1. Pass rush mavens
Pittsburgh's defensive front is the real deal and though they've sustained some sizable losses to their starting lineup due to injury (LB Devin Bush, LB Bud Dupree), they have still maintained a league-leading pace in both sacks and takeaways.
The Steelers have racked up 44 sacks in their first 12 games a figure that leads the NFL. But it's only the beginning. They lead the league in total QB pressures (179), pressure rate (39.6%) and sack rate (9.7%) as well.
TJ Watt is the linchpin of Pittsburgh's pass rush with a dozen sacks thus far this season and a league-leading 64 quarterback pressures. His pressure rate of 17.9 percent also leads the NFL, which is due to his league-best 0.7 second pass rush get off rate.
"They're a talented defense," said Bills head coach Sean McDermott. "It really starts up front for the defense with Watt, and (Cameron) Heyward and they've been at it a long time and then what they've got working behind them with Minkah (Fitzpatrick) and Joe Haden and their other personnel. So they're a top defense in the league and they play hard, they play physical and they pressure to quarterback."
Their pass rushing talent goes well beyond Watt. Even with Dupree lost for the season (43 QB pressures) the Steelers still have Stephon Tuitt, who ranks fourth in the league in QB pressures with 44.
Dupree's replacement, Alex Highsmith, proved effective with three QB pressures in his first start in Week 13 against Washington.
Perhaps most important is Pittsburgh has comparable effectiveness in getting pressure on opposing QBs whether they blitz or not.
According to NextGen Stats, the Steelers have a pressure rate of 48.3 percent when they blitz. When they rush four or less defenders they have a pressure rate of 33.8 percent. Both rates lead the NFL.
The only caveat is just how much they've lost with the season-ending injury to Dupree. It has only been one game since they lost their second-best pass rusher, but TJ Watt's effectiveness has been compromised by Dupree's absence. Per ESPN Stats & Info, Watt's pressure percentage has dropped from 13 percent with Dupree on the field to five percent without him. Watt's pass rush win rate has also dropped from 32 percent with his pass rush partner to 18 percent without Dupree.
2. Is Josh Allen pass rush kryptonite?
As impressive as Pittsburgh's ability to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks might be, Josh Allen has largely excelled when facing the blitz or pass pressure in general.
According to ESPN and NFL NextGen Stats, Allen has a league-leading completion percentage of 71 percent when the defense gets at least one pass rush win on a play in 2.5 seconds. Only Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes has a higher QBR than Allen's 86 in such situations.
Against the blitz, Allen has the third-best QBR in the league with a mark of 92 along with a completion percentage of 67 percent, a success rate that's only slightly off his season completion percentage of 69.9 percent.
A big difference with Pittsburgh that Allen has already pulled from his film study is that the Steelers bring pressure on early downs to force opposing offenses into long down and distance situations, thereby making it harder for them to convert come third down. It's why the Steelers have surrendered the fewest first downs this season.
But NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger has some concerns with Pittsburgh's defensive scheme as it pertains to Josh Allen.
"They're a zone defense and Buffalo just saw a zone defense in San Francisco and Josh Allen and wasn't fooled at all," said NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger in an appearance on ‘One Bills Live’ this week. "I don't think they can go out and just play zone against Josh Allen and think you're going to win. He's got five great targets he can throw to including Dawson Knox. Pittsburgh does things a lot differently than San Francisco, but if you don't have your elite players out there, the attrition rate is too great and you just can't play at the same level."
Scroll through to see the best photos from Buffalo's practice as they prepare for Week 14 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, presented by Skyworks.
3. Outright thievery
All the aforementioned pressure that Pittsburgh has been able to generate on opposing quarterbacks has helped the Steelers defense also lead the league in total takeaways with 23 on the season. Tops in the league in interceptions with 16, Pittsburgh's starting secondary has accounted for 10 of the 16 INTs with S Minkah Fitzpatrick the team leader with four picks.
Perhaps even more impressive is what Pittsburgh has done with their takeaways. The Steelers lead the league in points off turnovers with 91 so far this year. 18 of those points have come off defensive touchdowns as Pittsburgh has three interception returns for scores, which is tied for the league lead.
Not surprisingly, the Steelers also lead the NFL in passer rating allowed with a mark of 73.8. Only one other team in the league has a passer rating allowed of under 80 (L.A. Rams).
Even though the Steelers should see starting CB Steven Nelson return to the lineup this week, fellow starter Joe Haden is in concussion protocol this week and won't play Sunday night.
4. A difference in approach
The offensive plan in Pittsburgh has traditionally been rooted in a productive rushing attack and Ben Roethlisberger's ability to extend pass plays off script and use his big arm to take deep shots.
The 2020 season has witnessed a reversal in that approach. This year's offense has relied on having Roethlisberger get the ball out quickly and into the hands of his talented receiving corps. Almost three quarters of Roethlisberger's throws have traveled fewer than 10 air yards (72%). He also leads the league in pass release time, getting the ball out an average of 2.29 seconds per NextGen Stats.
"He hasn't been sacked since November 1st," said Baldinger. "It's well over 250 passes now without being sacked and part of it is he's getting rid of the ball very quickly."
Big Ben, however, has rarely gone deep this season. He's averaging a career low 6.42 yards per attempt not counting his two-game season last year that saw him land on I-R and needing elbow surgery.
In the first 15 years of his career, Roethlisberger has averaged 7.9 yards per attempt. It appears to be a designed element of how the Steelers choose to attack defenses.
"They just drop back and try to throw it 50 times," Baldinger said. "Part of the reason is they struggle to run the ball. They had 14 runs against Washington and seven of them didn't gain a yard. So if it's not working there's no point in continuing to run it. But I think if they just keep dropping back and throwing 50 times though, eventually it's going to bite them."
That approach might meet its match this weekend. Buffalo's defense is excellent at defending short pass attempts. Again per NextGen Stats they rank in the top five in completion percentage allowed (73.3%) and tight window percentage allowed (15.2%) on throws of less than 10 air yards.
5. A case of the dropsies
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin had seen enough. After the receiving corps' most recent performance in the team's first loss against Washington, Tomlin openly stated that if Pittsburgh's wideouts cannot hold onto the football they would be replaced by players who could.
The Steelers receivers lead the league in drops (33) and have the second-highest drop rate in the league at 9.2 percent. Only the Detroit Lions have a higher dropped pass percentage (9.7%).
Pittsburgh's most egregious offenders in dropped passes are TE Eric Ebron and WR Diontae Johnson who have been unable to hold onto 10 and seven passes respectively, good for more than half of the team's total.
QB Ben Roethlisberger tried to shoulder some of the blame saying he has to throw more catchable passes, but it's clear the head coach believes the onus is on those who are supposed to do the receiving.
6. Run game avoidance
To say that the Steelers have had trouble producing in the run game would be an understatement. Through 12 games played, Pittsburgh ranks fourth from the bottom in the league in both rushing yards per game (92.6) and yards per carry (3.7).
Part of the problem is their unwillingness to even try. Over the last seven weeks no other team in the league has run the ball less than Pittsburgh.
After averaging 32 carries and 137 rushing yards per game along with a 4.3 yards per carry average in the season's first five weeks, the Steelers have averaged just 20 carries, 61 rushing yards and a 3.05 yards per carry average.
The Pittsburgh rushing attack figures to be buoyed by the return of top back James Conner off the reserve/COVID list. He's the only back on the roster averaging more than 3.5 yards per carry. Conner is averaging 4.4 yards per carry thus far this season and leads the club with five rushing touchdowns.
The ground game issues however, are believed to run deeper than just who's carrying the ball.
"Their run game is an issue," said Steelers.com editor Bob Labriola in an appearance on ‘One Bills Live’ this week. "The running game is incompetent for lack of a better word. There have been a lot of defenders that have gone unblocked at the point of attack even when the Steelers have had more blockers to handle it than defenders."
The inability to run the ball has forced Pittsburgh to throw the ball more often. In the last six games the Steelers have thrown the ball 32, 42, 46, 46, 51 and 53 times.
7. Linebacker shortage
We already addressed the season-ending injury of Bud Dupree and MLB Devin Bush for the Steelers. This past week, Bush's replacement, Robert Spillane left the game with a left knee injury and is out for Sunday night.
"This team has had some talent drain," said Labriola. "Devin Bush is out for the season and he is Pittsburgh's Tremaine Edmunds. Bud Dupree was having a really good year as a big, fast, aggressive, dangerous person. They're both out."
Making matters worse, the Steelers had to place fellow starting inside linebacker Vince Williams on the reserve/COVID list on Thursday, making him unlikely to play Sunday.
That will force the Steelers to turn to veteran LB Avery Williamson, a player they acquired right at the trade deadline from the Jets. But Williamson is a liability in coverage, and the Bills know it having faced him when he was a starter this season for the Jets.
Reports out of Pittsburgh indicate that the Steelers are likely to utilize safety-linebacker hybrid Marcus Allen in coverage situations knowing Buffalo's propensity to throw the ball. But the only other inside linebacker on their roster available is Ulysees Grant, who may come of I-R this week.
Another option on third downs is safety Antoine Brooks, a rookie sixth-round draft choice.
8. Fast starters
The Steelers and Bills are two of the top three teams in the AFC. One of the reasons they've been able to run up a string of wins is because of their ability to get out of the gate quick in games.
Pittsburgh ranks second in the NFL in first-half point differential, outscoring their opponents 196-112, a plus-84 point advantage.
Buffalo isn't far behind ranking fifth in the league in first-half point differential with a plus-72 edge outscoring their opponents 183-111.
Knowing the two teams are pretty evenly matched in first-half point success, the second half could prove pivotal. The Steelers still rank high in second-half point differential as they're tied for sixth with a plus-39 edge.
Buffalo, thanks solely to being outscored by 47 points in the third quarter this year ranks 27th with a minus-45 differential.