The 2020 season really drove home the point that a game like football is a spectator sport. For as weird as it might have been for us to watch games at home played in empty stadiums with only artificial crowd noise, it was that much more uncanny for the actual teams to play in front of empty seats, as though it were a scrimmage.
Though they did play through the preseason, the Pittsburgh Steelers got a shock to the system in their regular-season opener playing in front of a very hostile, and very loud, Buffalo Bills crowd. According to safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, in fact, they were so intense that even the defense had to quickly adjust.
“The energy in that stadium was nuts. There were series where we were on defense and I’m talking to people—I couldn’t even hear myself talk”, he said during his recent spot on the Pat McAfee Show. “We had to change; we had to go to hand signals because we couldn’t even hear anything. I’m talking to guys, and I’m like, ‘we’re on defense and they’re screaming like that’”.
Generally, the home crowd is loud when the defense is on the field, and more subdued when the offense is on the field. You want your offense to be able to communicate, but don’t want the same privileges for the opposing offense. If the Steelers couldn’t hear themselves while they were on defense, it must have been tough for the Bills’ offense, as well. But nobody was complaining about it.
“It was definitely good to have people back in the stadium, even if it wasn’t our fans”, Fitzpatrick said. “We were feeding off of them as well. And then once they got quiet towards the end of the game, it was even more of an energy boost to us”.
The Steelers exited the first half trailing 10-0, but were able to come back to ultimately win the game by a 23-16 margin. The offense was able to move the ball in the second half in ways they were not early on, but the defense was pretty consistently strong throughout.
And they had to be right out of the gate. The kick coverage unit allowed a 75-yard return on the opening play of the game, so the defense was automatically in sudden-change mode, but they held the Bills offense without a first down, and forced them to settle for a field goal.
That at least set the tone to let the crowd know that the Bills wouldn’t be getting into the end zone easily, no matter what happens. And they only managed it once all game, for a team that averaged more than 30 points per game last season.
It wasn’t enough, letting down a rabid fan base. Now on Sunday, the Heinz Field faithful will try to give the Las Vegas Raiders the same treatment Pittsburgh got in Buffalo.