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Weekend Look Ahead

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5 things to watch for Bills vs. Steelers | NFL Playoffs


1. Allen's Wild Card excellence

While this may be the first playoff matchup between Pittsburgh and Buffalo since their 1995 Divisional Playoff, and the first ever between the two clubs in Orchard Park in the postseason, one thing that isn't new is Josh Allen's play in the Wild Card round.

The Bills signal caller has won each of his last three Wild Card playoff games, with a passer rating of 127.7 in those contests, the highest in the NFL. Allen has also completed almost 71 percent of his passes over that stretch (70.7%), averaged almost 10 yards per pass attempt (9.9), 10 touchdowns against a pair of interceptions and an average of almost 375 yards per game (374.7), which is the best in the NFL.

But Allen knows that past performance doesn't ensure future results.

"You want to peak at the right time," said Allen as he enters this year's postseason. "I think this football team, we've still got our best ball to play, but we're trending in the right direction. We're very fortunate to be playing another game. There are a lot of teams that aren't in the playoffs, a lot of guys that aren't practicing, so this is a very inspired group right now. We just love that we're able to come in here and do what we love to do."

Allen's career playoff average of 344 offensive yards per game in the playoffs is the most in NFL history.

"Josh Allen is just an incredible competitor," said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. "They utilize his talents and his competitive spirit very well. That can be displayed by their designed run game in weighty moments, possession down, and red zone situational moments. He's got 15 rushing touchdowns on the season. Boy, that is something to deal with. And so, it's challenging, the mathematic or the schematic component of quarterback mobility, particularly from a design run standpoint, is really challenging. Especially, when you have the passing talents that he has and the arsenal of people to spread the ball around to."

Allen led the NFL in both total offensive yards (4,830) and offensive touchdowns (44) this season. Historically, quarterbacks who led the league in both of those categories are 5-0 all-time in the Wild Card playoff round. Four of those last five quarterbacks to lead the NFL in offensive yards and offensive touchdowns in the regular season made it to at least their Conference Championship game that season.

Allen has a 4-1 record in his career at home in the playoffs.

2. No frills offense

The Steelers come into Sunday's Wild Card game on a three-game win streak with Mason Rudolph bringing a more consistent functionality to an offense that had trouble scoring points for much of the season. But with running backs coach Eddie Faulkner promoted to offensive coordinator in Week 12 after the firing of Matt Canada, Pittsburgh has adopted a straight-ahead approach to their offense.

"Very simply, the number one thing they've done is they've stopped going side to side as an offense and they decided to simplify and decided they're going to go right at you," said ESPN NFL analyst, Dan Orlovsky, in his weekly appearance on ‘One Bills Live.’ "They're not going to try to confuse you. They're not going to try to trick you. They're going to put three tight ends on the field. More often than not, they're going to have two tight ends on the field, and they're going to run basically two to three run plays. One of the run plays is going to be duo where they'll get three tight ends in the field. They're going to get multiple double teams."

Steelers primary back, Najee Harris has averaged 24 carries and 104 rushing yards per game during the team's three-game winning streak. He and fellow back Jaylen Warren both went over 1,000 total yards from scrimmage this season making Pittsburgh one of just two teams in the league to have two running backs each with 1,000 total scrimmage yards.

"They're running the ball very well," said Bills nickel, Taron Johnson. "Their backs are really good. Mason's not turning the ball over. They're staying ahead of the chains and not putting themselves in bad positions."

Buffalo's defense has allowed 4.6 yards per carry this season, fifth-most in the NFL.

The Steelers point production is also up with Rudolph as their starting quarterback over their last three games averaging 27 points per game.

Head coach Mike Tomlin chose to go with the hot hand leaving starter Kenny Pickett on the bench. For Rudolph, a six-year veteran, it will be his first career playoff start. Over the last two postseasons quarterbacks making their first career playoff start went 4-8, and three of those four who did win were facing another QB making their first start.

Over the last 10 postseasons, only three quarterbacks have won their first playoff games against a starting quarterback with eight or more career playoff starts. Josh Allen has eight career playoff starts.

3. Intermediate answers

The Bills offense has benefited from the emergence of rookie TE Dalton Kincaid and second year WR Khalil Shakir in the passing game in the second half of the season.

Shakir has produced 13 receptions for 189 yards over the last three games for the Bills, while Kincaid has contributed 12 catches for 178 yards over that same period. They've been instrumental in working at the intermediate level in the passing game as well as the middle of the field, which is where Pittsburgh has been vulnerable defensively.

Former Bills and Steelers LB Arthur Moats in an appearance on the ‘Bills by the Numbers’ podcast this week, did acknowledge that pass coverage at the second level of the defense has been a persistent problem. He pointed to the cycling through of several different linebackers in the Pittsburgh defense due to injury. That lack of continuity has been a problem all season long.

"When you think about some of the injuries the Steelers have sustained the last few weeks, they lost Cole Holcomb and Kwon Alexander who are on I-R," said Moats. "Elandon Roberts has been in and out of the lineup. So, when you get down to your fourth and fifth inside linebackers, guys that you're signing on Monday and they're playing on Sunday, those are the guys opponents are going after in the pass game. So, if you're Buffalo, with Dalton Kincaid and Dawson Knox, you're absolutely going to attack that because they're going to have some deficiencies just because of the personnel turnover."

Roberts was limited in practice due to a pectoral injury midweek, but looks like he'll be fit to play Sunday.

ESPN NFL analyst, Dan Orlovsky, believes Kincaid and Shakir will have opportunities to make plays in the intermediate areas thanks to their growth and improvement in Buffalo's passing attack.

"It's really two things that stand out with Shakir," said Orlovsky. "Number one when he gets to the top of his routes, whether it's man or zone, like if it's man, he's doing a great job of separating at the top of his route. He's doing a really nice job of separating just enough at the top. The second thing and this is probably the most important thing is he is very loud with his body language. That's where the confidence that Josh has in him right now comes from.

"Dalton with mismatches, the length that he can play with all over the field. He's got a great feel. And this doesn't have to be a dink and dunk game. There are going to be moments where Josh has got to get the ball out and just take a completion, but there are going to be plenty of opportunities in the 14 to 18 to 18 to 22 yard range in between the top of the numbers and really to the hash, where they can make some hay with some explosive plays."

Pittsburgh ranked 17th against the pass this season and gave up 63 completions of 20 yards or more, which was third most in the league.

4. Puncher's chance

The task of winning this game on the road certainly became more difficult for Pittsburgh without their Defensive Player of the Year candidate, T.J. Watt, who led the league with 19 sacks this season. But if there's one area where the Steelers defense excels it's in forcing fumbles.

"This defense is really good at punching the ball out," said Orlovsky. "They come in with a 'Peanut Tillman' punch. If I was Buffalo's coaches all week, that's what we'd be stressing."

Pittsburgh forced 19 fumbles, good for second-most in the league this season. They ranked third in the league in fumble recoveries with 11. That takeaway ability by the Steelers was a big reason why they had the second-best turnover margin in the regular season at a plus-11.

In fact, eight of their 27 takeaways this season have come while defending their red zone, the most for a team inside their own 20-yard line in the league.

The Steelers approach is to use a ground-oriented attack to control the clock and limit possessions. They work to keep the game close and hope they can gain extra possessions for themselves off takeaways to emerge victorious in a one score affair.

Pittsburgh led the league this season with nine one-score victories.

5. Cookin' again?

The Steelers may run the ball a good deal, but since Week 10, no other team in the NFL has run it more than Buffalo. The Bills are averaging a league-high 35.5 carries per game and almost 155 yards on the ground (154.9) since Week 10.

It was an impressive stretch of play by second year back, James Cook, who put together five consecutive games with over 100 total yards from scrimmage between Weeks 10 and 15. Since then, he's become more of a focus for opposing defenses.

"(James) Cook is a 1,000-yard rusher. (Leonard) Fournette has bought a little thunder to that lightning in recent weeks," said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. "We'll have our hands full working to try to minimize the things that they do in the run game with their collection of backs with (James) Cook being foremost in that. His talents are significant. He's a dangerous guy. I was at his pro day. I'm not necessarily surprised by the things that I see from him. It's in line with his skill set."

The attention being paid to Cook has contributed to a drop-off in his production of late. Over each of the last three games, Cook has 70 or fewer yards from scrimmage and his yards per carry average has gone from 7.0 during his five-game run to 3.1 per carry.

Getting the second year back his touches should prove fruitful for Buffalo. When Cook has 17 touches or more in a game this season, the Bills are 6-1. When he doesn't, they're 5-5.

And he might need to carry the ball more if the weather forecast of snow showers and windy conditions proves accurate.

"Whatever it takes to win, that's what we've got to do," said Cook. "Whether it's running the ball 100 times or throwing the ball 100 times. Whatever is necessary to win. Whatever the circumstances I'm always ready."

Scroll to see photos from the Buffalo Bills Super Wild Card practice as the team prepares to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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