Josh Allen struggles, Bills receive gut punch in 23-16 opening loss to Steelers

by 24USATVSept. 13, 2021, 3 a.m. 24
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ORCHARD PARK – Well, this might be a really good time for Bills Mafia to pump the brakes on making those Super Bowl reservations.

The Buffalo Bills, a trendy pick by many to not only win the AFC East (seemingly a given for most prognosticators) but also win the AFC and even Super Bowl 56, are 0-1 after a tremendously lame offensive performance which led to a 23-16 defeat at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

One of the hot button topics heading into this season of high expectations was how would the Bills handle playing every game this season with a glowing target on their collective back? One week in, I’d have to say not very well.

“This is the National Football League,” said safety Micah Hyde. “We’re going to get everybody’s best regardless. It doesn’t matter if you went to the AFC Championship Game or not, you’re going to get everybody’s best.”

There’s truth in that, obviously. But whether Hyde or any of the Bills want to admit it or not, they’re going to generally get a better shot than, say the Jets or Jaguars are going to get from an opponent and on this day the Bills weren’t nearly capable of surviving the repetitive body blows that Pittsburgh delivered.

We must start with the offense because let’s face it, after what Josh Allen and his cohorts did in 2020, we all thought they would just pick up where they left off and keep rolling over defenses.

Maybe that will start next week in Miami, but the Steelers defense – which I said all week was going to give the Bills trouble – laid out a blueprint for the Dolphins and others to follow. Rush with four against what looked like a terribly inept offensive line, cover with seven, and Allen suddenly becomes human.

Coach Sean McDermott holds his tongue very well after every game, win or lose, but he was clearly perturbed by the play of the line which allowed three sacks, numerous pressures, and drew six holding penalties, two of which were declined because the Steelers didn’t need to accept based on the result of the play.

“I’ve got to look at that and I think I already know where I'm at on it, but I got to look at that and adjustments need to be made,” McDermott said.

Read between the lines on that comment and I think it clearly states that he’ll be looking to make changes. What those might be, I’m not sure because really, what’s he going to do? It’s not like he can play not-ready-for-primetime rookie tackle Spencer Brown in place of left tackle Dion Dawkins who was flat out awful with three holds.

Cody Ford and Ike Boettger shared right guard, but neither of them was nailed for holding, so maybe Boettger replaces Jon Feliciano who played the role of a turnstile much of the day and had one holding penalty.

Is all-purpose Ryan Bates an option at center in place of Mitch Morse? I can’t see how that makes anything better.

This is a big problem early on for the Bills because if the line play doesn’t improve, the offense is going to sputter, even with an MVP-level quarterback who has an arsenal of weapons at his disposal.

“I think kudos to them,” Morse said of the Steelers. “They came out and we just put ourselves in bad situations, whether it be communication or technique. We know we have a special guy, No. 17, back there, and it’s our job no matter what the play call is to keep him as clean as possible. And as an offensive line, we know we didn’t do that as well as we could. The great thing about offensive line is you win as an offensive line, all five guys, and you lose as an offensive line, all five guys, so it’ll be a great opportunity to learn a lot of stuff from this game.”

Clearly the line let Allen down, but Allen bears some of the responsibility for Buffalo scoring only one touchdown. The simple truth is that he wasn’t very good. Even when he had time to throw, he was spraying the ball all over the place, he made a few poor decisions, and he did not look like he played with any confidence once the Steelers began really clamping down on his receivers.

He claimed he wasn’t pressing, saying, “Certain situations in the game, you've got to figure out how to get some things going. We didn't have everything today.”

The most glaring thing he didn’t have was downfield success. He completed only pass longer than 20 yards, a 37-yarder to Gabriel Davis on the Bills’ only touchdown drive late in the first half. Beyond that, his longest completion was 16 yards.

He missed Emmanuel Sanders twice on deep balls that, if on target, might have been touchdowns. “You can’t expect to beat a good football team beating yourself,” Allen said. “It’s not going to work out very well. They had a good plan, they executed well. A lot to learn from this tape, honestly starting with me. Early on, just being maybe a little too aggressive instead of just finding some easier things. But you know, hats off. That's a really good team. They had a really good plan today.”

As bad as the offense was, the Bills took a 10-6 lead into the fourth quarter because the defense was playing very well. But trouble began in the third quarter when Ben Roethlisberger executed two lengthy drives to field goals, and then in the fourth, the defense could not protect a short field set up by a horrible fourth-down failure by Buffalo, and it quickly gave up the go-ahead touchdown.

And then, after the special teams chipped in some horror with a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown and a 20-10 Pittsburgh lead, the defense again failed when it allowed the Steelers to answer a Bills field goal with one of its own to make it 23-13 with 2:42 to go.

“Once they got the momentum, we couldn’t stop it,” said Hyde. “They had a blocked punt for a touchdown, the momentum kept rolling. They were moving the ball a little bit better on offense, they weren’t able to do it in the first half. They made some adjustments and we were not able to execute right. I think penalties hurt us, too, and from there we just couldn’t stop their momentum.”

On the bright side, there’s 16 more games to go, and the Patriots and Jets also lost. The Bills were not good Sunday, but this is a talented team that should be able to correct most of the problems that arose and move forward.

But more than anything, this gut punch needs to serve as an early wakeup call for the Bills.

“We understand we’re a good football team and we’re a better football team than what we showed today,” said safety Jordan Poyer. “The best thing that we can do is learn from our mistakes today and continue to grow as a football team. We’ve got a lot of football left in the season. This is Week 1. I don’t want to go into it, y’all make it seem like we damn lost the Super Bowl or something. That was a good football team and we didn’t play well enough to win. But the best thing that we can do now is watch the tape tomorrow and learn from it and bounce back next week.”

Sal Maiorana can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.

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