105.5 The Team – With four games to go the Bills know they need to win out to have a realistic shot at making the playoffs and end their 17-year playoff drought. It certainly isn’t an easy task, but Buffalo did rattle off four straight wins earlier this season – albeit against the Patriots with a third-string quarterback then three miserable teams – and the first three of these final four games will be played at home.
It all starts with this weekend’s meeting against the 7-5 Pittsburgh Steelers, a team that has certainly underwhelmed at times this season, particularly on the road, but are red hot of of late after three straight wins over the Browns, Colts and Giants. In games against common opponents as Buffalo, Pittsburgh has gone 2-3 including victories over the Bengals and Jets and losses to the Dolphins, Patriots and Ravens. What makes the Steelers so scary is the weapons they have on offense. Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Ben Roethlisberger calling the shots under center; they also recently returned TE Ladarius Green, who had over 100 receiving yards and his first TD of the season last week. Believe it or not though, the Bills are actually outscoring the Steelers by more than a point per game (25.4 to 24.2). There’s a reason Buffalo is only a three point underdog. Here’s three things they must do however, to pull off the upset.
1) Hold their own in the secondary
Antonio Brown is the league leader in receptions (tied with Larry Fitzgerald with 88) and receiving touchdowns (11), and also fourth in receiving yards (1,072). He’ll creates all kinds of headaches for the Bills defense, but he’s not the only threat the Steelers have in the passing game. Bell can catch passes out of the backfield and is actually second on the team in receiving yards. Tight ends Jesse James and the aforementioned Green are two two big targets in their own right and wideouts Eli Rodgers and Sammy Coates have been consistent contributors as well. While the Bills possess one of the best pass rushing units in the game, pressure will be hard to come by against an offensive line that has only surrendered 16 sacks this season. Not only that but Big Ben is one of the best in the game at extending plays. The Bills secondary has to make sure communication on the back end is strong and coverage downfield is tight or else they’ll get burned the same way they did by Derek Carr a week ago. The return of Ronald Darby from the concussion protocol will certainly help.
2) Tyrod Taylor must silence the critics
Last weekend’s collapse in Oakland has fueled a forest fire of criticisms over the play of Taylor, much of which is warranted. He’s done his best to block it all out – despite showing signs of frustration at the podium during Wednesday’s media day – and has at the very least maintained the support of Rex Ryan, who truly believes Taylor is an “outstanding” quarterback. Ryan has continued to point to the injuries at wide receiver as an excuse for why the Bills passing offense ranks 32nd in the league. That won’t work this weekend. Sammy Watkins will be playing in his third straight game since being activated off the IR and it sounds like Robert Woods will join him after missing the last two games with a knee sprain. Taylor’s got his full arsenal of weapons, a team with a winning record is coming to town and the Bills playoff hopes are weighing in the balance. This is as good of an opportunity as he’ll have to prove he should be the organization’s quarterback moving forward.
All the factors that contributed to last week’s collapse can be categorized as an ineptitude to close games. Really that’s been a common theme during this 16-year playoff drought. Against a Steelers team that has scored their most points (95) in the fourth quarter, closing becomes that much more important. On the flip side the Bills have mustered 73 points in the fourth quarter, their second lowest scoring period, which is two points less than Pittsburgh has allowed in that final stanza all season. The Bills will have to close against the Steelers to have any shot at winning.
It’s no secret that Ben Roethlisberger has been night and day when playing at home, versus on the road. His splits at Heinz Field: a 70.5 completion percentage, 1,636 yards, 17 touchdowns to just three interceptions, an 8.48 average yards per attempt, 327.2 yards per game and a 119.0 passer rating. Conversely, on the road his completion percentage drops by over 10 percentage points to 60.2. He’s thrown for 238 less yards (1,398), only eight touchdowns compared to five interceptions. His average yards per attempt drops by two full yards to 6.47, while his yards per game drops by nearly 100 yards (233.0) and his passer rating is significantly worse at a mark of 81.9. The numbers are very comparable too since he’s played an even six games at home and on the road so far this season. It is worth noting that his last road game – a 28-7 trouncing of the Colts on Thanksgiving – he put up much stronger numbers by tossing three touchdowns and no interceptions, averaged over 11 yards per attempt and posted a 146 passer rating. Surely the Bills defense hopes that game was an anomaly.
There’s a mutual respect between Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore and Steelers wideout Antonio Brown. Gilmore called Brown a “great” receiver earlier this week and said he “wishes” that he could shadow him all over the field on Sunday if the coaches let him. It’s very uncommon in Rex Ryan’s defense for a CB to leave his post on either side of the formation to follow a specific receiver, but whether or not the Bills coaches will give it a shot with Gilmore on Brown is worth keeping an eye on. Based on defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman’s dismissive “You want me to tell you the game plan?” remark when asked about it on Thursday, it certainly sounds like something they’re considering. The matchup between Gilmore and Brown will surely be fun to watch.
Always good when this section is shorter. The only player ruled out at this point is LB Lerentee McCray, who is still in the concussion protocol. Otherwise, five Bills are questionable including TE Charles Clay (knee), T Cordy Glenn (back), DT Kyle Williams (back) and WRs Sammy Watkins (foot) and Robert Woods (knee). Ryan described both Watkins and Woods as “ready to roll” after practice on Friday, which means for the first time since Week 2 Taylor will have the trio of Watkins, Woods and Marquise Goodwin all suiting up together.
Williams absence from practice on Friday has Ryan “very concerned” about his status for the game. Ryan explained that his back seemed to lock up on him at some point Thursday night. That would be a tough loss along the D-line, without question.
For the Steelers, speedy wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey is still dealing with a foot injury and listed as out, as is backup safety Shamarko Thomas with a concussion. Their biggest blow could be starting nose tackle Javon Hargrave, who is listed as doubtful after being in the concussion protocol all week. Also, starting G Ramon Foster didn’t practice practice all week with a chest ailment and was designated as questionable.
You may recall the last time Pittsburgh came to Orchard Park, Buffalo forced overtime with the Steelers and came up a Stevie Johnson dropped flea flicker away from pulling off an upset over the AFC’s eventual Super Bowl representative. Coming into this year’s meeting it’s Big Ben’s road woes that have the Vegas odds makers predicting a close one. Roethlisberger’s career numbers against the Bills aren’t really eye popping outside of his 3-0 record. He’s completed just 60 percent of his passes, thrown for 692 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. The Bills defense was flat out embarrassed last week by that 29 point, second half barrage from Derek Carr and company out in Oakland, and are determined to prove that’s not who they are. Shutting down Roethlisberger and his slew of weapons would certainly make a statement. Easier said than done. If they can at least limit the damage though, because Pittsburgh is going to score, Buffalo could very well have a chance, especially with a healthy set of receivers surrounding Tyrod Taylor. Rex Ryan has continued to advocate for grading Taylor when he has his full arsenal, well he’s got them. There’s no excuse to not perform. Ultimately, my prediction this week comes down to what it did against the Raiders – Buffalo hasn’t proven they can beat good teams unless they’re starting a third string quarterback. Until they convince me otherwise I’ll take the team with the winning record every time. Steelers 30, Bills 21
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