-At one point during the second quarter of Sunday's game, NFL on CBS analyst Rich Gannon made the comment that the Bills are a young team that has to learn to finish a game, when he talked about all of the close calls the team has had this season. I would submit that in Sunday's game, the Bills were a young team that didn't know how to *start *a game.
The Bills had a tremendous opportunity in the first quarter Sunday, with a sparse crowd in the stands at Heinz Field, appearing and sounding disinterested in the outcome. The Steelers players were listless and mistake-prone early on as well. And the Bills found themselves with outstanding drive starts the first three times—the Pittsburgh 29 yard line, the Steelers 44, and Buffalo's own 44. The total point production from those three drive starts: 3 points.
I asked Coach Doug Marrone Monday if the inability to capitalize on the early field position damaged his young team's confidence as the game went on.
"I think it's at that point where you get frustrated," Marrone answered. "You make a point of red zone touchdowns and you make a point of scoring. You make a point of it every week and you're talking to everyone. You have those opportunities, you go down there and you're not successful. That's where you need that inner drive. That's where you need the leadership, whether it starts with me, down to the coaches, within the players' group, to keep that drive going."
-The Steelers game was another outstanding game for 3rd year DT Marcel Dareus. He demonstrated amazing quickness and hustle early in the 2nd quarter on Emmanuel Sanders 25-yard end around. Several Bills defenders were fooled on the play, with Stephon Gilmore and Kiko Alonso looking like they expected Sanders to flip the ball to QB Ben Roethlisberger for a throw downfield. But Sanders kept the ball and scooted downfield. Dareus kept hustling downfield and finally caught Sanders from behind.
The big man made another big play in the third quarter when, lined up as the left defensive end, he blew past right tackle Marcus Gilbert and got to Roethlisberger. The Bills defenders were told all week to reach for the ball when it was in Roethlisberger's hands, rather than try to bring the big quarterback down. And Dareus did just that—raking the ball out, only to see Big Ben flop on top of the fumble.
Dareus performance earned praise from the analytics gurus at Pro Football Focus. In their review of the Bills-Steelers game, PFF wrote "Up until now Dareus play has been much more up and down, but he's been on an impressive run of form for much of this season, as he puts together his best year so far."
-The play of the game? It may have been the 34 yard shovel pass from Roethlisberger to Le'veon Bell in the 2nd quarter. In a 3-3 game, the Bills defensive line was playing outstanding so far, and on 2nd and 8 at his own 16-yard line, Roethlisberger was a half-second away from being sacked. Alan Branch and Collin Bryant were collapsing the pocket and inches away from bringing him down. And then, Roethlisberger did what Roethlisberger does—he flipped a pass over the middle to Bell, who accelerated downfield to the fifty yard line. The Steelers scored the game's first touchdown a few plays later and settled into a lead they would not give up. Pittsburgh only led by seven points at the end of the second quarter, but they dominated time of possession (11:42 to 3:18 in the quarter) and established control of the line of scrimmage.
-It was a very rough afternoon for Bills QB EJ Manuel, and the Buffalo coaching staff has said the rookie may have been rushing through his reads in an effort to make a play. This was evident on one play in the third quarter, with 7:32 left to play. The Bills were in "11" personnel with three wide outs. They sent all three and tight end Scott Chandler downfield on the first down play. Manuel barely gave a cursory look downfield before the dumping the ball off to Fred Jackson for a one yard gain. If he had waited half a second longer, he likely would have seen Stevie Johnson in single coverage and Chandler beginning to get some separation.
After the game Marrone talked about Manuel's internal clock. "His footwork was very fast today," he said, "that's why you saw him going to check downs quickly and not let some things develop."
-It came late in the game, but the officials missed an obvious pass interference call on the Steelers that resulted in a Buffalo turnover. Manuel threw it deep down the right sideline to Marquise Goodwin, who was clearly bumped by CB Ike Taylor. It was a hip check that sent Goodwin sprawling. Granted, the pass was badly underthrown, leading to the pick, but it did not look like an uncatchable ball. Don't know how the officials missed that one.