The Pittsburgh Steelers emerged victorious in their regular-season opener today with a surprise win over the defending AFC East champion Buffalo Bills, taking down one of the hottest teams in football last year on their home turf.
That came thanks to a 23-6 second half, in which the Steelers scored 20 unanswered points after entering halftime down 10-0. The final points in that run were scored by…inside linebacker Ulysees Gilbert III, who picked up a loose ball after safety Miles Killebrew blocked a Matt Haack punt, a scoop-and-score from the nine that extended a three-point lead to 10. The margin of victory would ultimately be seven points.
“Six or half a dozen, I’m appreciative of the efforts of Miles, I think, who had the block, and UG, who had the scoop-and-score”, head coach Mike Tomlin said in his post-game press conference. “We needed a splash play like that. We spotted them three to start the game, so at halftime, I heard a lot of the core special teams players, Derek Watt and others, saying that we had to even the score”.
The Steelers allowed the Bills, who had the top-ranked kick return game last season, to open the game with a 75-yard runback on the opening kickoff of the game by Isaiah McKenzie, who was tackled at Pittsburgh’s 24-yard line. The defense was able to hold them to a field goal, but it was a frustrating moment for Danny Smith’s group.
“From that perspective, we needed splash in that phase of the game, and boy they delivered, and delivered big”, Tomlin said. It was the Steelers’ first blocked punt since 2018, when former fullback Roosevelt Nix got a hand on a ball. It was also their first blocked punt returned for a touchdown since 2017, when they pulled it off in the second opener. It was Tyler Matakevich then, with Anthony Chickillo recovering for the score.
Killebrew has been running as a second-team safety all offseason, but he was really signed for his special teams contributions, which have obviously already paid off. He logged more than 1600 special teams snaps in five seasons with the Detroit Lions, one of the true workhorses of the third phase in the NFL.
Gilbert is in his third season since being drafted by the Steelers in the sixth round out of Akron. While he played extensively on special teams in the first half of his rookie season before suffering a back injury, he was a healthy scratch, when he was healthy, for much of last season.
He made the 53-man roster this year as one of six outside linebackers, and obviously was active today—in position to pick up the ball and put it into the end zone, providing the margin of victory for a huge road win over an ostensibly elite team as the Steelers look to prove to the football world that they are, in fact, contenders. Winning in all three phases is how you do that.