Sullivan: 10 thoughts from the Bills’ Week 1 loss to Steelers

Buffalo Bills

Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) is pressured by Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Melvin Ingram (8) during the first half of an NFL football game in Orchard Park, N.Y., Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)

The Bills were upset by the Steelers, 23-16, in the season opener on Sunday at Highmark Stadium, falling under .500 for the first time since the end of the 2018 season. 

As Jordan Poyer reminded the media as he left the post-game press conference, this is no time for panic. There are 16 games left. History shows that NFL openers are often an unreliable indication of how a team’s fortunes are destined to unfold. 

Tampa Bay lost its opener a year ago and won the Super Bowl. The Colts lost last year’s opener to Jacksonville and went to the playoffs. The Jaguars lost their next 15 games and wound up with the first pick in the draft.

Still, the loss creates a minor sense of urgency for Sean McDermott’s squad. The Bills need to bounce back in Miami next Sunday or fall two games back of the Dolphins in the AFC East. If that happened, people might really start to worry. 

Here are 10 observations from the opening week:

1. The Bills need more balance on offense. No one wants them to revert back to the drought years, when they attempted the fewest passes in the league over a 15-year period. But the Bills have to be more productive in the running game to take pressure off quarterback Josh Allen.

Allen attempted a career-high 51 passes against Pittsburgh and completed 30 for only 270 yards. He had just one completion of more than 16 yards and averaged a measly 5.3 yards per throw on the day. The running backs had just 15 rushing attempts. 

The Steelers rushed only four, or even three, men for much of the day, dropping back into coverage and conceding the shorter throws. It worked, as Allen wasn’t able to make big plays down the field and twice missed badly on deep throws. He targeted wideout Stefon Diggs 14 times and got just 69 yards out of it. 

Some people are happy if the Bills pass on every down. But it might have been a good idea for offensive coordinator Brian Daboll to spread the offense at times against those light fronts and attack Pittsburgh’s defense with the run and keep them honest. Enough of the cute stuff!

Granted, most teams don’t have the talent to disrupt the passing game with only four rushers. But other teams will copy Pittsburgh’s defensive game plan and it’s up to the Bills to adjust and make teams respect their running attack. 

General manager Brandon Beane said during the offseason that the Bills needed a more complementary offense. He can’t have been pleased with what he saw in the opener.

2. The defense was good enough. Yes, they gave up four scoring drives in the second half. But the Buffalo D was dominant in the first half and more than good enough to win if the defense had an even average day.

Leslie Frazier’s crew continued a 2020 trend of shutting teams down in opening halves. The Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger had just 54 yards in the first half and punted on five straight possessions. 

In the last 10 games of the regular season a year ago, the Bills gave up more than 10 points in a first half only once. They allowed only eight total touchdowns in first halves. They need to take the ball away, but if they play the way they did Sunday, they can be a top five D. 

3. Pass blocking is an issue. Allen has compensated for some shaky protection with his legs at times, but the blocking simply wasn’t good enough against Pittsburgh’s supremely talented front four. 

The Bills had six holding penalties, four of them accepted. After the game, I asked McDermott if a team that plans to throw the ball more than 40 times a game can afford all the holding calls. 

“Unacceptable,” he replied. “Yeah, you can’t beat yourself. Let’s just start there.”

4. Read between the lines. When it was pointed out that the Steelers got a lot of pressure rushing only four men, McDermott didn’t shy away from the issue.

“They rushed three at times, even,” he said. “I’ve got to look at that, and I think I already know where I’m at on it. But I’ve got to look at that, and adjustments need to be made.”

Do you suppose he might be suggesting his team should run more against four-man fronts?

5. Gabriel Davis should get more snaps. Davis had the team’s only long reception, a 37-yarder, and the lone TD on a 3-yard toss from Allen. He continues to be remarkably productive for the time he’s on the field.

Davis had 35 catches for 599 yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie, despite being targeted only 62 times. He was on the field for fewer than half the offensive snaps against the Steelers. 

The Bills played more four-wide sets than all but one NFL team last season, so there are a lot of opportunities for the No. 4 guy. But if Davis continues to play this way, he’ll demand more time. Maybe he’ll eventually cut into Cole Beasley’s targets. 

6. Ed Oliver was a beast. The Bills expect Oliver to blossom in his third NFL season, and the defensive tackle was a force against Pittsburgh. He had a huge stop for a loss on second-and-1 in the second quarter, had a quarterback hurry and helped limit rookie Najee Harris to 45 yards rushing on 16 carries. 

7. McDermott played it safe. The head coach turned timid in the AFC title game against the Chiefs last year, settling for field goals in a game that begged for touchdowns. 

He showed those tendencies again on Sunday, punting on fourth-and-1 and fourth-and-3 from around midfield in the first half. Perhaps it was warranted, but those calls betrayed a fear of the Steelers’ pass rush and a lack of faith in his reputed MVP candidate, Allen.

8. Haack job. It’s only one game, but Matt Haack’s debut as the punter did not go well. Haack had a punt blocked for a touchdown — only the second time that’s happened in his career — and he had one touchback that wasn’t close. 

The Bills saved money by moving on from last year’s punter, Corey Bojorquez. Haack needs to perform better to justify that decision. 

9. Fitz on the shelf. So much for Ryan Fitzpatrick’s big return to Buffalo in two weeks. Fitzpatrick suffered a hip subluxation against the Chargers on Sunday and will miss multiple weeks — including Washington’s visit to Highmark Stadium on Sept. 26. 

Taylor Heinecke, who has started only one game in his five-year career, took over for Fitz and will likely get the start in Buffalo. 

10. Opening week woes. The Bills weren’t the only team from last year’s AFC playoffs to stumble in the opener. Tennessee, a chic pick to make the Super Bowl, had its shabby defense exposed in a 38-13 home loss to Arizona.

The Colts also lost at home, bowing 28-16 despite Carson Wentz’s return from injury. The Browns blew a 10-point lead and lost to the Chiefs, 33-29. Baker Mayfield had a solid day but threw a brutal interception with Cleveland driving late in the game. 

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