After a dominant Week 14 performance against the Buffalo Bills the Pittsburgh Steelers still control their own destiny in the AFC as far as the playoffs are concerned. Here are my gut reactions to the Steelers victory in Buffalo.
All eyes were on Le’Veon Bell’s performance today. That’s what happens when you rush for a Steelers single game record 236 yards and add three touchdowns. He better get the ice out, he’s going to be sore tomorrow after 38 carries. That’s almost two games worth of rushes! Earlier in the week I touched on the offensive line and how they’ve dominated during the Steelers current four game winning streak and today was no different. Ramon Foster didn’t play due to a chest injury and B.J. Finney filled in admirably at left guard. He played with a mean streak all game long and looked every bit the part of a starter. There was a great camera shot of Finney making Marcell Dareus’ knees buckle on Bell’s second touchdown run, it was a microcosm for his performance all game.
The line executed the trey counter’s efficiently as well. Roosevelt Nix had an unbelievable game opening holes for Bell at will. It seemed like any time number 45 hit the hole Bills players were going backwards or on the ground. Todd Haley must have taken notice because he got creative and used Nix as the lead blocker on a trey counter that ended up being Bell’s third touchdown. Normally they run that play out of 12 personnel and use a tight end and the back-side guard as lead blockers. The offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage all game, it felt like an old-school Bill Cowher offensive game plan.
As dominant as the running game was today, Ben Roethlisberger had another poor performance away from Heinz Field. Three interceptions aren’t going to get it done against division rivals like the Cincinnati Bengals (who they play next week) and the Baltimore Ravens. While his stat line was poor and his decision making was questionable, one thing Ben did do well was read the defense and make sure the Steelers’ offense was in the best play possible. Perhaps the best example of this came when the Steelers went for it on 4th and 1 and the Bills’ defense was lined up to stop a run between the tackles. Ben audibled to a pass, had an easy completion to a wide-open David Johnson who rumbled for a first down and a 15-yard gain. That’s the value of having a veteran quarterback that understands his offense and defenses he’s facing, even if he’s having an off day throwing the ball.
The defense turned in another good performance today. The defensive rookies are playing the best they have all season and it shows. Sean Davis was second on the team in tackles with seven, led the team with three quarterback hits, and had a sack and a half. Davis also had a touchdown saving tackle on LeSean McCoy’s biggest play of the day; a 41-yard weaving reception. Sadly, the tackle wasn’t of consequence because Bills’ quarterback Tyrod Taylor threw a touchdown pass to Charles Clay two plays later. Nevertheless, the improvement from the defense is still tangible. The Bills’ offense seemed like they wanted to exploit Ross Cockrell rather than attack Artie Burns in the passing game, and perhaps that line of thinking was correct because Burns had the defenses’ lone interception. While Cockrell is steady and rarely gets beat deep because of the large cushion he often gives receivers, I would love to see him break on the ball and attempt to make “splash plays” rather than simply tackling the receiver after the catch.
Five more sacks today for the defense is another feather in this unit’s proverbial cap. It’s no coincidence that the Steelers’ winning streak and their ability to get to the pass-rusher have coincided. Five sacks are a lot, and the defense could have had more if they had tackled Taylor behind the line of scrimmage on a few plays where he scrambled for a yard or two. Stephon Tuitt has been an absolute wrecking ball against both the run and the pass since fellow defensive lineman Cameron Heyward’s season ended. Also, even in the snow, Ryan Shazier looked two steps faster than anyone else on the field at times. The Steelers are getting great performances from all the right places, and even backups like L.T. Walton are contributing in their own way. Walton did an admirable job of playing assignment football by staying in his gap and stopping the Bills’ running game.
Even with Bell’s record setting production, the Steelers’ offense was frustrating to watch in certain situations. It never seemed like they were in danger of losing to Buffalo but there are still areas the offense can improve on. They moved up and down the field to the tune of 460 yards but were only 6 of 14 on 3rd down, and 3 for 6 in the red zone. Part of the problem can be attributed to Ben’s three interceptions, but the lack of execution on 3rd down is becoming the norm, not an aberration.
Both Chris Boswell and Jordan Berry had great games today. Boswell was true on every attempt and Berry did a great job as his holder. Boswell’s leg strength has developed steadily from when the Steelers originally signed him last year. He managed to kick the ball five yards deep a few different times on kickoffs in frigid 22-degree weather. In contrast, Bills’ kicker Dan Carpenter missed an extra point and the other two were mere inches from hitting the uprights. Berry had two great punts, booming one for 56 yards. As he’s done all season he pinned the opposing team inside the 20-yard line. His other attempt would have been inside the five-yard line but receiver/gunner Cobi Hamilton lost track of the ball and it bounced into the end zone for only the second touchback on a Berry punt all season. Impressive work in weather where no kicks or punts come easily.
What are your gut reactions to the Steelers record setting day in Buffalo?