The Steelers are heading into hostile territory as they head to Highmark Stadium in Buffalo. Not only are they heading into hostile territory, but they are heavy underdogs against a team viewed as a potential Super Bowl contender. Thus, in order to come out with a win, the Steelers will not only need a lot of things to go right, but they will also need to overcome the odds. However, what can allow and aid the Steelers in doing just that?
Win the Toxic Differential Battle
Okay, the statement seems simple enough. The toxic differential is a stat that heavily correlates itself to wins. It takes into account big plays allowed (plays of 20+ yards), turnovers, and explosive plays registered. In other words, if a team has more explosive plays and turnovers, they are expected to win that game. The Bills, for example, were third in this stat in the 2020 season.
They created lots of explosive plays and gave up few, while they also forced more turnovers than they surrendered. This is basic football jargon, but it is massive for the Steelers. They have to limit the Bills’ ability to create explosive plays offensively, and the Steelers have to create them on the opposite side of the offense. Taking care of the football and getting a turnover would be huge for the Steelers. If they are to win this game, limiting explosive plays, creating explosive plays, and winning the turnover battle is right at the forefront.
Control the Ground Game
Not far behind on the list of reasons the Steelers could win this game would be controlling the game on the ground. With Star Loutlelei out, the Steelers have an opportunity to potentially exploit a weakness the Bills had all of 2020. They finished 20th in rushing defense, and with no Lotulelei to help fill that in, Harrison Phillips will be the key guy to watch here.
However, taking some pressure off Ben Roethlisberger and staying ahead of sticks is how the Steelers can take control of this game and keep it at their pace. It will also allow the middle of the field to open up in an even more potent way. While running the ball well is not a requirement to have a good play-action game, with linebackers as good as Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano, that is certainly something that can help boon the Steelers towards victory.
Feed Diontae Johnson
The Steelers have a talented group of wide receivers. That much is evident on tape. Between JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, James Washington, and Diontae Johnson, this team can threaten teams from various alignments and on a multitude of concepts. However, this is a game that was made for Johnson to eat. Before he was pulled due to continued drops against the Bills in 2020, Johnson was carving up even Tre’Davious White.
Here is the thing, the Steelers have a clear weakness that they need to solve at wide receiver. Against teams that employ press coverage, and man did the Bills do it last year, there is only one receiver who can separate consistently. Now, maybe Claypool has taken a step in that regard. However, they had Claypool locked up because of that exact strategy in 2020. Johnson is this team’s best press beater. It is as simple as that. He can be the guy to create those explosive plays and crack the code against this Bills defense. As such, Johnson needs to lead this team in targets.
Rotations and Blitzes
Okay, let’s talk defensive game plan. The Steelers have a talented defense, but there are so many moving parts they have with no static slot cornerback, T.J. Watt coming back into the lineup, and Joe Schobert still being a relative novice in the scheme. However, Keith Butler did say he had something up his sleeve that the Bills had not seen from the Steelers over their past two matchups. Well, that can mean a lot of things. It could be a player or an entire game plan.
The best guess is that the Steelers try to copycat what the Chiefs did in the playoffs. In other words, they will become a blitz-heavy team to try and get after Allen. Even more importantly, this secondary might need to be physical. By physical, this means the Steelers could legitimately run some press-man coverage to try and stifle these receivers for the Bills. Stefon Diggs will get his worth, that will happen. However, bracketing him is something to fully expect, even in a man-heavy idea.
The other part is messing with Allen’s processing from pre-snap to post-snap. There is certainly a decent chance that the Steelers could really weaponize Minkah Fitzpatrick here. Perhaps make him the single-high pre-snap, but really roll him down in the middle of the field and rotate Terrell Edmunds and Cameron Sutton back into a Cover 2 scheme. That might be the Steelers’ best chance of slowing down the Bills to a degree.