It was the Le’Veon Bell show Sunday at New Era Field in Orchard Park, NY. The fourth-year running back had a career-best game filled with record-setting numbers in the Pittsburgh Steelers 27-20 victory over the Buffalo Bills. The final score is not indicative of how thoroughly the Steelers dominated, but turnovers and two Bills touchdowns in the last 7:30 forced the Steelers to prepare for an onside kick in the last two minutes before the outcome was finalized.
Bell was sensational from start-to-finish behind a fullback and offensive line that opened big holes in both the power run game and while pulling in both directions. He finished with a team single-game rushing record of 238 yards on 38 carries while tying the team’s single-game record of three rushing touchdowns. Bell added 62 yards receiving on 4 receptions, finishing with 298 yards from scrimmage, second behind Antonio Brown’s record 306 yards against the Raiders last year and tied for 11th best all-time.
And it wasn’t just Bell who was outstanding on a snowy day in Buffalo. The Steelers defense shutdown the Bills for 52 minutes, arguably their most complete performance of the season. The Bills only generated 275 yards of total offense (less than Bell alone), with 162 of that coming on the last two TD drives and 34 coming on two meaningless runs in the last 11 seconds of the first half. When the Bills had to move the ball and the outcome was still in doubt, they couldn’t do it.
The win marked the 100th of Mike Tomlin’s career and the Steelers became the first franchise in NFL history to have three different coaches reach that plateau. They also happen to be the only three coaches the Steelers have had since 1969. Tomlin’s career record now stands at 100-57, getting to 100 wins one game earlier than Chuck Noll. Tomlin is the eighth head coach in NFL history to reach 100 regular-season wins within their first 10 seasons, joining Mike Ditka, Tony Dungy, Joe Gibbs, John Madden, Mike McCarthy, George Seifert and Don Shula and one of only five to do it with the same team. (h/t Dom Rinelli).
*The Steelers seemed to get through the game injury-free. Mike Mitchell left with an apparent knee injury in the first half but returned to finish the game. But, at his Tuesday press conference Tomlin indicated that G B.J. Finney was in concussion protocol.
The team made the surprise decision to dress both kickers, with Randy Bullock being an insurance policy behind Chris Boswell. As a result the inactive list consisted of RB DeAngelo Williams and WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, recovering from long term knee and foot injuries respectively, G Ramon Foster who suffered a chest injury in the Giants game, Javon Hargrave and Shamarko Thomas, both out due to concussions suffered against the Giants and healthy inactives QB Zach Mettenberger and RB Daryl Richardson. Bullock was waived Monday and Demarcus Ayers, the team’s seventh round draft pick was promoted from the practice squad. Bullock was signed by the Bengals, this week’s opponent, on Tuesday afternoon.
For the second week in a row the Steelers dominated the time of possession and yardage stats. The held the ball for more than 38 minutes. They out-gained the Bills 155 to -1 in the first quarter and 460 to 275 for the game. Le’Veon Bell single-handedly outgained the Bills, the first time that has been done this year. It was an excellent offensive performance except, and it’s a pretty big except, the three interceptions.
*Last week I mentioned that it was quite the compliment to Le’Veon Bell that I was calling his 172 yards-from-scrimmage-performance “somewhat ordinary.” Sunday he was anything but. In fact Mike Tomlin used the term “extraordinary” to describe Bell’s efforts at his press conference. Around, through, over, Bell did it every way possible including adding in a couple runs of more than 20 yards in the third quarter, the only thing that has been missing this season. He now has 1,053 rushing yards, 67 catches, 563 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in 10 games. On a per game basis that works out to 105.3 rushing yards, 56.3 receiving yards and 161.6 total yards per game. Check out how that compares to the rest of the league. That puts Bell on a 16-game pace for 2,586 yards from scrimmage, which would be an NFL record. During the Steelers four-game win streak, Bell has 140 touches for 823 yards. That’s a good season for a lot of backs. Bell is now in the conversation with the best running backs that I have ever seen and should be in the MVP conversation if he has a couple more big games.
*The offensive line was outstanding once again and has really performed much better, up to the level expected, the last four weeks. David DeCastro and Finney, in for the injured Ramon Foster, were mauling people when they had the chance to pull and fullback Roosevelt Nix was happy to clean up the leftovers. On Bell’s last touchdown Ben made the handoff at about 10 yard line. Alejandro Villanueva crashed down on the Bill’s edge rusher sealing the end of the line. DeCastro blew up the middle backer and Nix rode the safety 5 yards backwards after engaging him at the 1. Bell scored untouched. Ben had his hands up signaling TD when Bell was at the 7, by the way. That’s how you draw it up. The line also held the opposition without a sack for the third time in four games.
*Eli Rogers and Cobi Hamilton only got four targets between them but they caught all four for 35 yards. Hamilton also did an excellent job blocking downfield. In the third quarter the Steelers had a 1st-and-20 after a holding call. They gave the ball to Bell who burst through a huge hole opened up by Villanueva, Finney and Nix. Hamilton engaged the corner and pushed him 10 yards back as Bell went for a game-high run of 33 yards.
*The Steelers faced a 4th-and-1 on the Bills 40 early in the second quarter. Ben audibled at the line of scrimmage and threw a play-action pass to David Johnson for a 15-yard gain. Great play call and execution by Ben. The Steelers scored a touchdown four plays later.
*Ben was terrible, which he acknowledged. His passer rating was his lowest since a Monday night game against Washington in 2008 which he left early because of an injury. From 2008-2015 Ben had exactly one game where he had a Quarterback Rating below 20.0. Sunday his QBR of 18.0 was his third below 20.0 this season. His three interceptions were the only reason this game was remotely close. On the first pick there was a miscommunication with Ladarius Green who was running a “choice” route. Ok, that happens. On the second Ben said he should have called timeout because they didn’t have the right personnel and he threw too early to Brown. The third was a terrible throw where he didn’t see the linebacker.
Ben’s home road splits since 2014 are cause for concern. During that time he has thrown 56 TDs and 14 INTs and home and has 22 TDs and 22 INTs on the road. This season Roethlisberger has completed 70.5% of his passes for 1,636 yards, 8.5 YPA, 17 TDs and 3 INTs at home. On the road, he now has a 59.5% completion percentage, 1,618 yards (one more road game), 6.6 YPA, 8 TDs and 8 INTs. His QBR this year is 80.3 at home, 2nd out of 31 qualified NFL QBs, and 46.2 on the road, 27th out of 31. His passer rating is 119.0 at home and 76.3 on the road. The Steelers are away this week and if they want to go deep in the playoffs they are going to play at least one game on the road. Ben has to play better.
This was the Steelers defense’s best performance of the season for the second week in a row, even though they gave up two late touchdowns. As I wrote last week, they have transitioned both scheme and personnel over the course of the last six weeks and it is paying off big-time. They continue to play fast, aggressively, and physically. They completely shut down the NFL’s number one rushing offense holding both LeSean McCoy and Tyrod Taylor in-check all game, limiting them to 29 yards on 15 carries with a long run of just nine yards. Artie Burns, Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt, Ross Cockrell, James Harrison and Sean Davis played all 52 snaps and Bud Dupree played 51. I’m buying into this defense being the real deal.
*This was a collective effort. Across the board guys played well. It almost seems unfair to single anyone out, as I don’t think anyone played poorly. The OLB rotation stopped with Harrison and Dupree taking over, while the rotation of Daniel McCullers, L.T. Walton and Ricardo Mathews was solid along the defensive line in the absence of Heyward and Hargrave. Tuitt, Shazier and Davis were outstanding.
*Five sacks (Dupree 2, Davis 1.5, Shazier 1, Tuitt 0.5) raised the team total to 18 in the past four games, after registering just 13 in their first nine. The arrow is most certainly pointing up.
*Artie Burns showed good hands making his third interception and is an improving tackler.
*The bad was the two touchdowns given up in the last 7:30. On the first touchdown drive the Bills got two chunk plays of 41 and 40 yards. On a 3rd-and-9 from their own 19, a stop that would have sealed the game, Taylor hit McCoy on short dump off. Ryan Shazier missed a tackle and McCoy went all the way to the Steelers 40. Two plays later Artie Burns went for pick on the right (his) sideline. The TE Charles Clay ended up making the catch and after Sean Davis and William Gay collided making the tackle, Clay walked in for a 40-yard score. They have to better on those two drives.
*The Bills were 2-for-2 in the the red zone, an area where the Steelers have been very good this year.
Improvement this week by coverage units had to make Danny Smith happy.
*Rosie Nix was a demon making two outstanding tackles while Anthony Chickillo and Jordan Dangerfield also made a very good play on a kickoff return.
*Chris Boswell, back from injury, and Jordan Berry were their usual consistent selves.
A ton of credit to the coaching staff. I thought the schemes were excellent on both sides of the ball. As the game progressed they realized the Bills weren’t able to stop the run and, even though they were having success through the air, they just pounded it down the Bills throats the entire second half.
*Kudos to Keith Butler and Mike Tomlin for cutting the OLB rotation and using Dupree and Harrison the entire game. Production trumps all and they have clearly been the Steelers best at that position.
*I liked how Butler brought Sean Davis down in the box and blitzed him often. Perfect role for him. He’s not Troy, but he’s getting very good, very quickly.
*Much the same, I love how Todd Haley comes out each week and shows the defense a different personnel group and alignment each of the first 10-15 plays. It’s a great way to see how the defense reacts and to figure out how to exploit it. The use of fullback Rosie Nix and Chris Hubbard as an extra tight end the past few weeks has been very effective.
*Very little here.
Big Officiating Calls:
*Nothing that had a big impact on the outcome.
Up Next: The Steelers will take on the Cincinnati Bengals (5-7-1) at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati. Make note, kickoff was originally scheduled for 8:30 but the game was flexed out of television spot. It is now scheduled for 1:00 pm EST.
Reminder: You can hear me on the postgame show with Charlie Batch across the Steelers Football Network (WDVE, ESPN, steelers.com or the Steelers Gameday app) after every Steelers game and on weekdays on ESPN Pittsburgh 970 and 106.3 FM from 4-7 pm. You can also see me frequently on the Sports Showdown on CBS-TV on Sunday nights at 11:30. You can follow me on twitter @DavidMTodd.