ReFo: Bills @ Steelers, Week 10
In a game that saw two teams fighting for the glimmer of playoff hope they still had, the Pittsburgh Steelers were able to turn in a fairly comfortable victory at home against the Buffalo Bills. Taking advantage of a couple of mistakes from the Bills rookie quarterback, they built a 23-3 lead that their opponents couldn’t claw back.
While the victory was comfortable, the lack of overall dominance highlights why the Steelers are still long shots to make any noise in January but, if nothing else, they showed that they aren’t going to go away quietly just yet. Meanwhile, for the Bills, it’s clear that they are still a little bit away from where they need to be and, going forward, the most important thing will be making sure they see as much of E.J. Manuel as possible as they build towards next season.
It was a game that was highlighted by one defensive line dominating, but the rest of the team failing to match up, so with that in mind, let’s take a look at the key performances from Sunday.
Three Performances of Note – Buffalo Bills
Defensive Line Dominates
It should be obvious by now, but the highlight of the Bills roster is their defensive line and, while we’ve seen big performances from two of the three starters, this was the most complete performance of the year for Alan Branch (+3.5), Marcell Dareus (+5.6) and Kyle Williams (+4.9) as a trio. The three combined for a grade of +9.9 against the run, while Dareus did even more damage as a pass rusher.
With a sack and three hurries from 29 pass rushes, he finished the game with a Pass Rushing Productivity Rating of 11.2. While it was against center Fernando Velasco (-4.4) that he found the most success, both as a pass rusher and against the run, his biggest play came against right tackle, Marcus Gilbert on 3rd-and-7 with 8:48 to go in the third quarter. Beating him to the outside with ease, he was able to swat the ball away from Ben Roethlisberger and force a fumble, with only the quarterback’s quick reaction, and a bit of luck, preventing the turnover. Up until now Dareus’ play has been much more up and down, but he’s been on an impressive run of form for much of this season, as he puts together his best year so far.
Not So Super Mario
While the defensive line trio of the Bills stood out, the anonymity of edge rusher Mario Williams (–2.3) was telling. A pressure against Gilbert on 1st-and-10 with three seconds remaining in the first half was the sole product of his 30 pass rushing attempts, leaving him with a disappointing PRP Rating of 2.5. Meanwhile, against the run he had just one positive play of note, beating tight end Heath Miller inside to get in on a tackle on 1st-and-10 with 9:30 left in the third quarter.
It wasn’t so much that he was being dominated by opposing offensive linemen, or making mistakes, though he was guilty of being beaten outside by Emmanuel Sanders on the Steelers longest run of the game on 1st-and-10 with 12:53 left in the first half. Instead it was just how little impact he made, and, when you come away with just a single pressure and an assist as your total production from 60 snaps, you’ve not really done much to help your team win.
Clearly we’ve been spoiled by some of the seasons put together by rookie quarterbacks in recent times and perhaps it’s unreasonable to have expected as much from E.J. Manuel (-2.6) this early given that this wasn’t exactly a highly touted quarterback class. Still, he’s the Bills starting quarterback so it’s important to look at how he’s performing and progressing in his rookie year.
The most telling aspect from Sunday was how little he challenged the Steelers downfield, with just seven of his 38 aimed passes travelling more than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, with him instead opting to try and beat the Steelers by dinking and dunking his way down the field. That’s worked for him in the past, including the game winning drive against the Carolina Panthers earlier in the year, but it wasn’t enough here. Factoring in two really poor throws, one of which was picked off and the other which was inches from being a pick six and it’s easy to see why he graded out as he did.
Three Performances of Note – Pittsburgh Steelers
Brown Shines Again
While he wasn’t quite up to the ridiculous level of play we saw from him in the first quarter of the season, wide receiver Antonio Brown (+1.1) was once again the brightest spark for the Steelers on offense. The recipient of 104 of the team’s 204 yards through the air, he was also the only receiver to pick up anything further on passes travelling 20 yards or further down field. That came on a 40-yard reception on 1st-and-10 with 6:05 left in the first quarter, with Brown cutting back past cornerback Stephon Gilmore to pick up even more yards after the catch.
His 104 yards came from just 28 routes run, giving him a Yards Per Route Run average of 3.71. That pushed his season average up to 2.22, which is currently 11th amongst all receivers and, while he may have been benched by Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin in last week’s loss to the New England Patriots, he’s clearly been their best offensive weapon this season, with no signs of that changing any time soon.
The Steelers will have been particularly impressed with their secondary on Sunday, with all six players who saw significant playing time finishing the game with a positive grade. Safety Troy Polamalu (+1.0) bounced back from a tough outing in New England to allow just 27 yards on the five passes thrown into his coverage, while fellow safety Ryan Clark (+2.3) allowed just a single two yard reception and came up with an interception of the rookie Manuel.
At cornerback Ike Taylor (+2.3) limited the Bills receivers to just nine yards from four passes thrown into his coverage, with a pass defensed on 1st-and-10 with 12:44 left in the third quarter that he very nearly picked off and took back to the house. Opposite him William Gay (+1.7) saw eight passes thrown his way, but allowed just 28 yards from five receptions. Gay was also active against the run, picking up four tackles that resulted in a defensive stop.
Miller Struggles Again
After solid outings in his first two games back from injury, Heath Miller (-5.3) has seen his play go downhill, with him reaching his lowest graded performance of the PFF era on Sunday. With just four passes thrown his way he was able to pick up just six yards through the air, with two drops hurting his grade even more. He struggled just as much against the run, with six of the Bills defensive stops against the run coming on plays where they beat Miller to get to the ball carrier. Perhaps he’s not all the way back from his injury yet, but this is definitely not the Heath Miller we’ve been accustomed to seeing for the Steelers.
– Manuel and Roethlisberger combined to complete just one pass on throws of 20 yards or more downfield, with each throwing an interception on a deep pass.
– Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller combined to force just two missed tackles between them on 20 rushing attempts.
– The Steelers averaged eight yards per carry on four runs between left guard and center.
PFF Game Ball
While it may have been in a losing effort, the level of play from the Bills defensive line was the highlight of the day, with Marcell Dareus proving to be the best of the bunch.
Follow Gordon on Twitter: @PFF_Gordon