ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Ben Roethlisberger had a feeling that his offense might get out to a slow start on Sunday.
The Steelers, with a new offensive coordinator, new quarterbacks coach, new tight ends coach, new offensive line coach, four rookies in the starting lineup and four out of five new offensive linemen were probably going to take some time to get their game in gear in the season opener against the Buffalo Bills.
The problem with that was the Bills — owners of a high-powered offense deep with weapons in the passing game that can put a game out of reach in a heartbeat.
Roethlisberger was right, as the Steelers punted on each of their first five first-half possessions before kneeling down on the sixth, mercifully ending a moribund first 30 minutes for the Pittsburgh offense.
Fortunately for the Steelers, the Pittsburgh defense kept the team in the game, holding Josh Allen and company to 10 first-half points.
“We anticipated that a little bit, the bumps in the road that the offense are going to have,” Roethlisberger said. “What we expect is our defense to carry us. I told them that afterwards, that I appreciated their efforts, appreciated what they do, not losing faith in us.”
Not only did the defense keep the Steelers in the game in the first half, they forced to turnovers on downs in the third quarterback that Roethlisberger was finally able to turn into some Pittsburgh points.
“This game, especially when we’re on the road, is all about momentum and playing with momentum and going with the ebbs and flows,” linebacker T.J. Watt said. “We did a really good job of feeding off each other. When one group wasn’t doing so hot, another group stepped up. It was a complete football game for us.”
Roethlisberger said there wasn’t some kind of big halftime adjustment after the Steelers went into the locker room down 10. It was more just about each individual player making corrections to their games and reacting to the situation for the team’s newbies.
“I think (it was) guys just settling in,” Roethlisberger said. “We had a lot of first-timers out there. And that’s a hostile place. Those fans are awesome. They were loud. It was very, very loud. Pat [Freiermuth] grabbed me like, ‘Holy cow, it’s loud out there.’
“I said, ‘Yeah, welcome to the NFL.’ A lot of environmental factors. That’s fans, that’s weather, that’s a really good defense, a good team. You know what? I’m proud of the guys because—I hate to use a Coach Tomlinism—but they didn’t blink. They stood up in the face of not playing well early.”
The other important factor for the Steelers offense was that even though they weren’t scoring in the first half, they didn’t make many big mistakes, either. The team finished the day with no turnovers and Buffalo started three of its first four offensive possessions with long fields.
“We didn’t make the big mistake,” Roethlisberger said. “That was huge. We didn’t make a big mistake early. We didn’t do what we wanted to do but we didn’t turn the ball over, we didn’t do anything catastrophic. The fact that we came in at halftime and it wasn’t like there was a big rah-rah, no one really spoke and acted crazy; it was just like, ‘OK, this is what we’re going to do in the second half. Let’s go do it.’”
After Roethlisberger hit Diontae Johnson in the end zone for a touchdown to give the Steelers their first lead of the game, the defense got a three and out and the special teams unit — gashed for a big return that resulted in three Buffalo points early — came up with a touchdown on a blocked punt.
“There are going to be other times throughout this year that (the defense is) going to have to carry us, and there might be times where we have to carry the D,” Roethlisberger said. “You just don’t know. This was a team win — offense, defense, special teams — and that’s what I think I’m most proud about.”