1 – Will Pickett get picked?
Steelers rookie QB Kenny Pickett will make his first NFL start on Sunday against the Bills top ranked defense. In the Sean McDermott era, Buffalo has posted an 8-3 record against rookie quarterbacks, counting playoffs, including a 4-2 mark last season. The losses came to Trevor Lawrence in Jacksonville and Mac Jones in a windstorm in Buffalo.
Pickett, who came on in relief last week for the Steelers against the Jets, ran for a pair of touchdowns, but also threw three interceptions in 13 pass attempts.
In the 11 games that Buffalo's defense has faced rookie QBs they've logged 17 interceptions for an average of 1.5 per game. They've also posted a total of 30 sacks in those 11 matchups to average 2.7 per outing. Pickett realizes what he and his teammates will be walking into on Sunday.
"Obviously, it's a huge challenge," he said of the Bills defense. "There's a lot that goes into it. We could be here all day talking about how many great things they do and all the great players that they have. Former teammates of mine at Pitt in Dane [Jackson] and Damar [Hamlin], obviously, they're high-level players. So, we have our work cut out for us. Details are what's going to help us win, so it's something that we need to get ironed out quickly on offense."
The Bills led the league in points allowed and pass defense in 2021. Quarterbacks in their first career start are 2-14 against the prior season's number one scoring defense. Those signal callers threw 17 touchdowns and 34 interceptions in 16 games. Thus far this season, Buffalo is again the number one pass defense and stands second in points allowed.
"We have no reservations about what Kenny is going to be capable of in terms of schematics," said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. "Obviously, we have a level of concern about the environment that we're taking him into, but you have a level of concern about any quarterback you take into that environment versus that defense in that venue."
Pittsburgh does have a .714 winning percentage in the regular season when starting a rookie quarterback, which is the highest winning percentage since the 1970 merger.
2 – Dinged up DBs
The Bills aren't the only secondary trying to get healthy a month into the season. Buffalo is expected to be without rookie starting CB Christian Benford. They're still without CB Tre'Davious White (Reserve/PUP) and will be without starting S Micah Hyde for the rest of the season. S Jordan Poyer is also dealing with a rib injury that kept him out of practice Wednesday and Thursday. But the Steelers secondary is licking their wounds as well.
Four-fifths of their starting secondary appeared on the injury report this week. Starting safety Minkah Fitzpatrick sustained a knee injury in last week's game, while fellow safety Terrell Edmunds is in the concussion protocol.
Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon missed last week's game and is expected to miss Sunday's game as well with a hamstring injury. Other starting CB Cameron Sutton suffered groin and hamstring injuries against the Jets last week but has managed to practice on a limited basis. And former Bills and current Steelers reserve CB Levi Wallace is dealing with a foot injury that limited him in practice too.
"We've got some things to manage, but I don't necessarily view that as a negative, to be quite honest with you," said Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin this week. "It might minimize these guys some during the week, but what it will do is provide more reps for those that are playing in place of them."
Levi Wallace started in place of Witherspoon last week. Besides nickel CB Arthur Maulet, the Steelers have one other healthy corner on their roster in James Pierre, a third-year player out of Florida Atlantic. They also have two cornerbacks on their practice squad.
3 – Wide receiver situation
Much like the Bills were mixing and matching players in their shorthanded secondary, they may need to do the same at the receiver position. Jamison Crowder is out indefinitely with a broken ankle suffered last week in Baltimore. Isaiah McKenzie is also in the concussion protocol. And Jake Kumerow is likely to miss his second straight game with a high-ankle sprain.
That leaves Buffalo with three healthy receivers on their roster in Stefon Diggs, Gabe Davis and rookie Khalil Shakir. Diggs isn't concerned about the possibility of being a bit thin in the receiver ranks.
"We all we got and we all we need," he said. "It's that cusp of the season where you're going into that second quarter and guys are going to be banged up. So, it's about shaking back and getting your body right and staying on it. I try to tell them that it's all about your approach and we're going to have to battle through some things. So do what you can. If you've got to go see Mr. Miyagi or do whatever you've got to do to get your body right. Just staying on those guys, they'll be fine. It's about having injuries and being able to muster up not only courage, but that next man up mind set."
A bit of good news was that Isaiah McKenzie was able to practice on Thursday on a limited basis meaning he is in stage four of the five step return to participation concussion protocol.
Buffalo has three receivers on their practice squad available for a call up this weekend if necessary, in Tanner Gentry, Isaiah Hodgins and Jaquarii Roberson, who was just signed this week.
4 – Takeaway artists
The Bills and Steelers are currently tied for the league lead in interceptions as they've each racked up seven apiece. Both efforts have been led by All-Pro safeties in Jordan Poyer, who leads the NFL in interceptions with four and Pittsburgh's Minkah Fitzpatrick, who is right behind him with three.
Poyer, who is coming off his first AFC Defensive Player of the Week award following his two-interception performance in Baltimore, doesn't plan on approaching rookie QB Kenny Pickett any different than he'd approach a 10-year veteran QB.
"I think you kind of have an understanding of who he is as a quarterback," said Poyer of Pickett. "Just a lot of upside from him. Obviously a first-round pick. He's got the arm talent. He can move in the pocket. He's getting the ball out of his hands quick. I think you just continue to prepare like you prepare each and every week, go through your process. You don't necessarily have to change anything just because there's X, Y, Z playing at quarterback. Within the game obviously there's going to be some wrinkles, probably going to have to make some adjustments just based off of maybe some of the film study that you studied."
Meanwhile, the Steelers success can be somewhat attributed to a tweak in their defensive system with defensive coordinator Teryl Austin working with Senior defensive assistant Brian Flores. They allow Fitzpatrick the freedom to roam and make plays on the ball.
"I think it's a little bit of a different scheme," said Josh Allen of the Steelers defense. "But again, I think especially with Minkah back there, the things that they're able to do being interchangeable, and being nosy on some of these underneath routes. But he's on the same page with the corner. As soon as he dives down, that corner is going over the top and trying to fill that void where he's coming from. He's been able to force a lot of mistakes and interceptions that way. They're a high effort, high intensity defense and they've got a lot of motors, especially on that front."
5 – Low Wattage
The Steelers will again be without J.J. Watt for a fourth straight game after he was placed on injured reserve following a Week 1 pectoral injury. Pittsburgh has led the league in sacks every year since 2017 thanks in large part to Watt, who joined the roster as a rookie that season. He also had a career-high 22.5 sacks last year and won NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Since Watt has been out of the lineup OLB Alonzo Highsmith has picked up the slack and registered 5.5 sacks so far this season to rank second in the league behind Nick Bosa (6.0). But the problem runs deeper for Pittsburgh than just what they're missing on their defensive front in Watt. The aforementioned injuries in their secondary are leaving the Steelers extremely limited in terms of options.
"The injuries on the back end of the defense have caused some issues in terms of limiting their personnel groupings and their defensive calls," said Steelers radio analyst Arthur Moats, who appeared on ‘One Bills Live’ this week. "If you don't have the personnel to play man defense, then you can't call that. So, you're forced to play more zone coverage than you might like. Now if T.J. Watt is healthy, you can get away with that because the pass rush is there. But when he's absent that's where the drop-off is. So, it's not just about T.J. being out, it's the injuries on the back end limiting what they can do coverage-wise."
Despite playing only one top tier quarterback so far this season in Joe Burrow, Pittsburgh's defense has given up 17 plays of 20 yards or more in their first four games, good for ninth most.
When Watt isn't in the lineup, they also give up a touchdown more per game (26 ppg) than when he is playing (20.4 ppg). Watt has only missed seven games in his career, but the Steelers are 0-7 without him.
6 – Steelers line still getting settled
While Buffalo's offensive line is working to get their run game on track, the Steelers offensive line is still just trying to get their five starters to consistently execute. Ranking 30th in total offense, 23rd in rushing and 28th in passing can't all be pinned on the now benched Mitch Trubisky. Issues exist up front on the offensive line where the Steelers surprisingly did not invest high draft choices or spend big free agent money to fortify it as they've done in the past.
"Part of the criticism in Pittsburgh is how the Steelers roster has been constructed," said Moats. "In that 2021 draft they went with the high-end luxury pieces (Najee Harris, Pat Friermuth). Right now, they're still trying to figure out who on the offensive line is a capable starter who can do it every single down because there has been a lot of inconsistency especially on the interior of that line."
The Steelers haven't made changes to the starting lineup through the first month of the season hoping it will begin to come together. They do have a pair of former fourth-round picks on the left side in Dan Moore and Kevin Dotson and a former third-round pick in Chukwuma Okorafor at right tackle, but the Pittsburgh front has yet to gain traction.
"Skill position-wise you feel good about the weapons, but there's not a lot of pedigree on the offensive line," Moats said. "There's not a lot of high draft picks or free agent money spent on that line. Outside of James Daniels there isn't much money invested in that unit. That's why when you talk about the inconsistencies we've seen in pass protection and the run game they are at the center of both of those."
Those inconsistencies have contributed to Pittsburgh's 31st ranked average time of possession of just 25:35. Only Carolina's time of possession (24:18) is lower.