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Top 5 storylines to follow for Bills vs. Steelers | Week 1

Stefon Diggs (14) Buffalo Bills vs Pittsburgh Steelers, December 13, 2020 at Bills Stadium. Photo by Bill Wippert

The Bills will kick off their 2021 season with a home opener against a familiar team. It may not be a divisional opponent, but the two teams have plenty of history together over the last two years.

Here are some of the top storylines for Buffalo's Week 1 matchup.

1. Carrying a two-game win streak against Pittsburgh

The Bills will face the Steelers for the third time in three seasons on Sunday. Bills head coach Sean McDermott and his team have won the last two matchups against his former college teammate and current Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.

McDermott explained just because the two know each other well doesn't mean it will take away from the level of competition this weekend.

"I think if you're in the league long enough, you have a pretty good feel for who people are," McDermott shared. "And I feel like 20 some years now for myself, it's amazing how fast it goes. I think people probably feel the same way about me and about us, that they feel like they know who we are. So that's what makes it special.

"That's what makes the competition levels so high, and we look forward to that. They're a good football team, and we expect to a very tough game."

Last season, Buffalo beat Pittsburgh by 11 points in Week 14. In 2019, the Bills won by seven points in Week 15, that win secured Buffalo's spot in the playoffs.

Let's take a look back at the last two matchups to see how the defense helped seal the victory in both games.

In 2020, Buffalo was down by four points when cornerback Taron Johnson had a pick six to take the lead right before half. Both teams needed a boost from their defense because Allen and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completed under 60 percent of their passes, and both offenses turned the ball over twice.

Pittsburgh only converted 10 percent of their third downs, while Buffalo converted 50 percent. Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs had the best performance of both offenses by catching 10 passes for 130 yards and scoring one touchdown. Buffalo handed the Steelers their second loss of the season by beating them 26-15.

In 2019, Roethlisberger did not play because he was injured so Devlin Hodges got the start. Hodges ended up throwing four interceptions and the Steelers had five total turnovers. Both offenses didn't gain a ton of yards either, Buffalo had 261 total yards and Pittsburgh had 229.

Allen again completed under 60 percent of his passes, but the team found a way to get into the end zone in the fourth quarter when they needed it most. The game was tied 10-10 with about eight minutes remaining, Allen linked up with tight end Tyler Kroft for a 14-yard touchdown to put the Bills up 17-10. The Steelers had the ball with 15 seconds left on Buffalo's 34-yard-line when cornerback Levi Wallace intercepted Hodges to end the game.

After two matchups where the Bills had to rely heavily on their defense to come away with a victory, we will see if it will be Buffalo's offense that prevails in Allen's third time playing against the Steelers.

2. Josh Allen vs. Ben Roethlisberger

This quarterback matchup is the perfect example of old versus new. Allen is in his fourth season, while Roethlisberger is in his 18th year in the league.

Even though Roethlisberger's style of play isn't as prevalent as it used to be in the NFL, he's showing there are several reasons why he still belongs in the NFL.

Last season, Roethlisberger won 12 games and totaled 3,803 yards. He completed 65.6 percent of his passes for an average of 253.5 passing yards a game. The Steelers QB threw for 33 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, totaling a passer rating of 94.1.

In 2020, Allen won 13 games and totaled 4,544 yards. He completed 69.2 percent of his passes for an average of 284 passing yards per game. The Bills QB threw 37 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, totaling a passer rating of 107.2.

In their second meeting, GMFB's Kyle Brandt believes this quarterback matchup symbolizes out with the old and in with the new. It's the battle of a quarterback who's career is coming to a close versus one who's career is just taking off.

"This feels in a lot of ways like a changing of the guard," Brandt said. "Big, mobile guys come into the league and start tearing it up. Ben is on his way out and Josh is like the new Ben. I think the Bills are going to be awesome. My question for the Steelers and for Ben is, who is Ben's guy? Who is his number one receiver? Who is his go-to guy? If they're going to win this game, if they're going to be anything of substance this year, they need one of these guys to emerge. It's Diontae (Johnson), and it's JuJu (Smith-Schuster), and it's Claypool and that's fine.

"And I don't care about their stats from last year, but who is going to be the 3rd & 12 guy when they need it to beat Buffalo because I know Josh Allen has his guy. He's got his guy, his name is Diggs."

3. A New OC in Pittsburgh

We might not see the same exact Steelers offense this season that we saw in 2020. That's because Pittsburgh has a new offensive coordinator in Matt Canada. Canada isn't entirely new to the organization because he spent last season as the Steelers quarterbacks coach.

Prior to last season, Canada spent several seasons in college football as the offensive coordinator at several schools like Maryland (2018), LSU (2017), Wisconsin (2012) and more.

In 2020, the Steelers ranked 12th scoring 26 points per game and 25th in total yards averaging 334.6 yards per game.

GMFB's Peter Schrager is interested in seeing if Roethlisberger can improve in his 18th season under a new offensive coordinator.

"I'm curious to see what we get from Ben Roethlisberger," Schrager explained. "A new offense with Matt Canada as the offensive coordinator, and I'm hoping it's not what we saw at the end of last season where it was a depreciating asset. And it was like alright Ben just doesn't have it anymore. We want to see this, we want to see Ben fired up, we want to see him throwing the ball all over the yard like he was doing the first 11 weeks of the season."

The Steelers started last season on fire winning 11-straight games before losing their first game of the season in Week 13. They lost four of their last five games to finish out the 2020 season.

4. The debut of a new pass rush in Buffalo

The Buffalo Bills ended their 2020 season knowing they had to get more pressure on the quarterback from their defensive line. The Bills used the draft to address that issue by selecting defensive ends in the first and second round. With the additions of Greg Rousseau and Boogie Basham, the return of players like Jerry Hughes and Star Lotulelei and the growth of AJ Epenesa and Ed Oliver, the defensive line should debut a new and improved front in Week 1.

If you look at the roster, the position with the most players is defensive line. Bills general manager Brandon Beane chose to keep 11 defensive linemen for several different reasons. One is because they want to have a big number active for game days so they can send waves of pressure at the opposing quarterback.

We saw the Bills mix and match several different players on the line according to a variety of situations during preseason games. I wouldn't expect anything different in the regular season. They want to take advantage of the volume at that position and the versatility of the players so they can attack opposing offenses with unsuspecting types of pressure.

Early in training camp defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier could already see how different his defensive line could look for the 2021 season.

"I think it'll definitely help," Frazier said of the added length on his defensive line. "You still got to have the talent and I think we have some guys that are talented, both Carlos and Greg, have added some talent to our d-line. And then of course getting Star back as well, but you still got to be able to finish it. You have to be talented enough to be able to do that. The length would definitely make a difference with batted balls or just that extra inch to reach out and grab a quarterback, it should help us."

5. Bills Mafia is back

Buffalo will have Highmark Stadium at full capacity for the first time since the 2019 season. The Bills were not able to have fans in the stands last year during the regular season due to COVID-19. During the 2020 playoffs, Buffalo was able to welcome back Bills Mafia at limited capacity.

Even with just a few thousand in the stands last season, it was easy to see how much of an impact Bills Mafia can have on the game.

With fans back for preseason games, several players who hadn't experienced a full stadium of Bills fans got a nice taste as to what it will be like come Sunday. Watching Bills Mafia help force a delay of game penalty during Buffalo's final preseason game made several players excited to see the difference they can make in the home opener.

"It's amazing to see fans obviously out there and screaming and it's a homefield advantage for us," Hyde said. "We love to have them back and to not have them last year, it was kind of unique, a little weird. But to get out there on third down and hear the crowd, get into it on fourth down and get the crowd into it, it's special. This place is special."

After experiencing just how special the fan base is for the first time, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders can't wait to see the support for the home opener.

"I can't wait until that first game versus the Steelers," Sanders shared. "I'm going to get them going. I'm going to feed off them, they're going to feed off us and so it's going to be fun."

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