Game Plan: Bills vs. Steelers
This week's matchup between the Buffalo Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers is shaping up to be a very entertaining football game that might not mean much to anyone outside of fans of the game. The Steelers are at 2-6 and continuing to waffle, while the Bills are 3-6, due in large part to significant injuries at quarterback.
Both teams are on two-game losing streaks and desperate to get off the snide if for no other reason than pride. Mathematically, neither team has been eliminated from the playoffs, as there is a huge jumble of middling teams all scrambling to finish strong for what is a single wild-card spot.
But the reality is, nine teams fighting for one spot is a long shot. From the Steelers' perspective, this game and all games going forward are more about assessing the talent on the roster, the roles of the coaching staff, moving forward and building toward 2014. This isn't a defeatist attitude. It's the fact that this is a business, and the business is in part about winning football games.
Let's take a look at what the Steelers need to do to win this game.
When the Steelers Are on Offense
Last Sunday, the Steelers passing offense had an explosion of production guided by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. With all the injuries along the offensive line, this is likely going to be a trend. This unit can do just enough to let Big Ben make plays with his arm, but they still are not capable of executing a proper game plan to run the football.
I have never been a big proponent of looking at the big stats, because so many of them are situational. The Steelers are putting up big passing numbers in part because they are almost perpetually playing from behind, forcing them to abandon the run and chuck it downfield.
If I am preparing the Steelers for this game, I scrap the power game entirely. Allow Roethlisberger to run the offense out of the no huddle and spread the field. The biggest thing that has hurt this hobbled offensive line is when the opposing defense is allowed to crowd the line of scrimmage and force assignment mistakes.
Instead, the Steelers need to spread them out and then flood the middle. Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso has had an amazing rookie season and is the Bills' best defender. I say go right at him. With the pending return of Markus Wheaton at wide receiver, the Steelers should be able flash so much speed across the short and intermediate middle.
This will pull the Bills safeties up and allow the Steelers to take their shots deep off of play action. The run game should be a product of the rhythm and the pass attack, not the other way around. The Steelers need to keep the responsibilities of the offensive line as simple as possible.
When the Steelers Are on Defense
The Buffalo Bills present some interesting challenges for the Steelers defense. With the probable return of quarterback E.J. Manuel, the Bills offensive playbook should open up considerably.
The Bills offense sports a tandem of talented running backs in Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, along with three talented pass catchers in wide receivers Steve Johnson and Robert Woods along with tight end Scott Chandler. Just like last Sunday, when the Patriots were able to use multiple weapons to cause confusion and matchup problems for the Steelers, the Bills will likely try to do much of the same.
Certainly, the injury status of Woods will impact this somewhat, but for the most part, the notion of spreading the football around will remain intact.
This means that the Steelers are going to have to play much better assignment football in order to win this game. Nevertheless, the focus of their attention must remain on Manuel. Pressure on Manuel will make or break this game. The Steelers were just short of getting sacks on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady last week, and when they missed on him, he delivered down the field.
Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau needs to dial up those same pressures on Manuel in hopes of throwing off the rookie quarterback and forcing him not only into sacks but also into poor decisions throwing the football. In particular, using A-gap pressures that send rushers right into the face of Manuel could clog up the throwing lanes and press Manuel to the edges where linebackers LaMarr Woodley and Jason Worilds will be waiting.
Beyond the playbook and specific schemes, these success or failure of this defense will come down to executing their individual assignments. Against the Patriots, individual lapses were far more damaging than any problems with the game plan.
This week should be a chance for the Steelers defense to lick their wounds and find some focus. If they don't, it could be another record-setting day, in the wrong direction.
Three Steelers players suffered injuries in Sunday's loss against the Patriots. Cornerback Ike Taylor and linebacker Vince Williams both suffered concussions late in the game, and offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert suffered an ankle injury.
Tomlin confirmed these injuries in his press conference, but as of now, there is nothing official from the team as to their status for Sunday. If the Steelers are forced to play without these three starters, there will be some significant holes on both offense and defense.
The good news story is about the injured guard David DeCastro and wide receiver Markus Wheaton. According to Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, both are ready to go this Sunday against the Bills, per this Tweet.
Tomlin said G David DeCastro and rookie WR Markus Wheaton ready to return against Bills.— Gerry Dulac (@gerrydulac) November 5, 2013
In a related story, Dulac also tweeted on Wednesday that injured linebacker Sean Spence will be placed on injured reserve, meaning his season is done, including practice.
Steelers place ILB Sean Spence on injured reserve. So not only can he not play, he cannot practice with the team.— Gerry Dulac (@gerrydulac) November 6, 2013
If Williams is unable to go, linebacker Kion Wilson will likely get the start on the inside. If Taylor can't go, it could push rookie Shamarko Thomas to the nickel corner, and cornerback Cortez Allen would start opposite William Gay. If Gilbert cannot go, tackle Mike Adams would get the start, and the flexibility of using multiple offensive lineman will take a hit.
Predictions and Implications
Last Sunday I didn't feel comfortable picking the Steelers over the Patriots. There was just too much offense on the Patriots side of the football. This week, the playing field is much more level. The fact the game is in Pittsburgh helps, but the potential rash of missing starters is a huge X-factor.
In the final analysis, I give a slight edge to the Steelers based on the home field and the advantage at quarterback. This game won't be easy, and it is probably going to be another shootout. However, in a shootout against a rookie, let me have Roethlisberger every time.
As far as implications for the season, it's hard to say. A win would certainly boost morale and perhaps help quell some of the discontent within the organization. From a tactical standpoint, a win means very little. Short of a total meltdown by the Cincinnati Bengals, there is little the Steelers can do to work themselves into playoff contention. Just show up, play hard and never forget that being part of the Steelers doesn't entitle you to a thing.