- Three reasons why Bills will beat Steelers in playoffs
Buffalo Bills, Pittsburgh Steelers, playoff football in the snow ... our football-loving forefathers would want it no other way.
We'll all be treated to this glorious postseason matchup Monday, starting at 4:30 p.m. ET (CBS) at Orchard Park.
Let's lay out why the Bills will win their opening-round playoff game against the Steelers to advance to the divisional round. These three elements of the game will be key.
The Bills ask Allen to do too much -- for the past two seasons and leaking into 2023, that was a main, overarching narrative surrounding Buffalo's star quarterback.
And while he's had another season in which he'll probably finish in the top three in MVP voting again, this current edition of the Bills offense feels different. They're less reliant on Allen. Let me explain.
Against the Dolphins in Week 18, Allen completed 30 passes to eight different pass catchers. Khalil Shakir led the team with 105 yards. Dalton Kincaid tied Stefon Diggs for the team lead in catches with seven. Dawson Knox chipped in the game-winning touchdown. Trent Sherfield had three snags. There were 20 carries divvied up between James Cook and Leonard Fournette. Now, that duo was ineffective on those carries, combining for a mere 56 yards, but even having enough faith in the run game to hand the ball to backs 20 times in a game with massive playoff implications is telling.
Buffalo is more diverse offensively than it's been since the days of Diggs, Cole Beasley and John Brown.
Remember the mid-December throttling of the Cowboys when Cook went for over 220 yards from scrimmage and Allen threw 15 times? That was only the fourth time in Allen's career, and the first time since November 2020, in which he attempted fewer than 20 passes in a game. In the previous three other occasions, the Bills secured one-score victories. In the most recent occurrence, Buffalo smoked Dallas.
A season ago, Diggs led the Bills with 108 catches in the regular season. Gabe Davis was second on the team with 48 grabs. This season, Kincaid is runner-up to Diggs in receptions with 73, and Cook is actually one of Buffalo's five pass-catchers with at least 40 snags.
Every defense wants to make every offense one-dimensional, and at times in 2022 the Bills had one pitch -- a heater from Allen to Diggs, and not much else. Now they have a trusty slot receiver again (Shakir), two capable tight ends (Kincaid and Knox) and a dynamic receiving back, who's also been the heartbeat of a clearly improved run game that jumped from 16th in EPA per play a season ago to second in that advanced statistic this season.
And then after accounting for all that -- Allen can hit you with a 15-yard scramble.
The Steelers defense finished the regular season with a 38% pressure-creation rate, the 11th highest in football -- ironically one spot behind the Bills. Altogether, Pittsburgh generated 246 pressures, and Watt accounted for a mammoth 86 of them, or 34.9%. He led the NFL in sacks with 19 and forced four fumbles. Watt is going to get Defensive Player of the Year votes.
Now, absolutely, injuries are a part of the game come playoff time, for every team. The Bills have key players out, too. But none of Watt's caliber.
In Pittsburgh's Week 1 upset of the Bills in Orchard Park at the outset of the 2021 season, Watt played 50 snaps, registered seven total pressures, including two sacks, along with a tackle for loss and a forced fumble. He wrecked the game.
And recently, when Pittsburgh won three straight to advance to the postseason, Watt was on a tear with 16 pressures on 75 pass-rushing snaps. He had three sacks in that stretch, too.
Beyond the numbers, Watt's presence is as intimidating as it gets for an offensive tackle, a quarterback and an offensive coordinator. He shifts entire game plans for the opposition. Tight ends and backs are required to chip him instead of running normal routes. Blocking units often must slide in his direction. He's a nightmare for opponents -- psychologically, too.
We do have some precedent for how the Steelers perform without Watt, when, just last year, he missed Week 2 through Week 8 with a torn pectoral muscle. While not the exact group as the 2023 iteration of Pittsburgh's defense, that unit was second to last in expected points added per play. That Watt-less stretch featured a 38-3 loss to the Bills at Orchard Park. Yikes.
And this season, from a clean pocket, Allen has completed 74.1% of his throws (10th highest in football) at 8.0 yards per attempt (12th highest), with a 5.5% big-time throw rate (eighth) and a 1.8% turnover-worthy play rate (12th lowest). His 23 BTTs while kept clean during the regular season was the fifth most in football.
Alex Highsmith is one of the best "No. 2" outside rushers in football, and rookie Nate Herbig has flashed -- including a game-ending strip sack against the Ravens in Week 18 -- in his limited action around the corner this season. Minkah Fitzpatrick is likely back this week.
But no Watt is a crushing loss to the Steelers' defensive capabilities, especially on the road, in the playoffs, against one of the game's most dynamic quarterbacks.
Buffalo's defense started in the typical form its shown during the Sean McDermott era -- stingy. Then vast injuries stuck, and with new, meant-to-be backups thrust into key roles, the Bills defense was borderline unrecognizable, ranking 27th in EPA per play allowed from the start of Week 5's game in London against the Jaguars through the 37-34 overtime loss in Philadelphia in Week 12.
Since returning from the Week 13 bye week, the Bills defense rediscovered itself. The unit is third in the NFL in explosive pass plays (20-plus yards) allowed with 10 during the current five-game winning streak.
On downfield throws (20-plus yards in the air), starting in Week 14, the Buffalo secondary has surrendered a 37.5 passer rating (second best in the NFL), and the Bills are the only defense in the NFL to not allow a touchdown on such throws in that time frame.
Altogether, from Week 14 to Week 18, Buffalo's defense had the seventh-best EPA per play allowed in football.
The key to the transformation -- my guess, anyway -- is the depth that found itself out of position often early on, has settled into their respective roles, and the group has become a jelled group with pieces that understand how to work well off each other. Even in the regular-season finale against the Dolphins, Buffalo's defense lost backup-turned-run-stopping extraordinaire linebacker Tyrel Dodson and takeaway machine Rasul Douglas.
No sweat -- second-year backer Baylon Spector stepped up, made some plays and wily veteran Dane Jackson filled in for Douglas with three tackles and a pass breakup as the Bills put the clamps on the Dolphins electric offense in the second half.
The Steelers have hit at least one long passing play in each of their last three games. Mason Rudolph is 4 of 9 for 181 yards with one touchdown and zero interceptions on throws with 20 or more air yards. Also, they've generated nine pass plays of 20 or more yards.
Buffalo's defense under McDermott is predicated on not allowing big plays, and after a midseason lull, the deep group is back to its stingy ways, which will be integral in the Bills winning this game to move on to the divisional round of the postseason.