PRELUDE TO STEELERS VERSUS …
Early in the week, James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster practiced fully. The Steelers offensive weapons appeared ready to play Sunday night. Unfortunately, the Steelers declared JuJu out and James questionable for the game. Vance McDonald remains in the concussion protocol and will not play.
We learned that Steeler great Mike Webster joined the NFL’s all-time 100 list. He joins six other Steeler legends the NFL selected to the team as part of the league’s its 100th season of play celebration.
The league will announce the 2020 Pro Bowl team on December 17th. Fan voting ended Thursday and the players and coaches voted over the weekend. Which Steelers will hear their names on Tuesday night?
Big game Sunday night. The winner will have the number five seed wild card position. Buffalo fans believe their nine and four Bills are for real. Pittsburgh fans seeking the duck story to continue.
THE STEELERS FORECAST
Steelers Depot gives us specific things we should look for during the game. I always read these articles prior to kickoff:
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Matthew Marczi described what we should watch for in the game against the Bills. Devlin “Duck” Hodges handling of the Buffalo pass rush is one area to focus on. Another is the defenses ability to take the ball away from the Bills. Also, can the defense contain Josh Allen? Finally, keep an eye on the clock. The time of possession will be a factor and Pittsburgh need the running game to be successful to control it.
Tom Mead identified the key matchup to watch this week. This week, Tom focuses are attention on Josh Allen versus the Steelers Red Zone Defense. Allen has run for eight and passed for 11 touchdowns inside the red zone. He is especially dangerous using play action or run-pass-option plays.
KEYS TO VICTORY
Dave Bryan identified the 7 keys to a Steelers victory against Buffalo. First, the defense must stop running backs Frank Gore and Devin Singletary. Second, the Steelers running attack must be successful. Third, T.J. Watt must take advantage of his matchup with right tackle Cody Ford. Fourth, the Steelers record more yards after catches than Buffalo. Fifth, Minkah Fitzpatrick makes a big play. Sixth, Chris Boswell outkicks Stephen Hauschka. Seventh, the Steelers end the 20-game streak of turning over the ball.
Alex Kozora forecast what would happen in his Steelers versus Bills prediction. Alex foresaw a win if Pittsburgh outruns Buffalo, James Washington makes more splash plays than John Brown, and the defense brackets Cole Beasley on possession downs. On the other hand, the Steelers lose if they giveaway the ball more than once, Buffalo successfully runs a trick play, and Bills interior defensive linemen takeover. Alex predicted the Steelers winning 20 to 17.
You can compare these pregame guides to Alex’s analysis of the game’s winners and losers which came out within minutes of the final whistle. How does his analysis compare with your view of the game?
The Steelers offense generated three points out of five possessions.
PROMISING DRIVE ENDS DISASTEROUSLY
The first drive looked promising with James Conner running 15 yards on his first carry. Diontae Johnson converted a third and eight on an 11-yard reception. Referees flagged Duck Hodges for illegal motion when he lifted his hands anticipating a snap. Most folks in the stadium thought it was defensive offsides and a free play. On third down and 15, the Duck threw his first of four interceptions on a pass intended for James Washington. TreDavious White easily stole the ball away.
A PUTRID PUNT FOLLOWED BY FIRST POINTS OF THE HALF
On the next drive, Hodges tried two short passes after the Bills held Benny Snell to a two-yard run. Buffalo tackled the receivers right after the catch. Johnny Holton lost two yards and Nick Vannett just made it to the line of scrimmage. Then, Jordan Berry kicked his embarrassing 22-yard punt leading to Buffalo’s opening score.
Hodges completed a 34-yard pass to James Washington on the first play. Kerrith Whyte ran five yards for another first down following a Bills offsides penalty. The Steelers use their first timeout as the play clock winds down. Whatever Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner discussed with the offense did not work as Hodges threw to straight incompletions intended for Washington. Chris Boswell did put the Steelers on the scoreboard, so they were down by just four points.
OFFENSE SQUANDERS A GIFT
The Steelers had a second three and out on their fourth possession. Conner ran twice for no gain. Hodges completed a pass to Vannett on third and ten, but the Bills tackled him immediately for no gain.
Just before the two-minute warning, the offense received a gift. They start this drive at the 20-yard line following a turnover. Kerrith Whyte ran to his left for no gain. The referees throw a flag for facemask. Honestly, I did not see a facemask when they showed the replay in the stadium. But nevertheless, the Steelers had a first down at the ten-yard line. The wildcat play started bad with Maurkice Pouncey’s low snap on the ground. Conner fielded it and ran to his right pitching the ball to Diontae Johnson. Before he could secure the ball, it popped out squandering the opportunity to score before the half ended.
The offense had five possessions resulting in two punts, two turnovers, and a field goal.
The opening drive yielded seven points and the lead. However, three punts and three interceptions resulted in the offense letting the team down.
SCORE ON OPENING DRIVE
The offense struck quickly with a 29-yard pass to Diontae Johnson. Many fans were still in the Great Hall including myself so saw the play on the video screens conveniently placed there. The Hall resounded with cheers. Diontae did fumble a second time but Tevin Jones recovered the ball. Zach Gentry caught a short pass and extended himself enough to reach a first down. Conner busted out for a 17-yard run to the ten-yard line. Hodges completed a short pass to Conner who weaved through the defense to score a touchdown and give the Steelers a lead in the game.
TURNOVER LEADS TO BILLS TYING GAME
The next drive went backwards after a five-yard run by Jaylen Samuels. Shaq Lawson strip-sacked Hodges but Alejandro Villanueva got the ball back. Trent Murphy sacked Hodges again on the next play. Three offensive snaps result in a net negative six yards.
The Steelers offense were able to reach Buffalo territory on the next set of downs. Buffalo’s defense was prepared for the Steelers short passing game. On a second and two, Buffalo defenders tackled Johnny Holton for just one yard gained. Hodges gained four yards on a quarterback sneak. If he had not lost his footing, he could have kept going. James Washington crossed midfield on an eight-yard reception. Conner ran for five more yards. On first down, Hodges threw the ball toward Diontae Johnson but TreDavious White intercepted the ball again and returned it 49 yards.
The Bills tie the game and it is time for the Steelers offense to respond with over 12 minutes to play. The first opportunity sputters when the Bills drop James Conner for a seven-yard loss on a passing play. On third and 15, Hodges checks down to Vannett who gains just 12 of the 15 yards needed for a first down. The Steelers punt again.
HODGES PASS REACHES ENDZONE BUT IN WRONG HANDS
The Bills score to take a seven-point lead. The Duck throws three straight incompletions. Berry must punt again. The Steelers defense forces the Bills to punt and the offense has the ball again with more than five minutes to play. Hodges completes three straight passes. On second and three, Jaylen Samuels runs two yards on the only running play the Steelers use in the entire fourth quarter. The Bills are stacking the box challenging Pittsburgh to pass. Hodges completes a deep pass to Washington for 32 yards. But they lose five yards by failing to get set and snap the ball before the play clock expires. On first and 15, the Bills sack Hodges. He completes another check down pass to Vannett to set up 4th and 7. Hodges throws for the endzone from the 23-yard line for Deon Cain. The Bills intercept for the touchback. But the game is not over.
STEELERS LAST GASP
The Steelers get the ball back with 1:31 but no timeouts. The short Buffalo punt gives the ball to the offense at their own 43-yard line. Conner gains five yards but snaps his head back. The referees call a facemask on the Bills. Hodges completes an eight-yard pass to Vannett to reach the 29-yard line with second and two. But Villanueva false starts causing a ten second runoff the clock, but the Steelers eventually get a first down on a toss to Diontae Johnson. This is the point that Ben Roethlisberger would normally spike the ball to stop the clock. But Duck is running the offense and they quickly snap the ball and the Bills sack him. The Steelers lose 24 precious seconds before Hodges makes his final attempt to James Washington. Two defenders bracket him. Levi Wallace ends the Steelers chances with an uncontested interception.
One friend sitting in the endzone seats says the duck never looked the safety off which might have given Washington a better chance. Regardless, the game was over. What disconcerted me was watching the Bills defenders calling for noise at the end of the game and getting a very loud response from the enormous number of visiting fans.
STEELERS DEFENSE FORCES TWO PUNTS
The Bills made two first downs on their opening drive. Then T.J. Watt batted a Josh Allen pass down. Allen completed a pass to Singletary on third and five, but Mark Barron tackled him to force a punt.
The defense kept Buffalo in their own territory on their second possession too. The Bills got one first down. But then Cam Heyward tackled Allen for just a two-yard gain. Then Devin Bush stopping Singletary on second and six. Allen threw an incompletion on third down and punted the ball again.
DEFENSE CAN’T HOLD BILLS TO THREE ON A SHORT FIELD
The Bills next possession started on the Pittsburgh 40-yard line. Vince Williams and Watt combined to sack Allen on the first play. Heinz Field was rocking. On third and 18 Allen scrambled up the middle for 12 yards. Very frustrating and you could hear the numerous visiting Bills fans cheering. Just out of field goal range, the Bills went for it on fourth and six. John Brown beat Steve Nelson for the ten-yard catch and a new set of downs. Singletary then gained three yards on third and two as the quarter ended. On the first play of the second quarter Singletary gashed the defense for 14 yards. The defense was unable to hold them to three points as Josh Allen ran in for an easy touchdown from the one-yard line.
NELSON INTERCEPTS THE BALL
The Bills had the ball three more times in the half after the touchdown. The defense kept the Bills on their half of the field for all three drives. A combination of John Brown receptions with Steve Nelson defending and Devin Singletary runs got the Bills to midfield on the first drive. Cam Heyward batted a pass down on third and eight to force a punt. On the next drive, Bud Dupree sacked Allen but official’s flags negated the play. The replay showed him lunge slightly forward just before the snap. Later in the drive, Steve Nelson intercepted a tipped pass intended for Cole Beasley that he returned 33 yards. Little did we know that the Steelers really needed him to return the interception for a touchdown since the offense was going to be no help in this game.
The Steelers defense played a strong half of football. They did give up a touchdown, but the Bills got the ball at the 40-yard line following Berry’s putrid punt. The defense forced three punts and intercepted the ball with the halftime whistle ending the Bills final possession.
DEFENSE CREATES AN OPPORTUNITY
The Steelers offense scored to open the second half. Buffalo attempted to respond. The Steelers defense gave up a first down on two Singletary runs. On third and ten, Allen completed a 20-yard pass to John Brown. Allen did not pass well when on the move. But when he was able to stand tall in the pocket, he did deliver some zingers. Singletary ran the ball again gaining 11 yards before Watt forced a fumble that Mike Hilton recovered at the 31-yard line. A takeaway just after the offense scores. Exactly what you want the defense to do.
STEELERS PLAY STOUT DEFENSE
The defense was back on the field in less than three minutes following a punt but forced a punt of their own. An illegal block in the back set the Bills back to first and 19. Josh Allen gained six yards, but Heyward brought him down. They could not gain anymore yardage so had to punt the ball.
The Bills got a first and goal at the eight-yard line after starting at the 18 following an interception. The Bills lost yardage on three straight running plays and settled for a field goal. Very stout defense.
STEELERS GIVE UP A LONG DRIVE
The defense was not so stout on the next series. Josh Allen continued to pass to John Brown with Steve Nelson attempting to cover him. On the first play, Brown caught a 40-yard pass. Referees penalized Nelson for pass interference which was declined to pour salt on the open wound. Singletary ran for another 15 yards. Tyson Alualu forced a fumble, but John Brown recovered the ball for the Bills. Alualu knocked down one pass but on third and 9, Tyler Kroft made his only completion of the game for a touchdown.
DEFENSE GIVES THE TEAM A CHANCE
The defense did force two consecutive three and outs to give the Steelers a chance to tie or even win the game with a touchdown and a successful two-point conversion. In the first instance, the defense flushed Josh Allen and tackled him after a six-yard gain on third and ten. In the second instance, Frank Gore ran three times and the defense held him to just six yards. But the Steelers had to use their final timeouts to preserve 1:31 on the clock.
The Steelers defended six Buffalo possessions excluding the final snap of the game. The defense forced one turnover, held the Bills to a field goal following a big interception and forced three punts. The one weak set of downs was allowing a six play 70-yard drive for the winning touchdown. In most games limiting a team to scoring 17 points and creating two turnovers results in a win. Unfortunately, the offense only produced ten points and fumbled the ball away at the ten-yard line.
I break special teams play into six phases: Kickoffs, kickoff returns, punts, punt returns, field goals & blocking field goals (I’m not counting extra point plays).
Boswell kicked off three times. Andre Roberts returned his first two kickoffs. Roberts returned Boswell’s opening kickoff from the two-yard line to the 20-yard line but a Bills holding penalty placed the ball at the ten. Roberts took the second lick from three yards deep in the endzone to the 24-yard line where Kameron Kelly tackled him. Boswell’s third kickoff was a touchback. Roberts averaged over 26.7 yards a return coming into this game. He averaged just 22.5 yards per return Sunday night.
Stephen Hauschka kicked off four times. Kerrith Whyte returned the first from the four-yard line to the 28-yard line for a solid 24-yard return. He fielded the second short kick at the 15 and ran 16 yards to the 31-yard line to open the second half. The Steelers scored on that drive. The Steelers took a touchback. Then on the last Buffalo kickoff, Whyte returned the ball 23 yards to the 24-yard line. Whyte averaged just 21 tard per return but two of three gave the Steelers starting position beyond the 25-yard line. Most significantly, the special team unit committed no penalties. Advantage Steelers.
Berry punted five times averaging 43 yards a punt. In a game with two strong defenses and weak offenses field position would be critical. Berry’s first punt only traveled 22 yards from his own 18-yard line. The Bills scored the first points of the game off this putrid punt. Berry then boomed a 58-yard punt that Andre Roberts returned 12 yards. However, the Bills committed another special teams’ penalty that pushed the ball back to the 18-yard line. Berry’s next kick went out of bounds after 39 yards. He may have been directing the ball away from the dangerous Roberts who has three career punt return touchdowns. Berry’s two punts in the fourth quarter reversed the field. The first went from his own 27-yard line to be fair caught at the Buffalo 30. The second went from his own 24-yard line to the Buffalo 23. However, Berry’s first punt was very costly.
Corey Bojorquez punted six times averaging 41.5 yards a punt. Diontae Johnson returned two punts for 20 yards. Three of his six punts were fair caught behind the 20-yard line. Diontae Johnson did return one from the 13 to the 26-yard line. His last punt only went 31 yards and gave Pittsburgh good field position at their 43-yard line, but the offense could not capitalize on the opportunity. Advantage Bills.
Boswell made his only field goals attempt. His 49-yard kick put the Steelers on the scoreboard following the Bills opening touchdown. Hauschka kicked a 36-yard field goal to tie the game early in the fourth quarter. Advantage Even.
DAVE BRYAN’S VICTORY PUNCH LIST
- The defense must stop running backs Frank Gore and Devin Singletary. Gore gained just 15 yards on ten carries. The defense stopped him three straight times in the fourth quarter to force a punt. However, Singletary gained 87 yards with 13 of 21 runs successful including seven first downs. He did lose one fumble.
- The Steelers running attack must be successful. They ran the ball 15 times for 51 yards with just one attempt in the fourth quarter. I counted six of 15 running plays as successful with four resulting in first downs.
- J. Watt must take advantage of his matchup with right tackle Cody Ford. Watt recorded .5 sack, batted one pass down and two quarterback hits. He also forced a fumble but that was on a running play. Josh Allen had a few plays that he could stand tall in the pocket with no pressure.
- The Steelers record more yards after catches than Buffalo. The Bills tackled receivers on short passes right after the catch.
- Minkah Fitzpatrick makes a big play. Minkah recoded two tackles but had no turnovers.
- Chris Boswell outkicks Stephen Hauschka. The kicking contest was even. One apiece.
- The Steelers end the 20-game streak of turning over the ball. Wow. Four interceptions and a lost fumble.
The five turnovers alone were enough to lose this game. The only item that came close to getting accomplished was Watt’s performance. However, other than his initial sack and a couple quarterback hits he did not appear to pressure Allen throughout the game. So, the Steelers come up empty in accomplishing any of the punch list items in my opinion.
YOUR HOT TAKES DURING THE GAME
FIRST HALF READER COMMENTS
Steelers Depot readers commented 1201 times on the game’s first half Live Update and Discussion Thread.
Ddrews 1914 had the top comment of the half. Randy Fichtner’s play calling got a lot of attention. “Amazing how the Steelers say to Duck “just don’t kill us” but Fichtner’s stupid play calls always come back to bite us.”
Chad Weiss still sore from Berry’s putrid opening punt and the ineptness of the offense. “Man, how many times special teams and this offense gonna kill this defense?” The answer turned out to be six. The 22-yard punt plus six turnovers.
Waynecooljr noted that the duck could be elusive in the pocket. “Mason would have been eating grass on that one.”
SeventhHeavan, as well as many others, were incredulous at the wildcat play. “The moron tries to be cute on 1st and goal. UNREAL.”
Not a lot to cheer for at the end of the first half other than it was a surprisingly close game.
SECOND HALF READER COMMENTS
A strong showing of 1573 comments in the 2nd half live discussion. There was a lot to discuss unfortunately not all positive.
Wreckless had the “best’ comment of the second half:
“First half winners:
First half losers:
Randy Fichtner again
The rest of the OL
Steve Nelson may have been a winner in the first half with his interception, but John Brown gave his coverage skills a real test in the game.
Tom White declared, “That was an All-Pro series by Heyward.” Heyward grabbed Josh Allen with one hand holding him to a six-yard gain as he tried to scramble. The very next play Heyward stopped Frank Gore for no gain. Then a heavy pass rush forced a hurried throw that was incomplete.
A couple folks tried to put the game into perspective:
Piftfan “I just don’t understand how our 3rd string QB couldn’t beat a top 5 defense.”
Kevin Schwartz “Welp, Duck played like an undrafted rookie tonight against a top defense. It was bound to happen; we just couldn’t overcome it.”
Steelers asked Devlin Hodges to throw more passes than any other rookie QB in team history in a game where they never trailed by more than 7 points. Against the 2nd ranked pass defense and 21st ranked run defense.
You're asking for trouble with that gameplan.
— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) December 16, 2019
BILLS FANS ENMASSE
The Buffalo Bills Mafia is strong. I do not recall seeing this many visiting fans for many years. My initial estimate was at least 10% of the people in the stadium in Buffalo blue. A street hawker told me on Monday that there were 10,000 Bills fans there. I believe it. So, anywhere from 6400 to 10,000 visitors is reasonable. There were enough so at the end of the game the Bills defense called for noise and got it. Anyone else recall a game at Heinz Field with so many visiting fans?
REALITY SETS IN
We found out the Bills defense is for real. The merchant hawkers in the Strip District are stuck with a lot of leftover Duck merchandise. Devin Hodges never gave up, he kept slinging the ball, but his weaknesses showed. On a couple plays open receivers had to slow up to catch the ball. On others he threw the ball hoping the receiver would make a play, but the defender was in a more advantageous position to catch the ball. At then end of the game he got too hurried and could have spiked the ball to stop the clock.
What was confusing was the offensive game plan. They appeared to give up on running the ball especially in the second half. Only one running play in the entire fourth quarter. Were the Bills stacking the box to prevent a run?
The defense played very strongly. An epic group that could be even stronger of the offense produced more points and let them rest at times. The Steelers could have used some good JuJu. I expect four or five defenders to be on the Pro Bowl team. Apart from Berry’s first punt, special teams play was good. Especially at avoiding penalties.
IT’S NOT OVER YET
It may seem like it to some folks, but the season is not over just yet. First, we will find out whether Mike Tomlin will give Hodges a chance to redeem himself. If he does go with Duck, we will see how Hodges responds to an extremely inferior performance. Can the ugly duckling, fly again? On to New York and the Jets to find out. Here We go.
YOUR MUSIC SELECTION
I always like to offer a music selection. Dave Bryan mentioned that he “… took a little trip” on Friday’s Terrible Podcast. Not sure if many caught the reference, but it is a line from The Battle of New Orleans by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band . A schoolteacher named Jimmy Driftwood wrote the song. Johnny Horton made the song famous in 1959. Here is the earlier version of the song with lyrics.