Protecting Ben Roethlisberger is one of the Steelers' biggest priorities this week against Buffalo's fierce pass rush.
The 55-31 loss saw the Patriots run up 610 yards of total offense—the most the Steelers have given up in a single game in franchise history—while Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger turned the ball over three times.
The Bills may not be as formidable an opponent, however the Steelers gave up over 100 yards apiece to three Patriots receivers last week along with 197 total rushing yards. If their defense cannot fix what ailed them last week, yards won't be hard to come by for Buffalo.
In the Steelers' favor is the return of rookie Bills quarterback EJ Manuel, who has been sidelined since Week 5 with an LCL injury to his right knee. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's system may not be intimidating or confusing for a quarterback of Tom Brady's experience, but for rookies it's uncharted territory. LeBeau's mastery at getting the better of young quarterbacks could result in a strong showing for Pittsburgh's defense this week.
Prior to his injury, Manuel competed 56.7 percent of his pass attempts for 985 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions. He has taken 13 sacks and has averaged just 182.2 passing yards per game. Despite Pittsburgh allowing 413 passing yards to Brady last week, their defense still ranks in the top five in passing yards allowed per game at 210.
|Points Per Game||21.0|
|Turnovers Forced Per Game||1.7|
In theory, at least, the Steelers shouldn't have much trouble keeping Manuel in check. Also tipping the scales in Pittsburgh's favor is that Bills receiver Robert Woods—Manuel's favorite target prior to his injury—isn't likely to play thanks to his injured ankle.
The problem, however, is that the Bills aren't a pass-heavy offense. They throw the ball an average of just 34.7 times per game, because it is the run that gets them the bulk of their yardage. Considering the Steelers defense ranks a dismal 31st in rushing yardage allowed per game at 131.2 and the Bills offense ranks seventh in rushing yardage gained at 145.8, it's clear what the biggest threat to Pittsburgh is this Sunday.
Bills running back C.J. Spiller has 478 yards on his 102 attempts—a 4.7 yards-per-carry average—and just one rushing touchdown, however he's been hobbled for much of the season with a high-ankle sprain. The sprain is all but gone, with Spiller not showing up on Buffalo's injury report this week and the back himself saying, "the ankle felt pretty good coming off the most work it's done since Week 4."
With the shifty Spiller as healthy as he's been in weeks, the Bills should have an effective one-two punch in the run game. Fred Jackson currently has 502 yards on his 117 carries and is his team's top scorer, with six touchdowns, and he is Buffalo's best chains-mover with 35 first downs.
According to Football Outsiders (subscription required), the Bills run the ball primarily between the left tackle and left guard and up the middle. This means the Steelers defenders with the most on their plates Sunday will be right outside linebacker Jason Worilds, inside linebackers Vince Williams and Lawrence Timmons and right defensive end Brett Keisel.
Overall, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) has the Steelers run defense ranked 25th in the league with a minus-20.7 rating. Football Outsiders also ranks the Steelers 25th against the run. And, based on Pro Football Focus' metrics, the worst offenders against the run are the very same ones who will be front-and-center against Spiller and Jackson on Sunday.
Keisel has a run defense rating of minus-2.2; Timmons' is minus-5.3. Worilds has a rating of minus-3.2 and Williams has the Steelers' overall worst rating against the run at minus-6.2. Worilds has played a total of 149 snaps as a run defender and has only six tackles and five stops to go with two missed tackles, ranking him 23rd out of a possible 27 3-4 outside linebackers.
|Rush YPG Allowed||131.2|
|Points Per Game||19.5|
|Giveaways Per Game||2.1|
The inside linebackers haven't fared much better. While Timmons has 36 run-game tackles and 29 stops, he has five missed tackles on the season. Williams has struggled much more against the run, with 15 tackles made compared to three missed. Nose tackle Steve McLendon has been middle-of-the-road against the run, while Keisel and Cameron Heyward are in the bottom third among 3-4 defensive ends versus the run.
There are ways a poor run defense can counter a good rushing offense. One is to force the Bills into one-dimensionality, closing off the ability to run with stacked boxes and making them pass—something that Steelers rookie linebacker Jarvis Jones hinted at earlier in the week. This means safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark could be used in run support early and often Sunday.
If that doesn't work, the Steelers could also employ a bend-but-don't-break approach, conceding yardage to the Bills but keeping them from scoring touchdowns. Ultimately, giving up 610 yards in total offense doesn't matter if the Bills can only get field goals or less every time they reach the end zone.
But even those field goals could come back to haunt the Steelers if they cannot produce points of their own. While they had 31 last week—the most they've scored all year—and though their run game exceeded 100 yards for just the second time in the season, there's no guarantee those points or yards will flow as relatively freely against Buffalo's defense this week.
Buffalo's defense ranks just 20th in yards per game allowed at 362.1, and they rank 18th in both passing and rushing yards allowed. They are giving up an average of 26.2 points per game, ranking them 24th. On paper, this doesn't seem like much of a challenge for Roethlisberger and company.
However, where the Bills are most dangerous is in the pass rush. Their 29 sacks to-date are the third-highest total in the league, with outside linebacker Mario Williams leading the way with 12. Roethlisberger has already been sacked 31 times, putting him on pace for 62 on the season, and it's possible his offensive line will have no answer for Williams on Sunday.
What makes Williams such a threat is that he's capable of playing on the right or left, sometimes moving around multiple times in a single game. And with so many Steelers offensive linemen dealing with various injuries—offensive tackles Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert are both listed as questionable for Sunday—this could mean Guy Whimper and Kelvin Beachum get the nod at tackle instead.
Combined, Beachum and Whimper have given up six sacks so far this season. Gilbert and Adams have been worse, with the former allowing six sacks and the latter four. If Williams and the rest of Buffalo's front seven can break through Pittsburgh's 29th-ranked pass protection, the talents of Antonio Brown, Heath Miller, Emmanuel Sanders and the rest of Pittsburgh's top-10 passing offense will be for naught.
The Steelers' backs are against the wall at home this week. Though Buffalo, with their three wins, don't seem like a major challenge, the fact that the Bills are so good at running the ball and rushing the passer means this is an opponent built to exploit Pittsburgh's two biggest weaknesses.
Pittsburgh's schedule doesn't get easier after this week, with the Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals still in their future. If they are going to get wins, they have to come in home games against middling teams like the Bills. They cannot allow a repeat of last week's blowout, and preventing the Bills from running free and from getting to Roethlisberger are the biggest keys for doing so.