Steelers: Upset of Bills shows team can still be a force in AFC
PITTSBURGH—The growing pains Ben Roethlisberger warned about were unmistakable.
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ newlook offensive line didn’t muster much in the running game, leaving first-round pick Najee Harris with little room to work.
The special teams let up a big kickoff return on the season’s first play. And for a half the defending AFC North champions looked as listless as they did during that 1-5 thud that ended 2020, falling behind 10-0.
And it didn’t matter. Not with outside linebacker T.J. Watt looking as if he is worth every penny of the staggering deal he signed last week that made him the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL.
Not with the secondary shutting down a Buffalo Bills offence that is supposed to rank among the league’s best. Not with Roethlisberger deftly guiding a second-half turnaround that led to a 23-16 victory, upending the modest external expectations surrounding the Steelers in the process.
“I don’t want to say a dominant performance because obviously there’s still a lot left on the table and I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of film to watch and make corrections,” Watt said after dropping Bills quarterback Josh Allen twice.
“But I’m very happy with where we are, especially in Week 1. I love playing with this group. We fly around. We handle adversity really well.”
It certainly looks like it. Fourteen times in the franchise’s 89-year history the Steelers had fallen down by double digits in the opener. And 14 times they had lost. Facing a raucous crowd and a team that reached the AFC Championship Game nine months ago, Pittsburgh pulled out a win that provided a blueprint of how 2021 might go.
The offence sputtered for long stretches. Yet it also didn’t turn the ball over. The defence looked even better than it did a year ago when it led the NFL in sacks and finished third in the league in yards allowed.
The special teams bounced back from that rough start to block a punt for a touchdown late in the third quarter that gave the Steelers a 10-point lead they never came close to squandering.
“We knew it would be tough sledding,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said.
“They’ve got a great defence. They’ve got continuity, not only in players but schematics. We were playing them in their place. We had a bunch of new pieces. We weren’t style pointoriented today. We just had to win this game.”
A victory that could perhaps send the Steelers on a similar trajectory to 2020, when they ripped off their first 11 games to cruise to the division title before flaming out in the first round against Cleveland.
The schedule is considerably tougher than it was a year ago, but Pittsburgh’s performance served notice that, when at their best, the Steelers will remain a threat in a loaded AFC.
“The last few times we’ve played (Buffalo), we haven’t had our best game,” defensive end Cam Heyward said.
“But it’s one win. We’re happy we got the win, but we’ve got 16 more.”