Playing just once every three years from 2007-2016, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Buffalo Bills have been on an annual rivalry recently. In each of the last two seasons, the teams have met for a December contest. Both of those seasons, the teams have met as contenders. And in both those meetings, the Bills earned the cold weather win. Last year, it was the 9-3 Bills beating the 11-1 Steelers. In 2019, the 9-4 Bills beat the 8-5 Steelers.
The weather changes for the 2021 edition of the game. Instead of winter, the two will begin their 2021 schedules against each other. The status of the teams does not, Buffalo favored to win the AFC East, and Pittsburgh one of three contenders in the AFC North.
With repeat matchups comes a familiarity between teams, particularly ones like the Steelers and Bills with limited turnover among the coaches and rosters over the last few seasons. That in mind, even the players new to the series like inside linebacker Joe Schobert are prepared for some surprises from Buffalo this Sunday to keep the Steelers guessing once the game begins.
“When you got a team that’s had the same coaching staff and players for a couple of years in a row, Week 1 they’re always gonna have wrinkles,” Schobert said. “They’re always gonna have things you haven’t seen on tape because they know what we’re watching. But there’s definitely a sense of continuity. You can expect that their bread and butter things are always going to be their bread and butter things, and you know what they’re going to do. We’ve been kind of just looking at that, but you gotta be ready for the unexpected Week 1.”
Buffalo’s bread and butter over the last two years against Pittsburgh has been winning the battle in the trenches, particularly on defense. The Steelers have had 51 and 47 rushing yards in the pair of losses, and haven’t found a ton of relief in the passing game. In 2019, the year Ben Roethlisberger was out with an injury, Devlin Hodges was intercepted four times in a 17-10 loss. A year later, Roethlisberger and the Steelers’ struggling offense lost 26-15, with another two interceptions by the Bills and a total of only 187 passing yards for Big Ben.
Buffalo’s defense remains a talented group, as does the Bills’ offense. Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs are one of the top QB/WR pairings in the league, but the running game remains a major weakness for the team. Featuring a tandem of Devin Singletary and Zack Moss, Buffalo ran for 75 yards in 2020 with that duo (Allen added yardage as a QB), down from the 102 yards Singletary and Frank Gore had in 2019.
Among possible wrinkles for the Bills to work in, one stands out: Emmanuel Sanders, a former Steeler receiver who is playing in his 12th NFL season this fall, and first with the Bills.