Well, the Buffalo Bills’ 2021 campaign got off to an inauspicious start as they suffered a disappointing and frustrating loss in their home opener to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 23-16.
Expectations were sky-high for this team as many analysts and experts had picked the Bills to either go to or win the Super Bowl, with Josh Allen winning league MVP or some combination of those things. However, the games are played on the field and not at the desk and the Bills found out what it’s like to have the target firmly on their backs.
Let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room and the dirtiest word in Buffalo when it comes to Josh Allen: regression. There was a lot of talk about this after Allen signed his gargantuan contract extension, with analysts saying that he was statistically due to having some regression while the most ardent supporters dubbed him “regression proof” and pointed to the statistical anomaly that was his 2020 season as evidence that the data indicators aren’t always correct.
Critics and fans all over social media were quick to jump on his performance in this game as evidence that the Bills overpaid for a QB who had one good season and was never truly elite. One game is hardly a big enough sample size to reach that conclusion, but the simple truth is Allen didn’t play well on Sunday. His TD pass to Gabriel Davis to close out the first half was a great one, but his performance didn’t live up to some very lofty expectations. However, the knee-jerk reactions have been over-dramatic.
Allen went 30/51 passing for 270-yards and 1-TD, adding 9-carries for 44-yards. The QBR (40.7) and passer rating (79.7) were both pretty ugly but he didn’t throw any picks, although he fumbled twice and lost one of those on one-of-three Pittsburgh sacks. This wasn’t an MVP-like performance in the slightest, but it’s far from any evidence of regression. Had the Bills won the game, I doubt the conversation even takes place. Just for context, when the Bills beat the Steelers 26-15 last season, Allen went 24/43 for 2-TDs, 1-INT, 28-yards rushing, and a fumble. The only real conclusion you can come to from the stats is that the Pittsburgh defense is pretty darn good, they learned from their previous encounters and showed up ready to play. Give credit where credit is due.
If you followed along last season, you’ll know that I was very critical of Offensive Coordinator Brain Daboll’s play-calling in regards to game management and situational awareness, especially when it came to closing out games. Time and time again last season, he left the door open and I said it was only a matter of time until a good team makes him pay for it. The Colts damn near did in the Divisional Round of the playoffs last season, so it’s unfortunately not surprising to see the Steelers capitalize. Daboll was (and still is) so heavily praised for what he has been able to do with the Bills’ offense, I often feel like his game strategy goes overlooked.
When I saw that Zack Moss was listed as inactive but not on the injury report I immediately thought, “Well, I guess they are planning on throwing a lot”. That’s particularly concerning because the offensive line signings and the addition of Matt Breida to the backfield indicate that General Manager Brandon Beane understands the value of a run game and looked at it like a key piece of the recipe that was missing during the AFC Championship game against the Chiefs last season. However, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.
Daboll is a pass-first OC and that’s okay. It has worked well the majority of his time in Buffalo, but there come times during the course of a game where adjustments need to be made. On Sunday, he dialed up at least 55-passing plays to only 15-run plays for their backs. There were a couple of designed QB runs in there, but the unbalanced approach allowed the Steelers’ pass rush to do what they do best, get after the passer, and that resulted in 3-sacks, 1-strip fumble, and 5-holding penalties on the Bills’ offensive line. A lot of blame has been placed on the shoulders of the O-line and that’s to be expected but you’re asking a lot of them when throwing it 80% of the time, especially with T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward across the line of scrimmage.
What’s more frustrating, for me, is that Devin Singletary was having success and the best drive in the second half was the one where he was featured. Motor had 11-touches for 72-yards with a long of 25-yards. That’s 6.5-yards-per-carry! Sure, he fumbled twice but Buffalo maintained possession on both of those. My problem is that Daboll didn’t try to establish the run game until the Bills were already trailing. His refusal to run the ball, especially with a touchdown lead in the second half, is immensely frustrating and contributed to Buffalo blowing a two-score lead to start the second half.
I mentioned situational awareness and game management earlier and this is what I’m talking about. Up 10-3, after the Steelers kicked a field goal to open the second half, Daboll comes out throwing again. Allen went 3/8 on the 12-play drive but a couple of running plays mixed had the Bills in FG range. Rather than opting to go for the 10-pt lead on a 52-yard try for Tyler Bass, who demonstrated last season that it’s well within his range, they threw on 4th & 8 and turned the ball over on downs. Pittsburgh would take the ensuing drive and convert the FG to make it 10-6. After that, you’d think “lesson learned” but you’d be wrong.
Getting the ball back as the 3rd quarter was winding down, the Bills came out throwing once again but added some runs in there and got into Steelers’ territory to start the 4th-qtr. Facing a 4th & 1 at the Pittsburgh 41, they hand off to Breida who loses 7-yds on the play. The Steelers still needed a TD to take the lead and the Bills’ defense was playing fantastic, so just punt the damn ball. I get that maybe a 58-yd field goal try is a little outside Bass’ sweet spot, but asking your speed-back to pick up power-yardage was a tactical mistake. And if you’re going to go for it there, and you insist on running, play your best hand and let Allen do his thing. Pittsburgh used the short field and soft pass interference call against Levi Wallace to get the go-ahead TD on a very nice play by Diontae Johnson, once again on Wallace. Levi had a rough go of it there down the stretch and the Steelers keyed in on him.
It was only 13-10 and still very much a winnable game, but the momentum had officially swung in Pittsburgh’s favor. Naturally, the Bills came out throwing but Allen’s timing was off the whole game and he took a sack deep in his own territory to go 3 & out. That led to the punt-block return-TD for the Steelers which made it a two-score game inside the final 10-minutes.
It still wasn’t mathematically over, but the Bills needed to score and quickly. Buffalo would drive it down to the Pittsburgh 7-yard line and opt to kick the field goal to make it 20-13. Wait…what? You wouldn’t try a long FG to make it a two-score game when you were ahead but, down by 10-pts, with 5-minutes left in the game, at your opponents’ 7-yard line, now you want to be conservative and kick a FG? Seriously, what? Those situations are on head coach Sean McDermott’s shoulders, not Daboll’s, and he got almost every one of them wrong on Sunday. Anyway, after playing really well the whole game the Bills defense couldn’t get the stop on the next Pittsburgh possession and the Steelers tacked on a FG to basically wrap it up. Buffalo mustered a desperation FG and onside kick attempt but it was over.
The biggest takeaway is that the underestimated defense really played well and the vaunted offense let them down. Like I mentioned earlier, I give credit to the Steelers. They showed up as underdogs, ready to play, with a chip on their shoulders and Mike Tomlin had the Bills well-scouted. Despite not playing well on offense, this was still a winnable game for Buffalo and they are going to have to take a hard look at what went wrong in Week 1. I still believe in the leadership of this squad and it’s a long season, but things are different when you’re the hunted and you’re playing with expectations of being great around your next.
Performance Grade: C-
The Bills head to Miami to take on the Dolphins who sit atop the AFC East after holding onto a 1-pt victory over the New England Patriots. Josh Allen is 5-1 against the Dolphins so far in his career, including sweeping Miami the last two seasons. The Fins were a 10-win team last season but missed the playoffs as the Bills obliterated them in the final game of the regular season. Miami is surely looking for payback and to establish themselves as the top team in the AFC East, but the Bills need a statement game of their own. It’s going to be a very important divisional game early in the season.