NBC picked the right game for Sunday Night Football this week. The Pittsburgh Steelers (11-1) will follow their first loss of the season with arguably their toughest test yet in Buffalo (9-3). The Bills are a Hail Mary in Arizona away from winning six straight, and quarterback Josh Allen is coming off one of his best games yet in a 34-24 win over the 49ers on Monday night.
Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Buffalo Bills
Sunday, December 13, 2020 – 08:20 PM EST at Bills Stadium
The Bills are a 2-point favorite on most NFL betting sites, though FiveThirtyEight sees the game as more of a pick’em situation. Pittsburgh tends to do well against the NFL odds as an underdog. Under Mike Tomlin (2007-2020), the Steelers are 14-10 (.583) as an underdog of no more than three points against teams that finish the season with a winning record, tied for the second-best winning percentage in the league over that time.
The Vegas total is 48 points, a mark the Steelers and their opponents have not gone over in five straight games. While the spotlight is on the performance of Pittsburgh’s offense, this is a game where Josh Allen and the Buffalo offense could steal the show.
Pittsburgh’s Unique Offense: Is It Broken?
Simply put, the Steelers and offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner had no real plan in 2019 on how to handle the departure of wide receiver Antonio Brown. Once Ben Roethlisberger (elbow) was lost for the season after six quarters, the Steelers had little offense to speak of.
With Roethlisberger back this year, the plan quickly materialized. He was going to operate almost exclusively from the shotgun and get rid of the ball faster than any quarterback in the league with quick, short throws. Perhaps due to the elbow surgery and year away from the game, Roethlisberger’s deep ball has taken a big hit in its effectiveness. He has compensated for this by throwing with the best anticipation of his career and being efficient on third downs and in the red zone.
For 10 games, this worked well enough to lead the Steelers to a 10-0 start and at least 24 points in every game. But then the Baltimore rematch happened on a Wednesday, followed by the first loss of the season to Washington on Monday. In these games, the Steelers dropped so many passes in the colder weather to stall numerous drives. Pittsburgh now leads the league in drops (33) with Diontae Johnson (10) and tight end Eric Ebron (seven) as the main culprits. Defenses are also starting to sit on the short passes and attack them at the line, such as the batted ball that led to a game-deciding interception in the Washington loss. Pittsburgh did not score 20 points in either home game.
To exacerbate things, the Steelers have been terrible at running the football. They became the first team in NFL history to win three straight games without rushing for 50 yards in any of them when they beat the Ravens, Cowboys, and Bengals to start November. However, Pittsburgh rushed for a season-low 21 yards on Monday and could not even trust the running game to convert one yard in critical situations at the goal line and on fourth down.
It would be awfully hard to reconfigure the whole offensive approach in a matter of days for Sunday night, but clearly the Steelers cannot expect any postseason success with the performances from the last two weeks.
The good news is that the running game should get a boost from the return of lead back James Conner and center Maurkice Pouncey, who both missed these last two games with COVID-19. So much of Pittsburgh’s offensive issues stem from a lack of trust. Without Conner and Pouncey, the Steelers do not think running is feasible. Even with these players the Steelers will likely still field an inadequate running game, which is a big disadvantage for this particular matchup. In Buffalo’s lone home loss of 2020, the Chiefs, usually a pass-happy offense, ran wild for 245 yards in a 26-17 win.
Pittsburgh cannot do anything like that on the ground right now. The Steelers also think their lack of a running game means they can never use play-action passing. Pittsburgh has 38 play-action pass attempts this season. Every other offense has at least 65, and Buffalo ranks third with 135 play-action attempts. This is an extreme dink-and-dunk offense with a quarterback trying to get rid of the ball like it is a hot potato.
In each of his last five games, Roethlisberger has thrown at least 42 passes and taken zero sacks. That is the longest such streak in NFL history. They are overcompensating for the lack of rushing with too many short passes in a way no other offense in NFL history has done.
To beat Buffalo, Roethlisberger may have to break his 2020 tendencies and go vintage Big Ben by holding the ball longer to look for bigger plays. Buffalo’s defense actually forces the shortest average throws (7.0 yards) in the league this year according to Pro Football Reference, so they are used to playing dink-and-dunk attacks.
Buffalo has a standout cornerback in Tre’Davious White, but Roethlisberger has enough wideouts to utilize to stay away from him and pick on the lesser players. Buffalo also welcomed back a standout coverage linebacker in Matt Milano on Monday night, so this is a game where Pittsburgh will need to do more than ignore the running game and throw short passes that will be lucky to gain a yard. Pittsburgh has to stop wasting early downs with insignificant gains.
The sky is not quite falling on the Steelers, but they could make things much easier on themselves if they stop dropping so many passes and figure out how to rush for one yard when they need it most.
Josh Allen vs. Pittsburgh’s Top-Ranked Defense
On Monday night against the 49ers, Josh Allen had his fourth game of 2020 with at least 300 yards, three touchdowns, and a 125.0 passer rating. Buffalo has not had a quarterback with such a stat line since Drew Bledsoe did it twice almost two decades ago in 2002. Buffalo has showed a ton of new confidence in Allen’s play this season as he has had multiple games where he dominates the ball early with his arm and legs, rarely handing off to the running backs.
In his third year, this is clearly Allen’s offense now as the Bills are no longer trying to baby him with the defense and running game. When Allen faced the Steelers last year, he only passed for 139 yards in a 17-10 win keyed by the defense’s four interceptions off backup quarterback Devlin Hodges.
But now Allen will face a superior Pittsburgh defense with many impressive stats of its own. The Steelers rank No. 1 in points allowed, takeaways, interceptions, sacks, pressures, quarterback hits, first downs allowed, and defensive passer rating. Pittsburgh (56.0%) is also the only defense allowing a completion percentage lower than 60.0% this season. Believe it or not, but the Eagles (29) are the only team to score more than 24 points on Pittsburgh this season.
That all sounds great, but the Steelers are experiencing major injury problems on defense at the worst time for this tough matchup. Having already lost starting linebackers Devin Bush and Bud Dupree to torn ACLs, the Steelers are likely to be without Robert Spillane (knee) and Vince Williams (COVID-19) this week. They need all the healthy linebackers they can get against a mobile quarterback who loves to scramble and some very good receivers running underneath routs.
Worse, top cornerback Joe Haden is in the concussion protocol and his status is up in the air. Steven Nelson, the other starting corner, missed Monday’s game with an injury but could be back for this one. Still, Haden would be a big loss as he is likely to match up most with Stefon Diggs.
Buffalo’s offense has actually been most efficient this season when targeting Cole Beasley, who had a career-high 130 receiving yards on Monday night. The Bills lead the NFL with a 49.3% conversion rate on third down, and Beasley is a big part of that with 13 first downs on 16 targets on third down.
Allen still has a lot of gunslinger in him and will give the defense opportunities for splash plays, but Pittsburgh will have its hands full in this matchup.
If the Bills had their 2019 defense to go with their 2020 offense, they might be the favorites in the AFC right now. Alas, Buffalo ranks 13th in scoring differential (+27) this season while Pittsburgh, despite the criticism, is still No. 1 at +123 points. Pittsburgh should find the defensive matchup more favorable this week and get back to scoring 24-plus points like it did in the first 10 games this season.
The bigger concern could be on the defensive side of the ball due to the injuries piling up, especially at linebacker. An argument could easily be made that Buffalo is the first offense with a high-functioning quarterback capable of throwing for a lot of yards that the Steelers have seen since Deshaun Watson and Houston in Week 3. In that game, Houston led 21-17 at halftime before the Steelers rallied for a 28-21 win. This is a bad offense for the Steelers to be shorthanded against.
These offenses can make mistakes, but that also could fuel more scoring with turnovers leading to good field position. That is why I certainly like the over in my NFL picks this weekend, and I think Buffalo is catching the Steelers at the perfect time to get a 27-24 type of win that may not be decided until the latest stages of the fourth quarter.
My Pick: Bills -2 (-105) and (visit our Sportsbook Review)