Even though Buffalo had lost four out of the last five games, their confidence should have been high entering their game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. They were getting EJ Manuel back and were entering the game the healthiest they had been all season. The Steelers defense had struggled for the majority of the season and had given up over 600 yards the week prior to the New England Patriots.
At the end of the day it was another missed opportunity for this team, which has been a constant of the 2013 Buffalo Bills. The Bills struggled to generate and maintain any kind of momentum, losing by a final score of 23-10.
These are the five biggest things I took away from Buffalo's loss to Pittsburgh.
C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson were expected to have another great game going up against one of the worst run defenses after an impressive performance against Kansas City last week. The Steelers kept the running back duo in check with only 78 yards on the ground on 20 carries.
It was important more than any other week that Buffalo had an effective running game. They had EJ Manuel coming back from a knee injury who could potentially struggle knocking off the rust. The Steelers struggle stopping the run this season but have the fourth-toughest defense to pass on in the NFL. Finally, if they were able to establish the run game they would be able to control the clock and keep Ben Roethlisberger off the field.
It will be important going forward that Buffalo establishes a balance within their offense. This should be a focal point entering the game next week against the New York Jets. The Bills will continue to struggle to score points if they throw the ball almost twice as much as they run it like the they did against Pittsburgh.
In his first game back since suffering a knee injury against Cleveland, EJ Manuel struggled to get into a rhythm. The Steelers' defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau did a good job of keeping Manuel under pressure and confusing him with different looks.
The rookie quarterback finished the game completing 22 of 39 passes for 155 yards with one touchdown and one interception. These numbers would have looked a lot worse considering the fact he threw 11 completions and his only touchdown when the game was out of reach at the end of the fourth quarter.
Manuel looked hesitant when making throws, especially on throws to the sidelines. Those routes are some of the toughest to throw and a couple of times he got lucky those passes were not intercepted.
The biggest issue with the passing game today though was the lack of throws down the field. Without the threat of deep passes, the Steelers defense was able to crowd the line of scrimmage and limited the running space of Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller.
It was hard to tell if the lack of deep passes was because of the play-calling or Manuel's decision-making. This is an area he will need to improve on over the final six games of the season.
For the majority of the season, Buffalo's defense has struggled to force three-and-outs and the game against Pittsburgh was no different. The Steelers had 12 drives in the game and only three times Buffalo was able to force a three-and-out.
The Bills defense started out great by forcing a turnover and two three-and-outs in the first three drives of the game. After that, the group struggled to stop the Steelers offense with only one three-and-out over the final nine drives.
This has been noticeable over the course of the season as the Bills defense has struggled to get off the field when they have a chance.
In the third quarter today, the Bills had stopped the Steelers offense and forced them to kick a field goal. However, they made a huge mistake and jumped offside on the field goal attempt.
The penalty was enough to give them a first down and Pittsburgh went on to score their second touchdown of the day. If this group continues to make plays like this, it is hard to imagine them reaching their potential of being a top defense in this league.
With most of the attention going to the improved play of Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus are sometimes forgotten. They have continued to be a steady force in the middle of the defensive line for this defense and the game against Pittsburgh was no different.
The two defensive tackles combined for nine tackles, four for a loss, and two sacks. As Mario Williams continues to get the attention he does, this has opened up the opportunity for these two to get favorable matchups.
For example, on Kyle Williams' sack, he started out being double-teamed but as Mario Williams stunted and came behind him, one offensive lineman peeled off to take Mario. This allowed Kyle Williams to overpower his man and get to Roethlisberger.
In Mike Pettine's style of defense it is normal for defensive lineman to stunt, to be lined up at different spots and mix up where blitzers come from. This allows them to get favorable matchups and keep the offensive line confused. This is why Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus continue to get to the quarterback and are in line for career highs in a number of categories, including sacks.
One of the hot topics leading up to the Pittsburgh game was the Bills' ineffectiveness to score touchdowns in the red zone. Doug Marrone was quoted as saying last week:
There are some situations like the red zone touchdowns—we’ve obviously went back and did some more studying on how other teams have been successful in the red zone. How we’re going to do something different, how we’re going to get over that hump. Because obviously if we’re doing the same things we’re not going to get any different results.
It didn't look like the extra studying helped much on their first trip to the red zone as the Bills once again got down to Pittsburgh's 1-yard line but couldn't punch across the goal line.
The Bills didn't reach the red zone for the second time until the last minute of the game, however they were more effective the second time around. Instead of running the ball on the first two downs and throwing on third, Buffalo threw it all three downs and was able to spread out the defense and score a touchdown.
Buffalo needs to become more creative with their play-calling down in the red zone because there is less room to operate. Defenses have less area they have to cover and Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett need to become more unpredictable with their plays.