7 things Steelers’ fans learned, or overreacted to, following the first game of the season.
The Steelers went into Buffalo on Sunday without many thinking they would leave with a victory. But despite playing on the road and enduring a rough first half, the team rallied in the second half to make a statement win against one of the AFC’s top teams.
Unsurprisingly, there’s plenty of takeaways to be had:
1. Full stadiums
Sure, this take may not directly relate to what happened on the field, but it was incredible to see the Steelers playing in a packed venue once again. After having suffered through the silence, or even fake crowd noise, of empty stadiums, it was nice to see real people and real noise filling the stands. It felt like football once again — even with a hostile crowd. Seeing the Steeler faithful pack Heinz Field once again next week should be a fantastic sight.
2. No Tuitt, no problem
This one may be slight hyperbole, but the Steelers’ defensive front didn’t skip a beat when playing without Stephon Tuitt, one of the NFL’s best interior lineman, on Sunday. That performance was largely a testament to the impressive play of Cam Heyward throughout the game, but fellow defenders Tyson Alualu, Chris Wormley, Carlos Davis, and Isaiah Buggs all did a good job of filling the gap. Bills’ quarterback Josh Allen was under pressure the entire game, and while a lot of that can be attributed to the pass-rushers on the outside, the interior certainly pulled their weight as well. And this isn’t to say that Tuitt isn’t needed — when he returns from Injured Reserve at some point this season, the Steelers defense will go from great to even greater.
3. A welcome surprise
Besides the ever worrisome offensive line situation, the Steelers’ cornerback room was perhaps the biggest question mark on the team. Having lost two quality starters in Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton this offseason, it was paramount that Joe Haden, Cam Sutton, and the rest of the defensive backfield would be able to step up to the challenge. Not many thought they could, but the Steeler secondary certainly impressed against the Bills. Against one of the most dangerous passing attacks in the NFL, the Steelers only surrendered 270 passing yards, and more importantly, only one touchdown.
Wide receiver Stephon Diggs, who terrorized the Steelers defense last time the two met, was held well below 100 yards. Pittsburgh cornerback Cam Sutton enjoyed one of the best games of his career with a couple nice pass deflections and tackles, while Joe Haden was his usual reliable self. Even youngsters James Pierre and Tre Norwood managed to turn in quality performances. Overall, it was a strong game by a unit in desperate need of one.
4. Worth. Every. Penny.
Pass-rusher T.J. Watt signed a megadeal extension with the Steelers only days before their matchup with the Bills. It ensured that the All-Pro pass-rusher would play, but there were worries about how Watt would perform. Would his limited practice time result in a snap count? Would it take him a few weeks to get back into playing shape? Watt was given plenty of breaks on Sunday (although he was obviously part of a rotation — more on that later), but he answered any questions about what shape he was in with a fantastic game. Watt recorded two sacks, a forced fumble, a tackle for loss, and simply generated havoc throughout all four quarters. Watt showed what had made him the highest-paid defender in the NFL, and he should continue to impress as the Steelers defense gels even more as the season progresses.
5. More of the same
The first negative takeaway in this article is also the first one concerning the offense — and that’s no coincidence. While the Steelers’ defense was an elite unit on Sunday, the offense was held scoreless throughout the first half. And while there was notable improvement in the second, they still only managed one touchdown. Despite the win, it was a less-than-stellar showing from Ben Roethlisberger and co. — and despite the excitement over Matt Canada’s promotion to offensive coordinator, the Steelers’ new look offense seemed awfully similar to last year’s, just with some added window dressing. The offensive line struggled, the run game was largely nonexistent, there were red-zone struggles and a slow start, and Roethlisberger was limited to a quick-release, fast-paced passing attack once again. Against a defense as good as Buffalo’s, it wasn’t a surprise, but simply a reminder that there’s still work to be done when it comes to Pittsburgh’s offense.
6. Welcome to the NFL
According to the snap counts, seven rookies saw playing time for the Steelers against Buffalo. Some had smaller roles, such as Jamir Jones and Buddy Johnson on special teams, while others were more integral to the gameplan, such as Najee Harris starting at running back or Tre Norwood in the slot. And although the number of rookies playing was a good sign, the actual game wasn’t perfect. Najee Harris had some miscommunication with Roethlisberger in the passing game, while Kendrick Green and Dan Moore had their struggles providing room for the rookie to run. Tre Norwood got beat in coverage a few times, while Pressley Harvin had a bad shank of a punt from his own end zone.
However, what was more important was how the rookies responded. Harris recorded a few nice runs in the second half, while the Green, Moore, and the rest of the offensive line slowly improved as the game went on. Despite some mistakes, Norwood looked aware and aggressive in his first regular season game, always being around the ball. Even Harvin had some nice punts, recording a long of 51 yards and landing two inside of the 20. Unsurprisingly, it was an up-and-down debut for the Steeler rookie class, but one that showed plenty of potential.
7. A strong rotation
Not many athletes have a resumé like Melvin Ingram. The pass-rusher has managed to stay in the league for ten years, making three Pro-Bowls in the process. However, when he signed with the Steelers this offseason not many thought he would make much of an impact. However, Ingram looked anything but washed up on Sunday, pressuring Josh Allen the entire game. He didn’t record a sack, but was responsible for a good number of the many holding penalties (some were called, some weren’t) that the Bills committed. Paired with T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, who had a great game as well, the Steelers should have one of the best pass-rushing rotations in the league this year.
It wasn’t the prettiest of wins against Buffalo, but it was still a win. In a game that just about everyone expected the Steelers to lose, they managed to defy the odds and beat Buffalo on the road in Week 1. Fielding one of the top defenses, as well as arguably the league’s best quarterback/wide receiver combination, the Bills were rightfully considered as one of the NFL’s top teams — and they still are. However, the Steelers managed to prove that despite their flaws, they should be mentioned along with the rest of the Super Bowl contenders in the NFL.
Don’t forget to stay tuned to Behind the Steel Curtain for all things Pittsburgh Steelers throughout the 2021 regular season.