The Buffalo Bills came into Sunday night’s contest with the third best passing defense in the NFL and the 14th ranked run defense. The plan seemed easy to comprehend for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Run the ball and take calculated shots through the air when needed. It is not a crazy game plan nor one that should be unfamiliar to them, after all they have rushed for 120-plus yards in each of their last three games, all victories as well. Tonight’s game did not follow that strategy and as a result, a victory did not follow as well.
The Steelers managed to go against the grain Sunday night as they ran the football just 15 times for 52 yards. Instead, Devlin Hodges threw 38-times against the team that was holding quarterbacks to the third-worst passer rating in football. This becomes even more baffling when considering that this game was never more than one possession apart on the scoreboard for either team. In a close, defensive battle, the running backs were nowhere to be found.
James Conner returned in this one and he looked as good as ever on occasions. Conner cut and bodied his way for 51-yards from scrimmage on just 12 touches but his absence was at least explainable. Returning from a shoulder injury that has limited him to just one quarter of play over the last six games, the Steelers were presumably watching his workload to make sure he would hold up. The absence of the other four running backs is a tad more difficult to comprehend.
Benny Snell has been a hot name in town recently. He’s filled in admirably well for Conner over the last three weeks, pitching in 202 rushing yards over the last three games but he was nowhere to be found on Sunday night. Snell finished with just two carries for one yard but his lack of carries were not picked up elsewhere as it is the same story all the way down the depth chart.
The two biggest change of pace backs the Steelers have are Jaylen Samuels and Kerrith Whyte Jr. but they did not change much of anything, mostly because they were not even given the chance to. Samuels finished with just three touches, his lowest amount since week three. Whyte finished with just two carries and was never seen again. And Trey Edmunds, the fifth running back dressed did not see a touch at all.
With a running back returning from a major injury and up against a team that is vulnerable against the run, it makes sense to dress five running backs. Deciding to give these five running backs just 19 total touches is a bit harder to decipher. Even when the Steelers decided to run the ball early, they outsmarted themselves, opting for a wildcat formation that resulted in an unfortunate red zone opportunity fumbled away.
Both these teams came into this game with two of the stingiest pass defenses in the NFL but it seems only one of those teams realized it. The Bills ran the ball 38 times for 130 yards and picked their battles through the air wisely. The Steelers opted for the opposite, throwing the football 38 times with four interceptions to show for it.
While there were many mishaps made on Sunday, the decision to dress five running backs but not integrate them effectively is one of the more questionable decisions that sticks out.