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Positional Grades: Steelers vs. Bills

Now THAT is the way you open a season.

For the first time under Mike Tomlin, the Pittsburgh Steelers turned a 10-point first-half deficit into a win, and on the road in a hostile environment like Buffalo to boot.

Things looked very dicey early on as the offense showed shades of the poor finish to the 2020 season, while the defense did everything in its power to hold off the opponent until caving in.

That all changed in the second half though as the Steelers outscored the Bills 23-6 to pull away late for a 23-16 win, opening up the season 1-0 in a year many doubt them.

Offensively, Chase Claypool was the player of the game, making things happen downfield once again while adding an explosive play on a windback run. Diontae Johnson made a spectacular touchdown Catcha nd JuJu Smith-Schuster was once again fantastic on money downs.

Defensively, Cameron Sutton answered a ton of questions at cornerback, while the pass rush will once again be a serious problem for offenses all season long with that trio of T.J. Watt, Alex Highsmith and Melvin Ingram. So much for Watt getting off to a slow start too.

Let’s get to some grades and enjoy this win, which might be the best regular season win of Mike Tomlin’s career, full stop.

QB — B+

Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers’ offense got offf to a rather slow start offensively, recording just 54 total yards of offense in the first half. Things changed drastically in the second half though as Roethlisberger got into rhythm through the air, Smith-Schuster and Claypool made big catches downfield and Johnson made an acrobatic touchdown catch, leading to the win.

Early on Roethlisberger missed high on a throw to Johnson on an out route, and then misfired on a short route in the flat to Najee Harris forcing the Steelers to settle for a field goal. After that though, Roethlisberger was dialed in, throwing a strike to Claypool down the right sideline in a jump ball situation, and finding Smith-Schuster up the seam on a back-shoulder throw to move the chains.

Arguably the most underrated aspect of Roethlisberger’s day was his movement within the pocket, sliding around to extend plays and find receivers to throw to. If he can stay relatively healthy in his lower half, that should do wonders for a rebuilding offensive line that will have it’s struggles.

There’s no issues with Roethlisberger’s arm either, as some tried to suggest in the first half.

RB — C+

It was tough sledding out there for Najee Harris in his Steelers’ debut as he had just eight rushing yards on seven carries in the first half. The second half though, the Steelers found some lanes on the ground and Harris started rolling downhill for some big plays. Harris’ 18-yarder really seemed to break the backs of the Bills late in the game, setting up Johnson’s great touchdown catch in the back left corner of the end zone to take the lead.

Aside from his play on the ground, Harris was fantastic in pass protection, providing enough time for Roethlisberger in the pocket. That’s such an underrated aspect of his game and it showed up right away in Week 1.

WR — B+

You’ll be hard pressed to find a more well-rounded trio of receivers than the ones the Steelers possess, and they all showed up on Sunday against the Bills.

As I wrote earlier, Claypool was the best player offensively for the Steelers, finishing with three catches for 45 yards and added a carry for 25 yards. Arguably his biggest plays were down the field drawing a holding call and a pass interference penalty, picking up big chunks of yardage in the process.

Johnson’s touchdown catch was an incredible play, catching the ball off the tip and dragging both feet to get down in bounds for the score. He shook off an early injury to return and put up a line of 5/36/1. As for Smith-Schuster, he’s just terrific week after week moving the chains on the money downs. Smith-Schuster hauled in four passes for 52 and sealed the game with the onside kick recovery with a diving catch.

James Washington got some run early in the game with Johnson hurt, hauling in a screen for 9 yards and added another catch for a yard, finishing with two catches for 10 yards.

TE — B-

I was really pleased with Pat Freiermuth as a blocker in his first NFL game. Freiermuth had the key block that sprung Claypool on the windback run, and he also buried Matt Milano early in the second half on a Harris run. He also made a big play in the middle of the field, hauling in a 24-yard pass from Roethlisberger, showing his overall talents as a No. 2 tight end in Pittsburgh.

Eric Ebron was just fine as a receiver, hauling in a tough catch for 19 yards, taking a big hit in the process. He was unnoticeable live in the run game, which is neither a good nor bad thing.

I don’t ever want to see a tight end screen to Zach Gentry again. Please, Matt Canada. I’m begging you. That was so poorly designed. Aside from that, I liked what Gentry did on Harris’ 18-yard run, getting just enough of Milano while climbing to the second level to delay the standout linebacker long enough to let Harris slip past for the big run.

OL – D

The line was a real problem, especially in the first half in both the passing game and the run game.

Adjustments were made in the second half though, which was just enough to help the Steelers pull out the win.

I was less than pleased with the tackle duo of Chukwuma Okorafor and Dan Moore Jr. in the win. Both allowed too much pressure and Okorafor was pretty much a non-factor in the run game. He was also a bit delayed getting out into space on Johnson’s screen pass that could have gone for a huge gain if Okorafor could just get a hand on Buffalo’s Levi Wallace.

Inside, I thought rookie Kendrick Green was up and down. He looked fantastic getting out in space on Claypool’s run, and showed his mean streak in the run game in the second half. Trai Turner and Kevin Dotson were up and down throughout the game, with Dotson getting called for a false start.

The Steelers won the game, but the line will remain a major problem moving forward if they play like they did on Sunday.

DL — B+

Aside from the Bills running the football at an explosive rate late in the game, the Steelers’ defensive line was fantastic Sunday led by Cameron Heyward and Tyson Alualu. Chris Wormley was good too, drawing a holding penalty in the win in place of Stephon Tuitt.

Heyward was a wrecking ball once again, knocking down two passes and recording a sack of Josh Allen in the win. He simply couldn’t be blocked by the Bills throughout the game. Heyward also forced an Allen fumble that the Bills luckily recovered.

Alualu was seemingly everywhere on Sunday, recording five tackles and a quarterback hit, pairing with Heyward to be a force inside. Wormley added a tackle and drew that holding penalty on a big play by the Bills, wiping it out.

Behind those three, I liked what I saw from Carlos Davis and Isaiah Buggs in limited reps as both were around the football a ton. That late struggle to stop the run has to be cleaned up though.

LB — A-

The outside linebackers were simply incredible on Sunday. It’s hard to describe it any other way.

Fresh off of a new contract, T.J. Watt was a one-man wrecking crew, forcing a fumble that the Steelers recovered, finishing with two sacks in the win. Watt recorded an impressive five quarterback hits in the win too. Good luck, NFL.

Melvin Ingram and Alex Highsmith played very well opposite Watt too as the duo combined for six tackles and a tackle for loss. They applied a ton of pressure on the Bills throughout the game, which should be a major concern for opponents moving forward.

Inside, I thought Devin Bush was really, really good on Sunday. He was around the football a ton, tying Minkah Fitzpatrick for a game-high 10 tackles. He played the run well and found himself around the football a ton. As for Joe Schobert, he looked fine in his first real action with the Steelers, staying on the field throughout the game, finishing with six tackles. The All-22 will tell us more, but live I was really pleased with what I saw from the inside linebackers.

DB – B

Holding Stefon Diggs to nine catches for 69 yards is a major win for a secondary that had some questions coming into the season.

Cameron Sutton quickly put those questions to bed. Sutton was arguably the Steelers’ best defensive player on the afternoon, finishing with five tackles, two tackles for loss — including one on fourth down to force a turnover near midfield — and broke up a pair of passes on the day. He was beat for a touchdown by Gabriel Davis in the back of the end zone, but he had perfect coverage. What a performance by the Steelers’ No. 2 corner.

I thought Joe Haden quietly had a strong game too, while James Pierre made some big plays in the second half, including a huge breakup on Diggs in the fourth quarter to take away a big completion.

At safety, Minkah Fitzpatrick struggled in the tackling department, but he still finished with 10 stops and was a real weapon defensively, moving all over the place and making plays.

Terrell Edmunds finished with five stops, but flashed his issues finding the football in the air, failing to make a play on an overthrow by Allen because he was more concerned with making the hit.

It was great to see Tre Norwood getting run early in the game too. He made a huge play late in the end zone on Davis as well, and really handled himself admirably as a rookie. We’ll see what the plan is for the rookie moving forward in Pittsburgh.

ST — B-

DANNY SMITH FOREVER!!!

Smith dialed up a punt block at the perfect time, looping Miles Killebrew free for the block, leading to the touchdown by Ulysees Gilbert III to put the Steelers up 10 in the fourth quarter.

There were some issues on special teams overall though as Isaiah McKenzie started the game fast for the Bills with a 75-yard kick return to lead to 3 points from the Bills. Additionally, Pressley Harvin III was up and down putting the football, recording punts of 39 and 31 yards, giving the Bills short fields.

Fortunately for Pittsburgh, Chris Boswell drilled a trio of field goals where there was never a doubt on the kicks, leading to the Steelers’ win.

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