NFL News & Analysis

NFL Week 1 Game Recap: Pittsburgh Steelers 23, Buffalo Bills 16

Sep 12, 2021; Orchard Park, New York, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson (18) runs with the ball after a catch as Buffalo Bills defensive back Levi Wallace (39) defends during the second half at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers relied on their defense and special teams in the second half to rally for a 23-16 win over the Buffalo Bills in Week 1. Ben Roethlisberger’s touchdown pass to Diontae Johnson, a fourth-down stop and a blocked punt in the second half wrestled control of the game away from the Bills as the Steelers pulled off the upset win.


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Pittsburgh Steelers

Quarterback

Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada is in place to build an offense that protects Ben Roethlisberger with more than just pass blocking. The motions, unique formations and misdirection are designed to set up manufactured yardage in the passing game. Over one-third of his throws were off play action, but Roethlisberger just didn’t look like he could take advantage. His average depth of target was under six yards, and he completed only 56% of his attempts.

Dropbacks aDOT Passes Short of Sticks % of Yds After Catch
Ben Roethlisberger 35 6.2 62% 45%
Running Back

The Steelers regularly attempted to use shifts and jet motion to get Buffalo misaligned and widened out, but there was never running room for Najee Harris to take advantage of in the box. His day ended much better than it began, but 61% of his yardage came after contact, and he averaged just 1.2 yards of space before contact, per PFF’s first-run analysis.

Wide Receiver/Tight End

Diontae Johnson and JuJu Smith-Schuster combined for just 89 yards on 16 targets and one touchdown. Only three of their targets were contested (one being Johnson’s late touchdown), and 61% of their yardage occurred after the catch. The offense is designed to get these guys the ball with space, and the work they do with their legs will have to be an extension of a non-existent run game.

Offensive Line

There wasn’t much room to run between the tackles for this retooled Steelers offensive line, and the scheme wasn’t to blame. Offensive coordinator Matt Canada tried to mix up the type of runs he presented, with nine zone concepts and seven gap scheme runs, but all three interior linemen were defeated on over 20% of attempts. Because of the screen and quick-game throws, the unit shouldn’t average allowing much more pressure than the three it surrendered against Buffalo, but Dan Moore and Kendrick Green did allow a sack and a hit.

Defensive Line

Melvin Ingram III seamlessly filled the void left by Bud Dupree, generating five pressures on the day. T.J. Watt showed why he’s worth his recent mega extension, tallying six pressures — two resulting in sacks. The most productive pass-rusher on the day was Heyward, though. He racked up 10 total pressures and a sack. The front as a whole generated 19 pressures, 11 of which came within 2.5 seconds of the snap.

Pass-Rush Opportunities Pressures Sack Conversion % Quick Pressure (less than 2.5 seconds)
Steelers DL 56 19 16% 20%
Linebacker

Pittsburgh played tons of nickel and dime Sunday — 74 of 79 total snaps — so the job of stopping the run was left in the hands of Devin Bush and new Steeler Joe Schobert. Bush notched the only defensive stop between the two, and Schobert’s average depth of tackle was eight yards past the line of scrimmage. The game plan worked, though, and defensive coordinator Keith Butler will certainly be bringing more pressure over the course of the season than he did on Sunday, which will alleviate some pressure on the two linebackers.

Steelers Personnel Rush Attempts Defensive Stops Average Depth of Tackle
Nickel 19 10 5.21
Dime 2 1 2.5
Secondary

The Steelers played matchup football against Buffalo and found success by keeping their best coverage players on the field. Four corners and three safeties saw time for Pittsburgh, and Joe Haden was the only defensive back to allow more than 50 yards on the day in spite of each player being targeted at an average depth at or beyond 10 yards. Rotational safety Tre Norwood was the only one in the group to allow a yard or more per coverage snap.

Buffalo Bills

Quarterback

Josh Allen may still be the quarterback we saw in 2020 by season’s end, but it certainly wasn’t on display to open 2021. It’s partially a credit to Pittsburgh’s pass rush unit, which proved effective despite rushing with more than four players only once on first review. Allen bears most of the responsibility for his underperformance, though, somehow managing only 271 yards on 56 dropbacks in spite of an average depth of target at 10.4 yards.

Running Back

Devin Singletary was Buffalo’s most productive offensive player, and he took full advantage of Pittsburgh committing more bodies to cover the pass. His day couldn’t have been more opposite from Harris’, averaging more yards before contact (3.6) than Harris averaged per carry (3.1). His average of 6.6 yards per carry on 11 attempts bodes well for Buffalo being able to balance its offense out if Allen isn’t rolling.

Wide Receiver/Tight End

Buffalo lived on the explosive passing attack in 2020 but died by it to open its 2021 campaign. Some 65% of the targets were distributed amongst the top three players in the rotation, and slot receiver Cole Beasley was the only one of the trio with an average depth of target below 10 yards. Still, all three averaged less than a yard and a half per route run — an off day, to say the least.

Offensive Line

Jon Feliciano couldn’t do much against interior pressure from Cameron Heyward and Pittsburgh’s interior linemen, giving up seven pressures and allowing the pocket to be pushed into Allen’s lap regularly. Tackles Dion Dawkins and Daryl Williams didn’t fare much better, combining to allow nine pressures — with four resulting in Allen being hit. 

Defensive Line

Mario Addison had the lone sack on the day for Buffalo, coming unblocked to get to Roethlisberger. The effect of the defensive line was easier gauged by its domination in the run game, with four stops and an average depth of tackle right at the line of scrimmage on first review.

Secondary

The Bills realized early that Pittsburgh had the athletes to contend with them deep down the field, but not the quarterback. Each defensive back played in press coverage on over 10 of their snaps except for middle-of-field safety Micah Hyde, and only Levi Wallace allowed a passer rating above 100.0, thanks to the acrobatic catch from Diontae Johnson in the back of the end zone. The unit was targeted on 74% of the passing snaps but only allowed a 54% completion rate.

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