As we’ve been doing for several years now, we’ll break down the Pittsburgh Steelers’ opponent each week, telling you what to expect from a scheme and individual standpoint. Like last year, Josh Carney and I will cover the opposing team’s offense. I will focus on scheme, Josh on the players.
To kick off the season, breaking down the Buffalo Bills’ offense.
Alex’s Scheme Report
Bills’ Run Game
The run game is similar to a year ago with many of the same pieces both along the offensive line and in the backfield. The problem with stopping the Bills’ run game is the fact there are so many options. Three running backs, a quarterback, and some wide receiver run-game work to account for.
Consider this. Last season, the Bills had three players with 100+ carries and 4+ YPC: RBs Devin Singletary and Zack Moss, and QB Josh Allen. They were one of only three teams to do so with three players joining the Ravens and Rams.
Buffalo’s capable of the big play in the run game with 53 runs of 10+ yards last season, 13th most in the league. Ten of those runs went for 20+, tied for 11th most in the league. All three of those names return and will play in the opener. The Bills also added speedy RB Matt Breida to their roster. In their preseason tune-up game against Green Bay, he was certainly involved as a space player in the offense. They used him on jet sweeps and also the screen/RPO game, getting him on the perimeter and allowing him to use his wheels. These came out of Pony backfields with two true running backs on the field. He’s #22 in these two clips.
Here, watch them jet the ball to Breida on the first play and then fake it the next, running a toss away from the jet with pullers in front. Nice constraint play.
When we spoke with Bills’ beat writer Matt Parinno earlier this week, he did say the team could end up using WR Isaiah McKenzie in that role. So Breida’s involvement in this offense is unclear. But be wary of his speed out on the field.
Buffalo is a RPO-heavy team so a lot of runs and pass are packaged together with Allen earning the trust to make the decision based on what he sees pre/post-snap.
Do want to note some other interesting stats about this team that don’t have to directly do with the run game. This was the #2 offense in points scored and yards last season. It’s an offense that’s capable of getting off to fast starts. They had seven first possession scoring drives in 2020, tied for 10th best. Six of those found their way into the end zone, tied for 5th best. OC Brian Daboll returns and there are no major changes to staff or personnel.
In comparison, the Steelers had just three opening scoring drives. And just one of those went into the end zone. So Pittsburgh could fall behind early, though we’ll see how things look under new OC Matt Canada.
Playing on the road at Buffalo is no easy task either. Buffalo has won their last six home regular season games. Their last home game loss to a team not named the Chiefs came on December 29th, 2019. They went 9-0 last season (excluding when they played the Chiefs). Beating Buffalo at their place isn’t easy.
One reason why they were so successful last season was their ability to win on possession downs. 49.7% on third down, by far the best mark in football. In fact, that was the best third down conversion rate since the 2011 Saints, who topped out around 56%, which is just an absurdly good number.
Don’t forget about their return game either. That’s where the offense starts. #1 in kick return average last year at 27.6 yards, and that’s without a kick return touchdown (they had a long of 60) with an 11.9 punt return average, which ranked 4th in the league. They only called for 13 fair catches in 2020, eighth fewest in the league, so they’re aggressive in returning the football. It’s worth noting last year’s returner was Andre Roberts, now in Houston, and Isaiah McKenzie is projected to be the team’s starting punt and kick returner. Still, they seem to have a good scheme and blocking to open running lanes. Return games aren’t solely a product of the return man.
Bills’ Pass Game
Led by Josh Allen, who broke out in a major way last season and is one of the MVP favorites this season. His completion percentage has jumped from 52.8% as a rookie to 58.8% as a sophomore to 69.2% last season, an incredible jump in his 37 TD, 10 INT season. He was sacked 26 times, a decent number, but only dropped five times over his last five regular season games. So they cut down on that issue too as the team caught fire.
Allen has a ton of weapons to throw too. None bigger than Stefon Diggs, who wrecked the Steelers in the second half of last year’s victory. Diggs put on a clinic a year ago, catching 127 passes for 1535 yards and eight touchdowns. The number of other wide receivers who have posted that stat line or better? It’s a short list: Antonio Brown (twice), Michael Thomas, Julio Jones, Marvin Harrison, and Stefon Diggs.
Last year, Diggs and slot receiver Cole Beasley were the passing offense. Combined, they accounted for 51% of the Bills’ receptions and 47.7% of the total targets. They were two of just six NFL players with 80+ receptions and a 75%+ catch rate. Throw it their way and they catch it.
This offseason, the team added former Steeler Emmanuel Sanders, who is still going well into his 30s. But don’t forget about Gabriel Davis, a true vertical threat who averaged 17.1 yards per catch a year ago and caught a touchdown against the Steelers.
Schematically, the Bills were as pass happy as ever in their preseason tune-up game against Green Bay. They threw the ball on – get this – their first 16 offensive plays, not running the ball once in the first quarter. Much of this came out of empty, the Steelers’ kryptonite, and you can expect Buffalo to test Pittsburgh with this Sunday. Some examples. Quick throws to the flat, getting the ball to their playmakers.
Like this concept here in the low red zone. 3rd and Goal from the three. Follow concept with the tight end and running back, the back on an angle route for the score.
Josh’s Individual Report
It’s Bills week, Steelers fans!
The last time these two teams faced off, the Bills’ offense lit up the Steelers’ defense at New Era Stadium in Orchard Park in Week 14 of the 2020 season, falling 26-15.
That same Bills team went on to make a run to the AFC Championship Game, defeating the likes of the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens at home before falling on the road to the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead.
Now, the Bills return a number of the same starters on offense, led by future MVP Josh Allen at quarterback, fresh off of signing a new long-term deal, who appears poised to ascend even further into stardom.
Led by Allen, the Bills possess one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL, especially through the air. Allen sees star No. 1 receiver Stefon Diggs return, along top-flight slot receiver Cole Beasley and emerging No. 3 receiver Gabriel Davis, who is an intriguing height/weight/speed weapon at receiver that came on strong late last season.
The Bills did add veteran receiver Emmanuel Sanders to the room, giving the Bills some of the best depth in the league at the position, but make no mistake: this offense runs through Allen’s right arm and Diggs’ hands.
The two hooked up for 127 completions, 1,535 yards and another eight touchdowns, quickly becoming the top pairing in the NFL, at least from a numbers standpoint.
With a quarterback of Allen’s talent, any route is open for Diggs. In 2020 alone, Allen showed no hesitancy cutting throws loose from the howitzer of arm that is attached to his right shoulder, targeting Diggs down the middle of the field often.
Look at this throw by Allen to Diggs early in the Wild Card Round matchup against the Indianapolis Colts. Look closely at Allen’s feet leading into the throw.
That’s certainly not how you coach it up, but his arm talent is that special that he’s able to just flick his wrists and fire a seed to Diggs in traffic down the middle of the field. Diggs is quietly underrated as a contested catch guy too. Just a fantastic play all around.
It’s incredibly hard to handle Diggs one-on-one, no matter what talent you have in the secondary. Here against the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game, Diggs outclasses All-Pro safety Tyrann Mathieu down the middle of the field for the 34-yard hookup.
Again, that’s a strike from Allen down the middle of the field into one of the harder windows to throw into against NFL defenses. When he’s targeting Diggs in this part of the field, there’s no fear from the young gunslinger.
It’s not all deep balls and big plays from Allen and Diggs. They carved up defenses throughout the season on YAC plays, especially against the Steelers in that Week 14 win.
Both times there against the Steelers in Week 14, Diggs was able to break a tackle and run away from Steelers’ defenders, leading to big plays that sparked the Bills’ offense to a second-half surge on the way to the 11-point win.
Beasley shouldn’t be overlooked at receiver either. He’s developed into arguably the best route runner in the slot in the NFL. Though he’s undersized and isn’t the fastest player overall, he consistently finds himself open after creating separation in his routes. He’s a dynamic player that has the trust of Allen, who targeted him 213 times over the last two seasons.
He’s a guy that could find himself being covered by linebackers in Week 1, which could carve up the Steelers’ defense in a big way with so much attention on Diggs.
Sanders is also a terrific route runner that should not be overlooked as the perceived fourth option at receiver. He’s always had good games against the Steelers, and that could continue on Sunday.
In the backfield, the Bills — who don’t run the football often with a talent like Allen at quarterback — boast a solid combination in scatback Devin Singletary and power back Zach Moss.
Moss should be the workhorse in obvious rushing situations. He’s a guy the Bills were very high on, and a guy I was very high on in his draft class, putting himself in the RB1 discussion for me. Moss has great contact balance, good overall vision and makes things happen after contact. He’s a load in short-yardage too.
Singletary had a strong game against the Steelers in Week 14, ripping off a couple of big runs on off-tackle designed runs. He stretches the carry out just right and then has the foot speed and vision to hit the hole with speed, bearing downhill on the secondary in the blink of an eye.
He can make you miss in a phonebooth too, so the Steelers will have to be on top of their game.
Up front, the Bills remain intact from 2020. Here’s how I expect them to line up left to right on Sunday:
LT — Dion Dawkins
LG — Jon Feliciano
C — Mitch Morse
RG — Cody Ford
RT — Daryl Williams
Dawkins is one of the best left tackles in football and is a premier pass protector thanks to the athleticism he possesses, while Cody Ford — should he stay healthy in 2021 — should take a significant step forward at guard with his overall athleticism.
Morse is quietly one of the best centers in football who will not be fazed by anything a defensive coordinator tries to throw at him in terms of blitzes, while Williams parlayed a great 2020 season into a long-term contract extension, giving the Bills a terrific bookend tackle tandem.
At tight end, the Bills see third-year tight end Dawson Knox return as the bonafide starter. Knox is a good all-around tight end, but brings a bit more athleticism to the position than expected, which led to some big plays in the passing game in 2020.
He’s a tough cover for tight ends and safeties, giving the Bills another good weapon in the passing game.
Behind Knox, the Bills will give blocking tight end Tommy Sweeney some run in two tight end sets, but don’t overlook Sweeney’s ability to make contested catches and run through tackles as a receiver.
On special teams, kicker Tyler Bass and his big leg returns for a second season, giving the Bills a kicking-game weapon who can hit field goals from 50+ with ease.
At punter, the Bills made a change though, signing veteran punter Matt Haack away from the Miami Dolphins in the offseason, letting go of the much-maligned and inconsistent Corey Borojuez.
Isaiah McKenzie returns as the standout kick and punt returner, providing the Bills with a guy that can take any touch to the house on short notice.