Facing the Buffalo Bills top-ranked pass defense and a raucous Highmark Stadium crowd is a tough assignment for any quarterback in the NFL. For the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers, that assignment will be given to rookie QB Kenny Pickett who will be making his first career NFL start when the two teams square off in Buffalo this Sunday.
"He (Pickett) looks like a good young quarterback, had a good preseason, played well when he got in the game the other day, and was productive," head coach Sean McDermott said. "It looks like he knows what he's doing and how to function in that offense, and I've got a lot of respect for him."
Pickett's NFL debut came last Sunday against the Jets when he came in to relieve QB Mitch Trubisky to start the second half. With that half being the only NFL tape of the rookie, McDermott — who has a 7-3 coaching record when facing first-year QBs — said preparation looks a little bit different when game planning for Pickett and the Steelers offense.
"There are some unknowns just because there's not a whole lot of a sample out there," McDermott said. "So do the best you can, you control what we can control, and we get ourselves ready to go."
Aside from the minimal tape on Pickett, the Bills have a general understanding of who he is as a quarterback. Safety Jordan Poyer said the first-round draft pick has good arm talent, he can move in the pocket, and he's getting the ball out of his hands quick. Having this in the back of his mind, Poyer is preparing for the Steelers like he would for any opposing team.
"You don't necessarily have to change anything different just because there's X, Y, Z playing at quarterback," Poyer said. "Just continue to go throughout your process and then within the game obviously there's going to be some wrinkles, probably going to have to make some adjustments just based off of maybe some of the film study that you studied, maybe they come out there with something new."
For outside linebacker Von Miller, who will be tasked with finding Pickett in the pocket, it doesn't matter who the quarterback is. Miller's focus is instead on getting ready to attack the offensive line. He believes the Steelers have the best O-line unit that the Bills have seen this season.
"Even though he's a young quarterback, he's talented," Miller said. "I think this offensive line is really the difference maker for the offense."
Even with the Steelers' quarterback change, the Bills are approaching this game like any other one. QB Josh Allen acknowledged the 'ballhawks in the secondary on defense,' and how productive the Steelers are on that side of the ball even without linebacker T.J. Watt.
"We have to be on top of our game," Allen said. "Making sure that we're sticking to our base rules and trying to put our best foot forward in our game plan, in protection, whether it's running or passing the ball. We've got to go out and execute and try to win a football game."
This week, Mike Tomlin praised the efforts of Bills WR Stefon Diggs, who ranks second in the NFL in receiving yards this year. After playing them a couple of times now, Diggs knows the test that's ahead of his team and the additional wrinkle the Steelers are going to throw their way.
"I feel like Mike Tomlin does a great job finding the guys that not only make plays but know the game inside the game," Diggs said. "Active, fast, and they play some good ball over there. It's tough to go against, but it's definitely a task for us."
At the end of the day, the main focus on both sides of the ball is going with the flow of the game while also understanding what the Steelers are trying to do. In sticking with that, the Bills look to execute the best they can against a really good football team.
"We can't take them any different than any other team," Allen said. "It's the Pittsburgh Steelers we're talking about. They've been a very good team for a very long time and it's no secret why. The coaching staff that they've got in place there and continuing to develop those players. It's been not fun to watch on defense knowing how many different things they can do and show you."
Scroll for best photos from Wednesday's practice at One Bills Drive as the Bills prep for the Steelers.