1. A game that matters for both teams
The Bills will host the Steelers in a much anticipated Sunday Night Football matchup this week. It will be Buffalo's second straight primetime game and their second of three this month. It's a game in which those deciding the schedule knew would be too big for a Sunday 1:00 p.m. slot in Week 14, and they got it right as both teams lead their divisions. It's a revenge game for the Steelers as they try to turn it around from their Week 15 primetime loss in 2019 against the Bills.
I'm sure Steelers players and fans remember looking across the sideline at Heinz Field in shock to see Bills players dancing to their beloved pump up song, Renegade. The thought surely brings a smile to the faces of Bills Mafia. We'll see if Buffalo uses it to their advantage on Sunday. Who doesn't want to see Matt Barkley swing his coat in the air as Ed Oliver rocks out on his guitar again?
Renegade aside, this game has big implications -- playoff implications. It's a chance for Buffalo to lock up their 10th win of the season and help them extend their one-game division lead on the Miami Dolphins. Although the Steelers suffered their first loss of the season in Week 13, Pittsburgh is still tied for the best record in the AFC with the Kansas City Chiefs. If the Steelers win, they can put distance between themselves and the Browns who are on a four-game win streak, in the AFC North. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said he's looking forward to the matchup knowing the Bills offense presents a number of problems for any opposing team.
"When you look at them and you start first with their offense, a quarterback with mobility is where you start," Tomlin said. "Josh Allen is a big time challenge. He's a big time challenge because of his throwing ability. He's a big time challenge because of his ability to extend plays and to scramble, they have some designed quarterback runs to utilize his talents. They keep you off balance and really nail down your menu in terms of ways you can attack them."
2. Steelers running on E?
The Steelers have gotten the short end of the stick this year as they've had two games moved more than a few times due to COVID-19 outbreaks. In Week 4, their game against the Titans was moved because Tennessee had an outbreak. Due to schedule shifts in order to fit every game in, their bye week also got moved from Week 8 to Week 4. In Week 12, their Thanksgiving game against the Ravens was shifted almost a week later to Wednesday due to an outbreak in Baltimore.
Thanks to the shuffling of games, the Steelers are now set to play their third game in 11 days. Some Steelers players have taken to social media to voice their frustrations on the schedule changes, but even through all the shifts Pittsburgh still leads the AFC North. With this type of intense schedule towards the end of the season, the Bills may be catching Pittsburgh at the perfect time, and the team showed in Week 13 they aren't untouchable. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said no matter the schedule that's thrown their way, they need to find a way to produce.
"We're getting to that point of the season when you've got to be sharp in all areas with your whole team, on both sides of the ball, all of that stuff," Roethlisberger said. "There could be all kinds of distractions of this, that and the other but at the end of the day we have to play good football."
3. Preparing for a Steelers offense full of options
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger spent most of last season out due to a season-ending elbow injury he suffered in Week 2. Roethlisberger came back ready to play in his 17th season with the gift of some new weapons to help him succeed. Like Bills quarterback Josh Allen, Roethlisberger has a bevy of players to connect with. Just to name a few—he's got running back James Connor, running back Benny Snell, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, wide receiver Dionte Johnson, rookie wide receiver Chase Claypool or tight end Eric Ebron. Four of those players have more than 500 yards rushing or receiving. The Bills only have two players who fit those numbers—Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley.
Even though the Steelers have scored under 20 points in their last two games, Buffalo's defense will still have their hands full trying to stop Pittsburgh's many weapons. The Bills have played exceptional defense in many areas since their Week 7 win against the Jets and finally have linebacker Matt Milano back after being activated from Injured Reserve in Week 13. Buffalo's defense might have some added motivation too because the group has yet to beat Roethlisberger. Last year's win came against Devlin Hodges. Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said they're an offense that can get going if you're not careful.
"They're very explosive on offense, got a Hall-of-Fame quarterback and he's got some weapons at wide receiver," Frazier shared. "And now that they'll get James Connor back, they'll have a chance to be a little bit more balanced with the run game. So, it's an offense that's very capable of exploding and we'll have to do a great job of trying to limit their explosive plays and find ways to contain their passing game."
4. Explosive Bills offense vs. Steelers aggressive defense
One reason why the Steelers have been so difficult to beat is because of their defense that isn't easy to score on. They currently rank third giving up only 300.5 yards a game and have the second-best pass defense in the NFL allowing only 199.8 passing yards a game. Pittsburgh also allows the fewest points per game at 17.6. They've allowed less than 20 points in six games this season. Linebacker T.J. Watt leads the NFL with 12 sacks and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick leads the team with four interceptions. Their defense leads the NFL with 16 interceptions, 23 takeaways and 44 sacks. Even with their aggressive play in turning the ball over, an explosive offense like the Bills could put them to the test.
Through 12 games, the Steelers have only faced two quarterbacks who rank in the top 15 in passing yards. Pittsburgh played against Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson who has 3,542 passing yards, which ranks second. The Steelers also played against Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill in Week 7 who ranks 15th with 2,997 passing yards. They beat both teams, but only by a combined 10 points. Bills quarterback Josh Allen has 3,403 passing yards, which is fifth-best in the league.
Pittsburgh has only played against one team that ranks in the top 10 in points per game, which was the Titans who average 29.9 points per game. The Bills average the eighth most points per game with 27.8. Buffalo's explosive offense has 55 plays of 20 or more yards this season, which is the second best in the NFL. If the Bills can continue putting up top 10 numbers against the Steelers tough defense, Buffalo has a good chance to take down the AFC North leaders. Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll explained it'll be a big time challenge going up against a talented Steelers defense.
"It's pretty impressive, it's all tied in," Daboll said. "They do a great job of tying in their scheme with the front level guys. I know they had a big loss with [Bud] Dupree there, but [T.J.] Watt is really an unbelievable player. Then Minkah [Fitzpatrick], I've got some familiarity with him at Alabama. He's just a ball hawk, he's very instinctive, very smart, reads a quarterback well. They mix it up with the coverages."
5. McDermott vs. Tomlin Part Two
Two former college teammates in Bills head coach Sean McDermott and Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin are set to meet on Sunday. McDermott and Tomlin will face each other for the second time since McDermott became Buffalo's head coach. The two played college football together at William & Mary in the 1990s. They played on opposite sides of the ball as McDermott was a safety and Tomlin played at wide receiver.
McDermott is 1-0 against his old teammate and has a chance to become 2-0 on Sunday with a win. McDermott shared what's carried over most for Tomlin from his playing days to his coaching days is his personality.
"I think what you see with the Steelers is you see Mike's personality on the team," McDermott said. "He's got a very dynamic personality, he's well-spoken and class all the way through and I think that you see that with their football team. They play at a high level, they play well week-to-week and they're led by one of the greatest coaches, I think, that's been around our game in Mike. He's a Super Bowl winning coach at that, so you know his resume speaks for itself."