Mitch Trubisky, who took over for Kenny Pickett, Mason Rudolph has been a solid game manager for the Steelers. In his four appearances, he has an impressive 64.41 QuBeR as well as a 3:1 TD:TO ratio. He isn’t going to beat anyone by himself but up to this point he isn’t going to allow himself to beat the Steelers either. It helps that he has a solid stable of pass catchers to toss the ball to. George Pickens is a physical alpha receiver who will attack contested catches with vigor, Diontae Johnson is a speedy agile option that is a matchup nightmare, Jaylen Warren is a threat in the air and on the ground out of the backfield, and Pat Freiermuth is an all-around talent and up and coming player at Tight End. This versatile bunch of playmakers means that the Bills corners, possibly including Dane Jackson, and the Bills linebackers, possibly including Baylon Spector, will need to protect each level of the field consistently on Sunday.

In front of Rudolph is an offensive line that has been prone to giving up pressures this season but has rarely seen their quarterback brought to the ground. A 22.3% Pressure Rate (NFL-22) and 36 sacks against (NFL-9) suggests that Pittsburgh is doing just enough to keep their signal caller clean. The interior of their line is by far the strength of it with Isaac Seumalo (LG) yet to give up a sack this season and Mason Cole (C) and James Daniels (RG) giving up a combined three sacks. Still, the talent discrepancy between that trio and the duo of Oliver and Jones is significant enough to believe the Bills can bend the pocket consistently on Sunday. On the outside, Dan Moore will protect Rudolph’s blindside, and rookie Broderick Jones on the right side. Each has been sufficient for the Steelers this season but against the likes of Leonard Floyd and Greg Rousseau, there is reason for concern from the Steelers camp. Buffalo has the tools to dominate this matchup and if it can win in the trenches will do just that in impressive fashion.

ADVANTAGE: Bills 👏👏👏

Bills Rush Defense vs. Steelers Rush Offense

Buffalo’s rush defense has been nearly as impressive as its pass defense in recent weeks, though not as consistent. They have a propensity to get gashed for a big play or two on certain drives but ultimately have shown the ability to buckle down and contain opposing running backs. Terrel Bernard and Tyrel Dodson deserve much of this credit as a linebacker duo that crazily is Top-10 in the league. Bernard has proven to be one of the league’s most dominant all-around defenders whilst Dodson is filling gaps and stacking runners at the line of scrimmage at a surprising rate. Unfortunately, Dodson may not be a go for Sunday’s contest, a big blow for the Bills, with his fill-in likely second-year seventh-round pick Baylon Spector. That being said, Spector filled in nicely when Dodson left last week’s game and this week, they are going to need more of the same against a Steelers team that can run the ball.

By far the strongest part of the Steelers’ offense is their rushing attack. It’s a two-back attack with Najee Harris leading the way with 15 carries per game and Jaylen Warren not too far behind with 8.8 carries per game. Harris is more attuned to the thumper role as a downhill runner and though he has just a 4.1 yards per attempt on the season he picks up positive yardage at a fairly consistent rate. On the other side of the spectrum is Warren who is the lightning to Harris’ thunder. Though small in stature Warren’s ability to make defenders miss and turn on the afterburners makes him a homerun threat whenever he gets the ball in his hands. These stylistically different approaches to running the ball will force the Bills to identify which player is on the field and adjust accordingly. For that reason expect Berard to be very demonstrative this weekend as he tries to keep the Bills positioned to slow down the Steelers ground game.

Outside of Harris and Warren, there isn’t much more to the run game of the Steelers. While both Pickett and Trubisky are fairly mobile Mason Rudolph is as much of a pocket passer as a modern-day NFL quarterback can get away with. The only other option in the run game the Steelers have shown to this point is receiver Calvin Austin in a jet sweep role. On 11 carries he has a long of just 12 yards though making him a possible weapon but not a proven one. Look for Buffalo to use all of this to its advantage as they need not worry about pre-snap motion or the Steelers quarterback participating in the run game. The result should be an unleashed Bills defensive line and a linebacker duo flying to the ball carrier more than most weeks this season.

ADVANTAGE: Steelers 👏

Bills Special Teams vs. Steelers Special Teams

For the majority of the season, Buffalo’s special teams unit has been one of its greatest vulnerabilities. Missed kicks, poor punts, nonexistent returns, and poor punt/kick coverage all contributed to the issues that plagued this phase of football for the Bills, until the last four weeks. During that span, Tyler Bass made all 16 of the kicks he attempted and in Week 18 finally began kicking the ball out of the endzone on kickoffs, a necessary schematic shift. Meanwhile, Sam Martin punted the ball 13 times, giving up just 15 return yards while seeing 10 of those punts downed inside the 20. Last but not least, all but forgotten Deonte Harty just broke Keith Moody’s franchise long punt return record of 91, a record which had stood for 16,878 days, by running back a 96-yarder in a game-changing play against the Dolphins. Much like the rest of this Bills team, their special teams are peaking at the right time.

On the other side, the Steelers head into the playoffs with the #20 ranked special teams by DVOA (-0.4%). The number is propped up by their kicker, Chris Boswell, who continues to be one of the league’s most underrated kickers. On the season he has made 27 of 28 extra points (96.4%) and 29 of 31 field goals (93.5%), with one of the two misses coming from 61 yards out. That’s where the positives end, and the issues begin. At punter, Pressley Harvin has struggled to a net yards per punt of just 39.1 yards forcing Pittsburgh to sign Brad Wing to their practice squad as a possible replacement for the position. As for return, five players have returned a kick for the Steelers while their primary punt returner has yet to break a big return this season. This week expect Godwin Igwebuike and his 25.6 yards per kick return to field kicks and the speedy Calvin Austin (4.32 40yd dash) to field punts.

ADVANTAGE: Bills 👏

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Why Buffalo Will Lose

The Steelers are a well-coached team that has proven capable of winning games they shouldn’t all season long. Add to that inclement weather and a banged-up Bills defense and there are ways the Steelers can score enough to win. Expect Pittsburgh to test Dane Jackson’s ability to cover Pickens or Johnson this week, if Rasul Douglas can’t go, with hitting one of them having a chance to flip the entire game in their favor. Factor that into a run game that should find success, and can the Steelers put up over 20 points? Why not?

On the other side of the ball, it’s all about turnovers and forcing Allen to be more Clark Kent than Superman. Yes, the loss of Watt is massive but with the return of Demontae Kazee and possibly Minkah Fitzpatrick, the Steelers are likely getting stronger in the secondary. A pick or two in a bad weather game isn’t an impossibility and a pick or two may be enough to win this game for the Steelers.

Why Buffalo Will Win

The Bills are by far the superior team and by far playing better football as of late. On offense, Allen is coming off a game where he struggled at times but at others looked like the most dominant force in football. When the lights are on and Buffalo’s season is on the line that dominant force seems to shine most, something that should be expected of him on Sunday. And he will get to throw to a ton of mismatches like Buffalo’s tight ends versus the Steelers’ linebackers, or Stefon Diggs versus any of the Steelers’ defensive backs, or even Khalil Shakir crossing over the middle of the field and catching the ball with open field in front of him. All of this is to say, can the Bills put up 30 points? Why not?

On the other side of the ball injuries are a real concern for the Bills but with the way Buffalo’s defense has been playing holistically coupled with the impressive play of their depth players there is still reason for optimism. Whoever plays also gets to participate in McDermott’s scheme, a scheme which eats quarterbacks like Rudolph alive. That likely means the Steelers rely heavily on the ground game and whilst that does produce some concern it’s worth betting on the likes of Oliver and Bernard to have a final say in just how effective that Steelers run game can be in front of Bills Mafia on Sunday.

Prediction: Bills 28 – Steelers 20

This game will likely play closer than Bills fans will be comfortable with but that’s just what happens against a well-coached team with a good defense and solid running game in the playoffs. That being said, the best player on the field will at all times be a Bills player and with talent like that and the way Buffalo has been playing, at times, on both sides of the ball they should have enough with a large margin of error to win this game. It may not be a cakewalk but expect Buffalo to move forward and host Kansas City, Houston, or Cleveland next week.

Lifelong Bills fan who's obsession reached a new level in the past decade. Began writing about the Bills in 2019 and since then have produced more than 125 Articles. Lover of statistics and leverages Software Engineering skills to manipulate data and create 'applications' for Bills Mafia!

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