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6 things to watch for in Bills vs. Steelers | Week 1

Taron Johnson (24) interception and return for a touchdown. Buffalo Bills vs Pittsburgh Steelers at Bills Stadium on December 13, 2020. Photo by Craig Melvin.
Taron Johnson (24) interception and return for a touchdown. Buffalo Bills vs Pittsburgh Steelers at Bills Stadium on December 13, 2020. Photo by Craig Melvin.

It's finally here! The season opener and with fans in attendance. Below we outline what you need to know about Sunday's matchup with the Steelers and other notes around the league.

1. Tight games

Buffalo and Pittsburgh have squared off each of the last two seasons. Sunday will be the third regular season meeting in as many years. The 2019 meeting was 7-3 Steelers at the half and 10-7 heading to the fourth quarter before the Bills scored 10 unanswered points to win 17-10.

Last season's Sunday night affair was also a nip and tuck contest as Buffalo carried a precarious 9-7 lead into halftime after Taron Johnson's 51-yard interception return. But the offense managed a pair of touchdown drives in the third quarter to put enough distance between the Bills and Steelers to take home an 11-point victory (26-15).

Josh Allen is expecting much of the same on Sunday.

"We know it's going to be a tight game," Allen said. "The last couple of years obviously they've been boxing matches, taking a couple hits here or there and giving them out. They're extremely well coached. They're a very talented group on defense and they have a Hall of Fame quarterback over there. So we have to be on top of our game and go out there and try to execute to the best of our abilities. But we know they're going to bring it. Game one and last year they were extremely good and they're going to be extremely good this year. And we know that. We've got to go out there and execute."

2. Watt ready to roll

Much was made during the week of Steelers DE T.J. Watt's "hold in" where he participated in the individual position drill portions of practice only through the course of training camp and avoided playing in any preseason games as he awaited a long-term contract agreement with Pittsburgh.

That long-term pact was finally hammered out on Thursday, a day after Watt participated fully in practice for the first time since training camp opened. Up until he signed the four-year extension worth a reported $112 million, Watt had not played in any preseason games and had not taken part in the team portions of practice in an effort to protect himself against injury prior to an agreement being reached.

NFL Network reporter Aditi Kinkhabwala, in an appearance on ‘One Bills Live’ this week believed all along that Watt would suit up and play against the Bills on Sunday.

"He has been at practice and you can't imagine someone like T.J. Watt not playing a game. He has been at practice every single day. The only thing he didn't do were the team drills or the live action, which he did do on Wednesday," said Kinhabwala.

Watt, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, reportedly overruled his agents, who thought they could get more money, and marched into the office of owner Art Rooney II and told him they had a deal and followed that by saying he had to go to practice to get to work.

Head coach Mike Tomlin said earlier this week that he was "proceeding with the assumption" that Watt would play against the Bills on Sunday.

That assumption became reality once the new deal was struck. Watt, who is a cornerstone of Pittsburgh's defensive unit led the NFL in sacks, quarterback hits and tackles for loss last season. And he's had three consecutive seasons with at least 13 sacks.

He's expected to have a full-time workload Sunday.

3. Run games rediscovered?

Both the Bills and Steelers had their run game on their offseason to-do list. Buffalo committed to running the ball more effectively. The Steelers just committed to running it more to establish more balance in an offense that wound up throwing the ball more than any other team in the league last season.

Buffalo chose to keep an offensive line intact from 2020 that had trouble staying healthy as a full quintet, re-signing Jon Feliciano and Daryl Williams. With Cody Ford back from a season-ending knee injury, the group will now try to be a more effective yards per rush unit.

Speed to edge is also now part of the equation after the free agent addition of Matt Breida.

Meanwhile in Pittsburgh, the Steelers uncharacteristically drafted a running back in round one in Najee Harris and completely revamped an offensive line that looked old and tired at the end of last season.

That line will have four new players including a pair of rookies in fourth-round pick Dan Moore Jr. at left tackle and third-round pick Kendrick Green at center.

Harris might be a talent, but fixing what was the worst rushing team in football is going to be a heavy lift, especially as the new line gets its collective legs under them.

The Bills have the advantage of continuity up front, but the two defensive units figure to have an impact on which run game looks revitalized.

4. Allen improvements

After a breakout season for the ages, Josh Allen went right back to work in the offseason dead set on improving his game again.

Allen's production in 2020 was MVP worthy, but his improvements this year are likely to be more nuanced and less noticeable in the easily recognizable statistics.

Topping 4,500 passing yards, 37 passing touchdowns and a completion percentage of more than 69 percent isn't a common year-over-year occurrence even for the league's best signal callers.

Buffalo's trigger man said he wanted to be better on in-cutting routes, an area where he thought his efficiency waned. It's those small details where he intends to be better. The continuity the offense has enjoyed in terms of scheme, coordinator and skill position personnel has allowed for other improvements in efficiency and timing of the passing game.

"Josh gets the ball to me like way quicker now than he did in my first year out of any option routes that I run," said Cole Beasley. "It's not like I have a set route and he throws it. I have multiple options. When I first got here, he would wait a little bit and he wouldn't trust it because we just didn't have that much time together. But now, he's getting the ball quicker to me than any quarterback that I've been with. So it's been fun to be a part of and watch him grow."

This and several other areas of his game that have improved have Allen confident he'll be able to approach if not surpass some of the gaudy statistics he put up last year.

"We're going to go out and we're going to go execute to the best of our abilities," Allen said. "Again, that starts with me, that starts with Coach Daboll and the communication that we have and the expectations from him for me, that's what it comes down to. I've got to be an extension of him when I'm on the field.

"I am glad that it's on my shoulders because I love the position, I love what I do. I love being the quarterback for the Buffalo Bills and I wouldn't want it any other way. We've got our own expectations, we've got a goal that we set out and we've got to go try to do it."

5. Pass rush push

For the first time in team history the Bills drafted a pair of pass rushing defensive ends with each of their first two selections this past spring. They did because they saw it as one of their most notable deficiencies from the 2020 campaign.

In essence Buffalo doubled down to improve the productivity of their pass rush, which is rooted in getting pressure with just their front four, so their back seven can hunt, fly to the football and make plays. Buffalo's last two first-round picks and last two second-round picks have all been defensive linemen, with Ed Oliver and A.J. Epenesa being the top picks in 2019 and 2020.

Greg Rousseau and Boogie Basham are the shiny new toys for Leslie Frazier to deploy in what is expected to be a liberal player rotation up front.

Frazier has been working with defensive line coach Eric Washington on finding the most effective player combinations and feels good about their plan for Sunday.

"It'll be evolving as we go but we have a pretty good idea going into this first ball game of how we want to do things," said defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. "We'll mix it up as the game goes, and we'll get a better feel for how this opponent is approaching things. I think we have a pretty good idea of how we want to approach it and it'll be changing as the season goes on."

Rousseau and Basham both flashed in the preseason as they combined for three sacks, six quarterback hits and four tackles for loss in limited action.

Knowing the Steelers have four new offensive linemen in starting roles, Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin has his attention appropriately focused on the play of his own linemen rather than that of the opponent.

"In Week 1, I'm less concerned about the people that we play from that perspective, and I'm more concerned about our quality of play, our preparedness, our cohesion, our communication," said Tomlin. "It's about what we do with respect to those guys and their front."

And while Tomlin is right, the ability of Buffalo's pass rush to come at opponents in waves could be a major issue if the Steelers struggle to establish any kind of ground game.

6. The Sanders effect

He's an addition that may have flown under the radar a bit. But there's a reason GM Brandon Beane and Assistant GM Joe Schoen have been trying to sign Emmanuel Sanders for each of the last three offseasons. He's a versatile, three-level receiver who is capable of making an impact in any passing game no matter the scheme.

Sanders might be 34-years old, but he's demonstrated no signs of slowing down after returning successfully from a torn Achilles suffered in 2018.

Not that the Bills brass needed any further convincing, but Sanders is the kind of veteran that has proven production when coming to a new team.

In his first year in Denver after signing as a free agent following four years in Pittsburgh, he caught 101 balls for just over 1,400 yards and nine touchdowns in the Broncos juggernaut offense with Peyton Manning in 2014.

His first full season in New Orleans last year with top wideout Michael Thomas limited to seven games he provided 61 receptions for 726 yards and five touchdowns.

The style of offense in Buffalo likely makes that kind of stat line realistic, knowing how often Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley are fed the ball.

"He's fit in well. Smart veteran," said offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. "He has quickness, an ability to learn, can play multiple spots. Creates separation. He's been productive. Played with a lot of good quarterbacks. He's been a really good teammate since he's been here. I think he helps the receiver room in terms of an education of a young receiver, too."

The fact that he's a former college teammate of Cole Beasley and knows how to play off him is only a bonus.

His production as the team's third wideout in this passing attack figures to be similar to what he did with the Saints last season. It should be noted that Sanders has been limited in practice this week with a toe injury and will be listed as questionable for the game.

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