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Well, that didn’t go exactly as planned.
The reigning AFC East champion Buffalo Bills, coming off the franchise’s best season since the 1990s, opened the 2021 NFL season with a most unexpected loss. Buffalo hosted a Pittsburgh Steelers team that was supposed to struggle on offense with four new offensive line starters and a rookie running back. Head coach, Mike Tomlin’s team, did struggle, but they also overcame.
Down 10-0 heading into the second half, Steelers veteran QB Ben Roethlisberger would lead two long scoring drives. Both would result in field goals, but Pittsburgh was able to keep the game close, 10-6, as the game went to the fourth quarter.
It was the fourth quarter where the Steelers would overcome. They would overcome a running game that produced just 75 yards. They would overcome a performance by Roethlisberger that was far from even “good.” The Pittsburgh quarterback’s rating for the day? A relatively poor 29.0.
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The fourth quarter would end with another huge play from the Steelers defense. Facing a fourth-and-one at the Pittsburgh 41, Cameron Sutton tackled Matt Breida for a seven-yard loss. That prompted the Pittsburgh offense to put together a four-play, 52-yard scoring drive capped by a great catch by WR Diontae Johnson. Roethlisberger hit Johnson in the left corner of the end zone to give Pittsburgh its first lead of the game at 13-10.
Then, the Steelers delivered a brutal body blow. Buffalo got backed up in its own territory on the ensuing kickoff. Three plays netted minus-2 yards for the Bills and forced Buffalo to punt. Punting from their own 23, Pittsburgh’s Miles Killebrew broke through and blocked Matt Haack’s punt. Ulysses Gilbert recovered the ball and ran it into the end zone for the touchdown. Pittsburgh went ahead 20-10 with 9:45 to play.
The Bills actually appeared to be in control of the game from the start. Buffalo and QB Josh Allen took the opening kickoff and turned it into three points. Isaiah McKenzie returned the opening kickoff 75 yards to the Pittsburgh 24-yard line. What happened next should have been a sign of what was to come.
The Pittsburgh defense, one of the best in the NFL in 2020, proved that it will be one of the best in the league again in 2021. Buffalo’s first drive of the game produced five yards before Tyler Bass kicked a 37-yard field goal to open the game’s scoring.
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Buffalo would not score again until their final drive of the first half. Pittsburgh had six first-half drives – five if you disregard the one-play, one-yard drive that ended the half – that produced five punts and no points. The Bills would score on a three-yard pass from Allen to WR Gabriel Davis with just 22 seconds remaining in the half. The score gave Buffalo a 10-0 lead.
After the blocked punt touchdown for Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Allen would put together two scoring drives. One covered 67 yards in nine plays. The other was a 10-play, 40-yard drive that, like the first, resulted in a field goal. The pair of scores cut Pittsburgh’s lead to 23-16, but with under a minute to play after the second field goal, it was just too little, too late for the Bills.
Allen would finish the game 30-of-51 for 270 yards and one touchdown. He was sacked three times by the Pittsburgh defense, twice by T.J. Watt, who had just become the NFL’s highest-paid defender last week. The Bills were also able to run the football gaining 117 yards on 25 carries. Devin Singletary led Buffalo with 72 yards on 11 carries. The Bills averaged 4.7 yards per carry.
Pittsburgh struggled to run the football, gaining just 75 yards total and averaging 3.6 yards per carry. The Steelers are trying to get used to a new offense, and it showed. Roethlisberger was out of sync and the running game, led by rookie Najee Harris, was far from perfect.
Pittsburgh’s defense came up big with play after play. The Steelers stuffed the Bills on three fourth-down attempts. Buffalo also suffered the game’s only turnover, a fumble by QB Josh Allen. The fumble was caused by Watt, the 18th caused fumbled of his NFL career.
The Bills were the early favorite to win the AFC East again in 2021. Pittsburgh was not among the favorites to win the AFC Central. The Steelers will have their home opener next Sunday as they host the Las Vegas Raiders. The Bills will travel to Miami in Week 2.
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