Momentum remains an elusive commodity in the NFL's topsy-turvy world and the Steelers-Bills game serves as a testament to that reality.
- The game saw the lead change 3 times in the 4th quarter.
- It saw the Steelers assert their dominance and then seemingly verge on self-destruction.
- It saw the Bills do what they have done all year long – refuse to succumb and then scare what the standings otherwise say is a “superior foe.”
Ultimately, the Steelers fortunes turned on an embrace of the franchise’s foundation, a pick in time, a gamble that paid off and, yes, pure luck.
All year long, I have watched the CBS scoreboard, watching the Bills keep defibrillator units on-standby in opposing cities. For weeks, they took brand-name teams to the wire. Each week the Bills got closer.
Two weeks ago they started winning.
The question was, what will the Steelers do when they face the Bills?
Returning to Roots
Bruce Arians had an answer.
Since the beginning of his tenure as offensive coordinator, segments of Steelers Nation, including Steel Curtain Rising sometimes, have longed for Arians to return to the Steelers Smash Mouth roots.
Against Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Buffalo Bills, Steelers Nation finally got its wish. Not since the days of Ron Erhardt and Barry Foster have the Steelers seen an offensive game plan so firmly based in the simple strategy of “feed the ball to the feature back.”
The offense executed to near perfection, keeping the Bills off of the field for most of the 1st half, entering half time with a 13-0 win.
Circling the Wagons
Fans of ESPN’s NFL PrimeTime will remember Chris Berman’s off repeated cliché from the 1990’s, “Nobody Circles the Wagons Like the Bills.” You could knock the Bills down, but never count them out.
And so it has been this season. And so it was Sunday.
The Bills began the game attempting to follow the template for beating the Steelers set down by Tom Brady and the New England Patriots – hit them underneath with short passes and nickel and dime your way down the field.
The only flaw to this strategy in the first half was that the Bills receivers neglected to catch the ball.
That changed in the second half, and so did the tempo of the game. No one is going to confuse Fitzpatrick with Tom Brady yet, but he did enough to get his team moving. And to the extent that the Bills execution lacked the Patriot's perfection the Steelers helped them with....
Flagging Self Destruction
Credit Chan Gailey and the Bills for hanging in there, and making a few key adjustments in the second half. Namely:
- Stuffing the run effectively enough to force 3rd and longs
- Neutralizing Mike Wallace as deep threat
- Neutralizing Hines Ward in the second period after a monster first half
- Covering Steelers receivers well enough to set up several coverage sacks
In this effort the Bills were aided and abetted by the Steelers in general and Chris Kemoatu in particular. According to Gerry Dulac of the Post-Gazette, penalties wiped 86 yards of offensive production away from the Steelers.
On the defensive side of the ball, James Harrison’s helmet-to-helmet hit set up the Bills only touchdown and Keenan Lewis' pass interference play set up the Bill’s field goal.
Penalties are part of life in the NFL. But just as they did against Cincinnati, the Steelers committed enough penalties at key moments to let a lesser team get back into a game.
Mike Tomlin must address this. His teams have always been well coached. This type of undisciplined play needs to go back to being the exception, and not the rule.
Troy Polamalu, Playmaker
Much has been made of the Steelers 4th quarter woes this year. I make no attempt to offer an answer as to why a defense that is so stingy in the first three quarters only to open the flood gates in the fourth.
This happened late last season too. But while the Steelers gave up games in the 4th quarter last year, this year they’re simply giving up yards. Those looking to understand the difference, need only watch the video below:
Is there a player more valuable to the Steelers than number 43?
The Gamble that Paid Off
Jeff Reed not only entered the 2010 season as one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history, he also was one of the NFL’s best pressure kickers.
He was in a serious slump this year. As noted here, slump or no, the Steelers took a serious risk in cutting Jeff Reed.
Shaun Suisham’s numbers were almost as good as Reed's, but he had a history of choking with the game on the line.
Four times he was called upon today to make long kicks in tough situations, and four times he delivered.
Better to Be Lucky than Good?
The Steelers ultimately could not have won the game without some luck, namely Sonny Johnson'ss drop of a sure touchdown wide open in the end zone in overtime.
But such luck would not have mattered had the Steelers not been good.
Luck played no role in the Steelers going from 20 to 20 on their final drive, grinding out five first downs in the process.
The Steelers, of course, must be more disciplined, and must get better play out of their offensive line to have a chance of beating Baltimore.
But they did just enough to get the W against the Bills, and that is what counts.
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