Image Credit: © Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports
The Bills opened the 2021 NFL season on Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers and well, can we get a do over?
The day didn’t start well for Bills fans in Orchard Park. Traffic into Highmark Stadium was a nightmare – a one-hour drive from home to first beer was two hours or more on Sunday. The crush of fans entering the stadium was as big as on the worst of days. To their credit, the Bills knew it was coming and urged ticket holders to get there early and enter the stadium early. Everyone will know better next time.
Once in the stadium, the fans were ready for a party. The stadium was amped like Monday night against the Cowboys several years ago. The noise as the offense was introduced made it impossible to hear the names of any players being announced. It got louder as Emmanuel Sanders came out of the tunnel, even louder for Beasley, louder still for Diggs, and when Allen appeared, Highmark literally rocked. Fred Jackson asked the fans, “Where would you rather be than right here, right now?” We all knew the answer. By the time Isaiah McKenzie took the opening kickoff back for 75 yards, the fans were in an absolute frenzy.
Then the Bills offense went three and out, settling for a field goal. That was all we needed to know about how the game would go – a lot of noise, then nothing.
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I know it’s a long season, I know there will be ups and downs, I know no one wins them all. Still, is it too much to ask that the team be ready to play when the season starts? 2020 wasn’t a mirage; the Bills actually were a good team. So what happened on Sunday? Josh Allen was human, that’s what happened. He wasn’t sharp. He threw some short balls into the dirt, he missed guys deep, he threw into tight coverage where there was little or no hope. He made multiple bad cuts on designed runs. He fumbled twice.
Ben Roethlisberger was the better quarterback on Sunday, consistently shrugging off tacklers to make plays, consistently throwing more accurately than Allen. Ben’s showed Allen how MVPs win games.
Josh didn’t play like MVP candidate, and Brian Daboll didn’t coach like a head-coaching candidate. It’s axiomatic in the NFL that whatever worked for you last season is not going to work so well this season. Why? Because the other coaches are as smart as you are, and they aren’t going to continue to get beat by last year’s offense.
The Steelers had all summer to look at film of the 2020 Bills passing game, and they didn’t waste the opportunity. The Steelers completely blanketed the Bills’ mid-range passing game; those deadly 15- to 25-yard completions that Josh dropped on defenses all last season were gone. Allen found Diggs and Sanders on out patterns that looked nice but can’t be the staple of any offense, and he found Beasley over the middle on classic short balls. Too many of those completions resulted in the receivers getting pounded by Steelers. Not much of what worked in 2020 was working in the first half on Sunday, and nothing changed in the second half. Daboll’s offense was flat on Sunday, and he didn’t know what to do about it.
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The Bills weren’t horrible, just not good enough to win the kind of games championship teams win. Ed Oliver was the slashing defensive tackle the Bills hoped he would be when they drafted him. Micah Hyde made tackles all over the field, and he had one spectacular pass defensed. Tre’Davious White shone. Gabriel Davis’s touchdown catch was even better than Allen’s throw. Singletary worked hard and took advantage of the holes the offensive line gave him.
It was very much a field position game. Up and down the stat sheet, the Bill’s won the statistical battle, but the Bills kept giving Pittsburgh short fields, and the Steelers took advantage. McDermott’s decision to go for it on 4th and 8 instead of punting or trying the field goal gave the Steelers a short field and a field goal. Then, on fourth and one the Bills tried a modest trick play and failed – if your man can’t execute the block, don’t run the play. Pittsburgh got a short field and a touchdown. And then the blocked punt, the instant change of field position, ended the game. The Bills defense, which played well enough, needed to be a little better.
At the end of the day, what bothered me most was Josh Allen’s body language when he began the final drive with a couple of incompletions. A Steelers fan behind me kept saying, “it’s not over, it’s not over,” but Allen’s body language said it was. He was lackadaisical coming back to the huddle, had a “whatever” kind of manner about him, as though he was mailing in the last few plays. Sanders had a false start, as if he didn’t care too much, either. Diggs strolled back to the line of scrimmage. Then Motor popped a couple of runs, and the Bills seemed to have a last gasp in them. Alas, Allen had no magic, and the Bills lost.
It’s a long season, there will be ups and downs, no one wins them all. Still, it would have been nice if the Bills hadn’t spoiled their own party. They have plenty of work to do.
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