What a great win for the Pittsburgh Steelers to open the season! This article will cover some data from Pro Football Focus and takeaways from watching the film. Let’s jump right in with the defense since they deserve a ton of credit for the way things played out and getting the win on Sunday against the Buffalo Bills.
What a great job by the defensive line in this game! On the first drive that went three and out, T.J. Watt provided pressure with Cam Heyward who had the tipped ball on the pass attempt. On the second drive, Melvin Ingram had a nice pass rush that resulted in holding on the Bills offensive tackle. The edge rushers really gave the Bills offensive line problems and was one of the biggest keys to the game, obviously by creating pressure but forcing several holding penalties as well. Later in the drive Alex Highsmith dropped back into coverage that resulted in an incompletion to Cole Beasley. While it doesn’t make much sense for the Steelers edge players to be in coverage often, it is a good thing to sprinkle into the mix the keep the offense guessing. On the first play of the third drive, Ingram and Tyson Alualu provided pressure on the incompletion that would lead to a three and out and punt.
The first drive of the second quarter began with a good run stop by Highsmith for a gain of one. Two plays later I noted Carlos Davis getting sealed by a block on a Josh Allen draw play, allowing a first down. The following drive went three and out and was all about the defensive line, Ingram with great recognition and tackle for a loss of three on a jet sweep. On second down they brought twisting pressure where Watt got the quarterback hit on the incompletion. Then the third down play resulted in a turnover, Heyward beating his man to force Allen to scramble and Watt to chase him down for the strip sack! The hustle Heyward put in to recovering the fumble was outstanding and love to see the defense providing turnovers this early in the season, something I am optimistic will continue and take pressure off the offense.
The last drive of the second quarter began with a good run stop by Highsmith again for no gain. The next play Heyward beat his man but seemed to be tripped up on the rush, did the Bills get away with another penalty here? The very next play, the Bills were called for holding on Highsmith which was their fourth holding penalty before the second quarter was over! I noted Chris Wormley for attempting to land a punch but whiffed and fell when trying to get his hands on the offensive lineman. There was a questionable offsides call on Highsmith that led to a third down conversion for the Bills on the next play that I didn’t agree with, and this eventually led to the touchdown before halftime. In the two-minute warning, I noted Heyward for good pursuit on the fake screen Allen run. Two plays later on third and one the Bills ran a quarterback sneak and had Alualu getting pushed back allowing space for the conversion. On first and goal Ingram had good pressure on a play where Watt was doubled, and Alualu making a run stop short of the goal line before Buffalo scored the touchdown.
In the third quarter I noted Carlos Davis for making a run tackle but needed to get off the block sooner on the seven-yard gain. Wormley had a good play attempting to cut off running lanes on a quarterback draw play even though it barely converted. The next play was fun, Watt in a stand-up alignment and providing a great run stop. Heyward had good pressure on the following third down stop. To close the third quarter, Heyward had a huge play displaying great eyes on the quarterback and batting the pass on a second effort of getting his hands up. To start the fourth quarter, Watt and Ingram both got good pressure from the edge. The following drive was a three and out, capped off by the great third down stop where Watt and Alualu provided pressure, forcing Allen to step up and resulting in the sack by Heyward. Killebrew’s punt block happened on fourth down of this drive, with the scoop and score from Ulysees Gilbert that was perfect timing in the game for the third phase of the team to provide a spark play. The next drive started with a good push from the entire defensive line, then noted Wormley getting pushed back on a run play. On first and goal, I noted Isaiah Buggs getting off his block and Highsmith with good pursuit to combine on the run tackle. Highsmith also made the tackle on second and goal, providing the opportunity for the huge stop on the next play that held the Bills to a field goal. The first three plays of the final drive had great pressure, first down from Highsmith, second down from Alualu including a quarterback hit, and Ingram on a twist from the right defensive tackle position and looping around the left edge also getting a quarterback hit on the play. Then the two-minute warning hit where the defense played more deep coverage to end the game.
Minkah Fitzpatrick had a lot of big plays in this game according to my notes, reading and reacting to plays in a hurry. PFF had him as the lowest graded defender and I found this startling when I pulled the grades today. In the first quarter he had a good reaction and tackle on Diggs on the second drive of the game. He was in coverage on Diggs’ nice double move where Stefon got a step on him, but Terrell Edmunds was there to pressure the catch (or lack thereof). Later in the second quarter, Edmunds allowed some plays in coverage, the two biggest gainers of the drive to that point (13 yards to Dawson Knox and 28 yards to Gabriel Davis) the latter of the two was more a poor angle/reaction.
The first drive of the second quarter I noted both starting safeties around the ball, especially Minkah. They both were in on plays throughout this drive, and Fitzpatrick closing out the drive with great coverage on a third down stop. To end the third quarter Minkah did get faked out pretty good on the scramble by Josh Allen but closed out the drive with great reaction and acceleration on a third down run stop. Coincidentally, both the third down stops by Fitzpatrick were on the two drives that ended with fourth down stops by Sutton!
On the next to last drive for Buffalo, Fitzpatrick had tight coverage and tackle on the first play. The Steelers safeties then had to make plays and tackles on long gainers but fortunately the drive ended with a field goal. On the final drive Edmunds and Fitzpatrick had back-to-back coverage plays that went incomplete and allowed the defense to start playing off coverage to prevent the deep pass to close out the game.
Cameron Sutton really impressed me overall in this game. On the long opening kickoff return, Sutton stayed in front of the returner keeping him from having a straight-line path for even more yardage. Then on the first drive, he wasted no time showing us his smarts and reaction ability, making a good play in the backfield to stop Stefon Diggs behind the line of scrimmage. This was a reoccurring theme in the game and so refreshing to see against the Bills offense. Tre Norwood was also around the ball early and often, in on the tackle from the first play of the game and there on the play with Sutton as well. On the second drive, Norwood was in on two tackles, the second of which allowed a third and nine conversion. Two plays later, Sutton was in coverage on the deep completion to Emmanuel Sanders but had tight coverage along the sideline. Later in the drive Norwood got beat deep by Sanders but Josh Allen overthrew him. This was a reoccurring theme from the 2020 matchup I studied (lack of connecting deep on air yards) and very thankful the Bills did not convert on this play since this would have set them up in the red zone, but instead led to a punt. Sutton also had a great pass breakup on third down on the following drive, leading to a three and out.
The first drive of the second quarter I had Norwood in my notes for getting beat in coverage, then on the next play blitzing from the slot. The Steelers used Arthur Maulet in the same way on the last drive of the second quarter along with Sutton also having a nice coverage and tackle play here as well. I’m very interested to see who separates themselves moving forward and how the slot corner rotations play out through the season. Joe Haden came up and made a nice tackle from off coverage on Diggs despite his stiff-arm attempt. Maulet also had a good read and tackle on a run-pass-option that Josh Allen kept for a gain of three. The defense then allowed a first down to lead to the two-minute warning, Diggs getting space from Sutton on an in route that was freed up by the slot receiver carrying vertically. Unfortunately, on the next drive the Bills scored the first touchdown, despite Sutton having tight coverage on the play.
To start the second half the Bills targeted Diggs on three straight plays, on the two completions James Pierre was in coverage. I noted Diggs winning on the second play getting inside of Pierre on a slant to convert on third and short. Then I noticed the defense shifting their coverage to Diggs, and he had no other catches on a long Bills drive that ended with a third and fourth down stop, where Sutton had a great pass break up! To begin the fourth quarter the defense was able to stand again for third and fourth down stops, where Sutton again made the play on fourth down for the second time of the game. The next drive was a three and out that James Pierre made a nice pass break up to lead to a third down sack and punt block and return for the touchdown the next play! The Bills then had a red zone drive but Joe Haden made a great play on third and goal to stop the short catch for no gain and striping the ball out of bounds. This held Buffalo to a field goal which was a key stop in a crucial moment of the game. With 49 seconds left, Norwood had a nice pass breakup in the end zone that led to the Bills kicking the field goal and hoping to recover the onside kick.
The linebackers did not have as big of an impact overall as I was hoping for in the game, but they did make some plays. On the first drive, Devin Bush was in on the tackle on Cole Beasley’s out route early on the second play. On the second drive Joe Schobert and Bush were combined for the tackle on a first and long run. Later in the second quarter, the linebackers were good along with the entire unit in coverage, then noted Bush making the tackle on Beasley on first and long. In the third quarter, Schobert was in on the tackle on Emmanuel Sanders. Later on the same drive, Schobert had a nice hit on the receiver in coverage on third down to help secure the halt of the drive. At the end of the third quarter, Bush had a good play in run defense running quickly to meet Devin Singletary at the sideline for a two-yard gain. The next drive opened with Bush making a decent play in coverage on one of the few plays that lacked pressure from the Steelers defense. Bush and Schobert were in on a run tackle on the next drive, but it was a successful play.
Great performance from the defense, they were able to put the worries I had before the game about the Bills potent offense to bed and deserve huge credit for the win.
Now let’s do a similar view for the offense:
Pat Freiermuth and Chase Claypool had the highest PFF grades from the game at 72.8, highlighting that there were no standout performers on offense. Right away Ben Roethlisberger’s low grade jumps off the graph and thought this was a low grade for him. By no means was it a stellar performance, on the first drive he had an overthrow to Dionate Johnson and other miscommunications on routes with him in this game. This is something I will be monitoring moving forward. He also led Chase Claypool a bit much on a pass on the following three and out drive, so early accuracy was an issue. The third drive he had two successful passes, but in the second quarter the offense had another short three and out drive where the pass game couldn’t connect. This highlights a concern I had going into the game, getting stronger starts as an offense in the first half to help the offense stay balanced. Thank goodness the defense played extremely well and special teams provided a spark to get the win.
To start the third quarter Ben had a few good throws, two of which were deeper targets to Eric Ebron and Chase Claypool and it was refreshing to see the offense move the ball better coming out of halftime. The drive ended with a high incomplete throw to Najee Harris that stalled the drive, but the offense finally provided a scoring drive with a field goal. The last drive of the third quarter started with Ben being pressured by a free rusher that batted the pass away on the incompletion. Then Roethlisberger showed great patience going through his progression with time in the pocket to find Pat Freiermuth wide open in the middle of the field for a big gain of 24 yards. On the following play there was another route miscommunication play with Diontae, and the Bills defense were able to hold the Steelers to a field goal again, this time in the red zone.
After the defense held strong with a fourth down stop, Ben targeted Claypool in a combative catch situation downfield where the defensive back didn’t get his head turned around. This was a huge penalty on third down that kept the drive moving, and Roethlisberger capitalized with a nice touchdown throw to Diontae where only he could get it and showed great focus, hands, and awareness to drag his feet. On the final drive, I thought Ben had a nice back shoulder throw to JuJu that went for a healthy gain on 24 yards. Two plays later Ben had to elude pressure by stepping up and deciding to take off and run for seven yards, I personally would have liked to see him slide down a bit sooner to avoid taking a hit from the defender though. Roethlisberger then had a good third down conversion to Claypool, cueing timeouts from the Bills that could have come in handy for them on their final offensive drive. The Steelers drive did stall here, but the plays leading up to this point allowed the Steelers to trust Boswell on the field goal make that put us up by ten.
In Najee Harris’ regular season debut, he played on all the offensive snaps! On the first drive the Steelers ran the ball three out of five plays, but only one was successful where he showed patience to wait for enough space to get positive yards when it could have been stopped for no gain or a loss. On the third drive, Najee had a short run of two yards where I noted Trai Turner getting pushed back and Dan Moore allowing the edge player by to make the tackle. On a second and one rush later in the drive, Harris was tackled for a loss and noted it was more on Trai Turner getting pushed back into the backfield. On the next drive Najee had a 2-yard run where the tackler did a nice job of not letting Harris churn for additional yards. The next drive of the second quarter he had a run for no gain on second and twenty, and I noted Dan Moore getting pushed back which allowed the defender to make the tackle. The following play Roethlisberger targeted Harris on the pass, but Turner allowed pressure on Ben who had to get the pass out a bit before Najee could get turned around to secure the catch which led to a punt.
In the second half, Najee started with a nice run with great pulling blocks from Pat Freiermuth and Trai Turner for nine yards and one of the healthier rushes of the game to this point. Here’s to hoping we can see this with more frequency moving forward, very nice and refreshing play after the lack of successful runs early. To close this drive though, Najee was stopped for a gain of one where Dan Moore got to the second level but did not land a block which allowed the off-ball linebackers to rally to the ball. The following play was a high throw from Roethlisberger where Harris was wide open and know they both wish they could have that play back. On the last drive of the third quarter, Najee provided a successful third down conversion that was refreshing to see considering lack of successes in this regard in recent memory. Kendrick Green deserves credit here for getting a good push off the line to aid in the conversion. When this drive reached the red zone, Harris was waiting for a hole to open up in the middle to no avail, noted he could have made a cut to the left to at least get back to the line of scrimmage as opposed to the loss of two. Najee had another rush two plays later of four yards, but this was on third and goal which led to the field goal to cut the lead to four points.
To start the fourth quarter, Najee had two good runs. The first was a gain of five where I noted good blocks from Kendrick Green and Trai Turner, and Harris with good effort fighting for those yards. Two plays later we saw another healthy run of 18 yards, where Green, Turner, Okorafor all had good blocks along with Freiermuth on a great pull block as well. This allowed this shift in momentum for the Steelers comeback with the Diontae touchdown on the following play and the special teams touchdown soon after, very encouraging to see the offense step up here. The last drive was quiet for Harris, two carries for two yards but the coaches seemed content playing for the field goal to close out the game.
Diontae Johnson got the ball rolling for the wide receivers on the first drive catching a screen pass and nice run for 14 yards. Juju and Turner had nice blocks on the play, with the latter getting a good pancake block on a defensive back. Johnson was targeted a few plays later on third down, but this was the play that Ben overthrew him leading to a punt. On the next drive Johnson was targeted again on first down on a short route providing a successful play on first down. Claypool was targeted on the next play, but the pass was just outside his catch radius and unfortunately fell incomplete. The final drive of the first quarter was a nice play design I enjoyed, JuJu going in motion followed by playaction then the throw to the motion man (Smith-Schuster) for a successful play on first down. Two plays later the Steelers faced a third and short, and Roethlisberger was able to connect with JuJu on a nice pitch and catch. On the following play James Washington was targeted on a screen pass after presnap motion and playaction, where I also noted an interesting and well executed blocking scheme. The right side of the offensive line showed typical pass pro at the snap then aggressively ran to the second level along with a good block from Claypool to set up Washington with space on the nine-yard gain.
On the first play of the second quarter, Diontae Johnson gave the fans a brief scare when he was injured on the play, but thankfully he was able to return to the game which proved crucial since he provided the touchdown later in the third quarter that I mentioned earlier. JuJu was targeted on the third down a few plays later, but the ball was tipped and almost intercepted. The next drive began with another great motion concept, sending JuJu in motion then throwing to him off of play action and providing a great effort getting hit at the line of scrimmage but getting great yards after contact to gain ten yards and the first down. This is a key point we have heard Dave and Alex talk about in the past, the pre-snap motion needs to be a threat in other ways besides the jet sweep and it is great seeing Matt Canada incorporate these different aspects we were hoping to see this offseason to keep the opposition guessing.
In the third quarter I enjoyed seeing Diontae make a great focus catch on a screen with the defensive back recognizing and pressuring the catch. We’ve heard all offseason that Johnson has been working hard to avoid drops, and this was a great and encouraging example of that hard work paying off. JuJu was targeted on the next play, but the throw was a bit low and behind him falling incomplete. Claypool then had a great vertical route/jumpball throw, making a great catch on Tredavious White, followed by a nice separation by Johnson on an out route for a successful play on first down. The final drive of the quarter I thought Claypool had a nice slant route for a healthy gain of nine which set up the successful third and one run by Najee. Later in the drive Chase also had a great play off of a play action fake then taking the end around for a big play of 25 yards.
In the fourth quarter Claypool drew the huge pass interference call on third and seven that set up Diontae Johnson’s great touchdown grab in the back of the end zone, showing great focus to secure the catch and drag his toes to make a great play. On the last drive, JuJu had a nice play on the back shoulder throw from Ben for a 24-yard gain, but then was called for an offsides penalty the next play. A couple plays later Ben and Diontae had another miscommunication/route issue that I will be monitoring moving forward. Thankfully Claypool provided the third down conversion on a great contested catch to move the chains. Johnson then had another miscommunication on the route with Ben, then the Steelers ran a short screen to Washington to set up the field goal to extend the lead.
I was encouraged seeing Pat Freiermuth and Eric Ebron having similar snap counts in the game, getting the rookie on the field right away which will be valuable if this can continue to allow the offense flexibility in formations. I didn’t have many notes on either tight end in the first half, but in the third quarter I noted Freiermuth with a great pulling block but followed that play by getting pushed back on a short run by Harris. Ebron was targeted deep later in the drive for 19 yards, and really enjoyed the pass protection effort from Najee blocking the rusher past Roethlisberger which could have easily been a sack. The final drive of the third quarter is where Freiermuth made the wide-open catch in the middle of the field providing a 24-yard gain. On second and goal the Bills had good team coverage and Ben threw it where only Ebron could get it and went incomplete, but I did enjoy seeing Najee split out wide on this play, something that could prove very effective through the season. In the fourth quarter, Zach Gentry made the receiving stat line on a screen pass, but the play went for a loss of two yards.
As expected, the offensive line had their warts this game but also saw some encouraging things as well. I especially thought Kevin Dotson had a solid and consistent game with steady play overall. I was lower on Dan Moore’s performance compared to the PFF grades, starting with the first drive. Harris ran right tackle and Moore could not connect on the block resulting in a short gain. On the same drive I also noted Moore seemed slow on a pulling block that Harris had to wait on. The next run play I noted Okorafor needing to get a better seal on his block. The next drive was a three and out, and on that third down Moore was beat allowing the sack fumble on Roethlisberger, but the Steelers were able recover setting up a punt. The last drive of the first quarter I noted Trai Turner getting pushed back in the run game along with Moore allowing the edge defender a free path to track and make the tackle on Najee. Two plays later they ran the play I referenced earlier on the James Washington screen pass, setting up great blocking on the second level for Washington’s YAC.
The first play of the second quarter we saw a 2WR/2TE/1RB formation, but the Bills sniffed out the run play with Turner getting knocked down and beat on the loss of four. The next play was a third down and noted Kendrick Green and more allowing pressure on the play. The next drive Kevin Dotson had the false start penalty that set up third and long on the following play where Roethlisberger was almost intercepted. On the next drive Ben was sacked again but noted this was a product of the Bills defensive back blitzing and coming free. The following play Moore didn’t get a push on his man resulting in a no gain rush by Harris. This drive closed out with a Najee incompletion and noted Turner barely getting a block on the twisting rusher inside late, but the rush effected the timing and throw on the play.
To start the third quarter, I noted Turner providing a great pulling block with Freiermuth that I referenced earlier, then Green getting pushed back on the following play allowing a first down. Then Moore got beat again forcing Ben to scramble nearly lead to an interception, but thankfully Tre’Davious White was called for the penalty erasing the turnover. Quick side note, this is the drive that J.C. Hassenauer came in for three plays for Kendrick Green. Later in the drive, I noted Moore working to the second level but unable to land a block on either off-ball linebacker allowing them to rally for the tackle and short gain. The following third down play I noted Okorafor getting beat on the overthrown pass to Harris, resulting in a field goal. On the final drive of the third quarter the other Edmunds brother (Bills Tremaine Edmunds) came free on a blitz and was able to tip the ball for the incompletion. Then I noticed good overall blocking on the Claypool catch that set up Najee’s successful third and short conversion where I noted good blocking as a unit, but Green getting a great push to create space. On the Claypool end around I loved the blocks by Green and Freiermuth in particular.
In the fourth quarter, I noted Moore for allowing pressure on the Gentry screen. The following play I Green and Turner had good blocks on the five-yard run by Harris. On the last drive I was looking for the Steelers to run the ball with Najee to run the clock, but the run to pass ratio was low: 2 rushes/10 plays. My hope is that the offensive line can continue to gel and provide more consistent play so that we can see a higher rush percentage in situations like this, when you have a two possession lead it would be a huge plus if the line can step up and help Harris and the Steelers grind out wins.
I will be looking for improvements from the offense moving forward, mainly the offensive line. Most people figured it would take time for this brand new group to figure things out, and thankfully the defense and special teams stepped up in this game.
Now for special teams, the players on this graph were the players with the most snaps (minimum of ten) to keep the graph clean on this small sample size because many players have the exact same PFF snaps and grades with this small of a sample size, causing a messy graph.
This also highlights the fantastic play Miles Killebrew made on the punt block, with Ulysees Gilbert getting the recovery and touchdown. This to me was the turning point of the game and was at the perfect time of the game as well. Here’s to hoping we can see more plays like that this season. I thought Justin Layne and Derek Watt played well, the latter having a nice shoestring tackle. Boswell had a solid game providing nine points, but Harvin had some consistency issues. He did have two punts inside the 20, and a long 51-yard punt, but had two short punts in the second quarter the latter being backed up in the end zone.
Here is a table to close, including all snap counts for the Bills game.