1. Offense out of sync
From the moment the offense stepped on the field Sunday, they didn't look like the juggernaut offense they had become in 2020. An opening three-and-out series to start the game was a precursor of what would follow for most of the afternoon.
"We've got to do a better job," said head coach Sean McDermott of the offensive execution. "I've got to do a better job. Getting into a rhythm would be one thing, establishing the line of scrimmage would be another, and then beating ourselves with penalties. It's not good enough."
Though an opening 75-yard kick return allowed the Bills to still put points on the board on that initial drive, Buffalo would punt on their next three possessions and Josh Allen fumbled away another for a turnover.
"Starting with me, early on, just being maybe a little too aggressive instead of just finding some easier things," said Allen. "Whether it be first-game nerves or jitters or feeling stuff with my feet, but again, I've got to play better, I've got to be better. I know that. But that's a really good team. They had a really good plan."
It wasn't until their final drive of the first half that they were able to finish a drive with a touchdown when Allen found Gabe Davis for a three-yard strike to go into the locker room up 10-0.
Allen finished the first half 16-26 for 152 yards with a touchdown.
Holding penalties, miscommunication between quarterback and receiver in the passing game and some errant throws by Allen all contributed to a frustrating day of self-inflicted wounds on the offensive side of the ball.
The toughest one was the overthrow by Allen to Sanders, who had beaten man-to-man coverage on a 2nd-and-14 and would've scored a touchdown had the throw been accurate.
"Missing Emmanuel on the deep throw, obviously that's one I need back," he said. "A defense like this gives you that type of opportunity, you've got to execute and make those plays happen. I didn't. We didn't. It is what it is."
Despite Buffalo's propensity to throw in the second half, Allen's numbers went down as he was 14-25 for 118 yards over the final two quarters. Pittsburgh's choice to rush just three or four and drop seven into coverage compromised the effectiveness of the Bills passing attack.
"There weren't many times that we got many one-on-ones," said Cole Beasley, who finished with eight catches for 60 yards. "There was always someone playing hard leverage one way and then somebody waiting for us on the other side. So they definitely had a good scheme. They made it tough, but we've got to be better. We've got to make more plays."
T.J. Watt was the catalyst for an effective pass rush as Buffalo's offensive linemen were tagged for four holding calls that were accepted and one that was declined.
"We just put ourselves in bad situations, whether it be communication or technique," said Mitch Morse, who drew one of the holding calls. "As an offensive line, we know we didn't do as well as we could. For us, it's just being accountable to each other and to the team. And they just got the better of us today, that's plain and simple."
The second half brought more troubles as Buffalo, in an attempt to maintain possession, went for it on 4th-and-8 at the Steelers 36, but Allen threw into double coverage leading to a turnover on downs.
Their ensuing possession they could not convert a 4th-and-1 at the Steelers 41, handing Pittsburgh a short field. The Steelers would capitalize with their first touchdown drive to erase a 10-point deficit with 13 unanswered points.
Even when Buffalo did move into a goal-to-go situation down 20-10 in the fourth quarter, the drive stalled at the three-yard line and they were forced to take a chip shot field goal to make it a one score game (20-13).
The Bills couldn't shrink the deficit any further as Pittsburgh traded field goals with Buffalo to close out the game.
"We've been here before, it's one game, I know the expectations are high and that comes with the territory," said McDermott. "But that said, you've got to stay humble and hungry in your approach every week. Mike Tomlin and his team came in here and out coached us and outplayed us. We've got to learn from this as coaches and as players and get ourselves ready to go."
Scroll to see the top photos from Buffalo's Week 1 contest against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Highmark Stadium.
2. Defense a tale of two halves
Buffalo's defense was a big reason why the Bills had a lead at halftime. While their offense sputtered, they completely shut down the Pittsburgh attack forcing them to punt on each of their first five possessions, before the clock ran out on them on their sixth possession of the first half.
The Steelers were just one for six on third down conversions and managed just 53 total net yards through the first two quarters.
But with Buffalo's offense still largely in neutral in the second half, the Steelers offense made some successful adjustments that enabled them to move the ball more effectively over the final two quarters.
"Once they got the momentum we couldn't stop them," said Micah Hyde. "They were moving the ball a bit better on offense, which they weren't able to do in the first half. They made some adjustments and we couldn't execute right. I think penalties hurt us too, and from there we couldn't stop their momentum."
Penalties on defense did prove pivotal.
On the Steelers first series of the second half, Tre'Davious White intercepted a pass intended for Diontae Johnson, but was flagged for defensive holding. The takeaway would've set up Buffalo's offense at the Pittsburgh 46-yard line.
Instead it kept the Steelers drive alive and though the Bills red zone defense was solid on that drive and the ensuing one, Pittsburgh came away with a pair of field goals to cut Buffalo's lead by more than half (10-6).
The penalty that hurt the most was the 26-yard pass interference call against Levi Wallace that turned a 3rd-and-7 at midfield into a 1st and 10 at the Bills 23. Two plays later the Steelers had their first touchdown on a fantastic over-the-shoulder catch and toe drag in the back left corner of the end zone by Johnson to take their first lead in the game (13-10).
"The third down I thought was a big momentum changer, the third down on the DPI call," said McDermott. "Overall, you hold a team's offense to 16 points, if you take away the blocked punt, I thought overall defensively, and they were in some tough positions, they played hard and they did some good things," McDermott said. "There were some opportunities on some turnovers that we've got to take advantage of. And I thought they gave us some field position in the first half in particular, but give the Steelers credit, they made some plays down the stretch in particular to put the game away."
3. Special teams a factor
Buffalo's specialists came out with a bang, but it was Pittsburgh's special teams that decided the game on Sunday.
Isaiah McKenzie whipped the Highmark Stadium crowd into a frenzy when he took the opening kickoff back 75 yards deep into Pittsburgh territory, setting up what many thought would be a touchdown drive to stake the Bills to an early lead.
Buffalo's offense however, went three and out as they had to settle for a field goal.
McKenzie in his debut as the team's full-time return man fared well on Sunday, averaging better than 35 yards per kick return and was a big reason why the Steelers kicked away from him on punts giving him just one return for a single yard.
Kicker Tyler Bass was perfect on three field goals and had four touchbacks on kickoffs to remove any kick return threat in the game.
But it was Pittsburgh's punt return unit that sealed the game.
Following the Steelers' first touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter to go up 13-10, Pittsburgh's defense forced the Bills offense three-and-out deep in their own 23.
The Steelers' punt return unit then broke through the middle of the Bills punt protection team as Pittsburgh S Miles Killebrew blocked Matt Haack's punt, and LB Ulysees Gilbert III recovered the loose ball and returned it nine yards for a touchdown to make it 20 unanswered points for the Steelers in the second half.
"Our job is just to go straight back," said Tyler Matakevich on the blocked punt play. "You pick up your new guy, and unfortunately we've got to take a look and get back to the drawing board and see what happened. Unfortunately we let a guy through and they made a play, and unfortunately we didn't.
"We knew that they were going to rush when they had the opportunity. We saw the looks. That was the same look we got all week, so we know what you've got to do. You've just got to execute. And, unfortunately, like they made a play, we didn't make the play. So it just it just sucks, definitely with the outcome."