Since starting the season 2-2, the Buffalo Bills have quickly found themselves in a tailspin losing four out of their last five games. As bad as the last five weeks have been, the season is not completely over. The schedule gets much easier from this point forward, and they could potentially have E.J. Manuel back this week. Manuel was cleared to return to practice and, according to Bills’ CEO Russ Brandon, he should start on Sunday barring any setbacks.
If Manuel is able to return, this will be the healthiest the Bills have been as a collective unit all season. This is exactly what Buffalo needs to get back on track, and even though they face a struggling Pittsburgh Steelers team who is 2-6, a win in Pittsburgh would be a step in right direction. These are a few keys to Buffalo's game plan that should help secure a victory and get them closer to .500.
Against the Chiefs, the Bills offense looked efficient picking up yards and first downs almost at ease. This was the case until they got in the red zone where the offense stalled and made costly mistakes. Buffalo turned the ball over three times (one in the red zone) and the Chiefs were able to score 17 points off those mistakes.
Buffalo’s second turnover of the game came on the one-yard line when Jeff Tuel threw a pick to Sean Smith that was returned for a touchdown. The Bills were up 10-3 and about to extend their lead to at least two scores. This was a key point in the game and was the biggest deciding factor of the outcome.
Turnovers were not the only issue they struggled with but the fact that they could not score touchdowns when they got inside the red zone. Against the Chiefs, the Bills were 0-of-3 in the red zone and could not find a way into the end zone on three plays from the one-yard line in the third quarter. As much of the blame falls on Tuel for throwing the pick, the offensive line and Fred Jackson deserve a great deal of the blame for not being able to punch it in on the two previous plays.
Luckily for Buffalo, they face a Steelers defense that is not as dominant as it has been in years past. They currently rank second to last in the NFL in both turnovers and rushing yards per game. This is good news for C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson who put up over 200 yards on the ground against a much stronger Chiefs defense last Sunday.
The running game is what makes the offense so effective and if that area struggles, it could be a frustrating day for this offense. The Steelers have one of the best pass defenses in the league this season right now, giving up 210 yards through the air, which is fourth best behind Houston, Seattle and Kansas City.
The fact that they are stronger defending the pass does not means they must abandon the pass completely. Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett must continue to be aggressive and take shots down field with Marquise Goodwin and T.J. Graham. This was part of E.J. Manuel’s game that was not showcased much earlier in the season. It is important for this offense though to call these plays because it will keep the defense honest and not allow them to stack the line of scrimmage.
Even though the Bills' defense did not force any turnovers against Kansas City, they had one of their most dominant performances of the season. They gave up only 210 yards total against the Chiefs and held their offense to three field goals.
There is some concern in the fact that this was the second game in a row that the Bills were not able to force a turnover. Over the past five games, this defense has only forced two turnovers compared to 13 over the first four. This would be a great game for the defense to rebound in this category as the Steelers have struggled protecting the ball and currently are third worst in the NFL with 17 turnovers.
In addition to protecting the ball, Pittsburgh has struggled protecting Ben Roethlisberger the past two games as he has been sacked 10 times. He has not handled the pressure well with five turnovers (four interceptions and one fumble) over that span.
This is why getting pressure on Roethlisberger has to be Buffalo's focus entering this game. Their offensive line has struggled for the majority of the season and looks outmatched on paper.
If Mario Williams and the rest of the line are able to get pressure on Big Ben, they have to be very conscience of his ability to scramble and extend plays. A few plays against the Chiefs and Pettine called the right blitz; however, Alex Smith was able to scramble and either complete a pass or run for a few yards. With the speed of Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders on the outside, Buffalo can't afford to allow Roethlisberger to get a pass off down field for these two receivers.
At the end of the day, just like the Chiefs' game, I believe this game will come down to whichever team makes the fewest mistakes. This is a game that on paper is set up perfectly for Buffalo to get the win. The Steelers struggle in a number of areas—like run defense, a poor offensive line and protecting the ball—and the Bills can exploit that and get their record to 4-6.