Criticism of the Buffalo Bills was short-lived, as the team avenged their loss to the Miami Dolphins with a come-from-behind, close-game victory over the Baltimore Ravens in Week 4 of the 2022 NFL Season. Buffalo now sits at 3-1 as they prepare to host rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Here are the top matchups to watch as the Bills look to reclaim first place in the AFC East.
Steelers QB Kenny Pickett vs. Bills Defense
Kenny Pickett was the lone first-round quarterback in the 2022 NFL Draft and the Pitt standout saw his first action of the season in last week’s loss to the New York Jets. Pickett relieved Mitch Trubisky, completing 10-of-13 passes for 120 yards and three interceptions. Pickett did rush for two touchdowns in the 24-20 loss. This week, Pickett will make his first career start against one of the NFL’s best defenses.
Since Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier joined Buffalo in 2017, the Bills have surrendered 14.3 points per game when facing rookie passers, while allowing just seven touchdown passes to 22 interceptions.
Buffalo’s defense is firing on all cylinders this season, despite being without star cornerback Tre’Davious White and several other key players for various periods of time. The team is allowing the second-fewest points per game (14.5) and the fewest total yards per game on defense. The revamped defensive front has already registered 13 sacks, despite blitzing just 12 times in four games – the lowest total in the NFL, and the secondary leads the league in interceptions (7).
Pickett showed that he wasn’t afraid to push the ball downfield, with four of his 12 pass attempts traveling 20-plus yards in the air. While facing pressure and/or the blitz, he completed 3-of-4 passes for 50 yards. The Steelers have a talented group of receivers in Dionte Johnson, Chase Claypool and the emerging rookie, George Pickens, who is dominant in contested-catch situations.
While Pickett has the potential to grow into a quality player, he’ll certainly have his work cut out for him against a deep, talented and experienced defense that should give him fits.
Bills IOL vs. Steelers DT Cam Heyward
In the early portion of the 2022 season, Buffalo has done an adequate job defending some of the NFL’s premier interior defensive linemen in Aaron Donald and Jeffery Simmons. Now, the Bills have another daunting task as they look to contain Cam Heyward, an elite defender that’s one of the most underrated players in the game.
Heyward wreaked havoc on Buffalo’s offensive line during last year’s season-opening loss, tallying a staggering 12 pressures (1 sack, 11 hurries), to go along with two run stops and two pass breakups. The Bills have new faces along the interior this year, but the challenge still remains. Heyward is still playing at a high level despite the loss of T.J. Watt, who’s on IR with a pectoral injury. Through four weeks, Heyward has recorded 17 tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack, and one pass breakup, while generating 13 pressures. He’s been limited in practice with an elbow injury, but if Heyward suits up he’s the key defender that Ken Dorsey will look to slow down in Week 5.
Buffalo’s guard play hasn’t been what many expected going into the season despite adding Rodger Saffold and Ryan Bates as full-time starters into the mix. Bates has already surrendered 10 pressures to Saffold’s eight. They’ll need both players to step in in a big way in order to get the run game going against a struggling Steelers defense that’s giving up 131 yards per game on the ground.
Bills DE’s Greg Rousseau, Von Miller vs. Steelers OT’s Dan Moore, Chukwuma Okorafor
Perhaps no unit in the NFL has seen a more drastic improvement than the Bills’ defensive line, thanks to the addition of edge rusher Von Miller and the second-year leap made by 2021 first-round draft pick, Gregory Rousseau. Through four games, both Rousseau and Miller are among the league leaders in nearly every statistical category at their position. Rousseau has tallied a sack in each game (4), in addition to 15 tackles, five tackles for loss, and one pass breakup. The Miami product has generated 14 quarterback pressures and his 26.8-percent pass rush win rate is second-best among edge rushers while the average depth of his run stops is at 0.8 yards downfield.
Miller has performed at a similar clip, despite seeing significant attention from opposing offenses. The 33-year-old has seven tackles, three sacks, and five tackles for loss along with 14 total pressures. He ranks sixth in pass rush win rate (21.2-percent) and his average run stop depth is a mere 0.3 yards downfield.
The tandem will see the majority of their pass rush snaps against a Steelers’ offensive line that has surrendered just 23 total pressures (four sacks, five hits, 14 hurries) through their first four games. Left tackle Dan Moore Jr. has allowed just one sack, two hits, and one hurry, while Chukwuma Okorafor has allowed only six hurries.
Pittsburgh’s offense is a quick passing game that helps out the offensive line. Prior to being benched, Mitchell Trubisky was averaging just 2.57 seconds from snap to attempt, while Pickett got the ball out in 2.48 seconds. Buffalo can get after opposing quarterbacks, and if the secondary can hold coverage for just an extra split second, the defensive line should be able to feast on the young, inexperienced rookie and an untested offensive line.