In some respects, the Steelers‘ 2020 season ended in Buffalo in Week 14. A week after suffering their first loss of the season, Pittsburgh’s weaknesses were gleefully exposed by the Bills, who handed the Steelers their second consecutive loss in front of a nationally televised audience. The loss was one of five defeats the Steelers would endure during the final six weeks of a season that ultimately ended with a bitter loss to the Browns in the wild-card round.
Conversely, the Bills’ 26-15 win over the Steelers was part of a seven-game winning streak that didn’t end until Buffalo ran into the defending champion Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game. Buffalo enjoyed an early 9-0 lead in that game before three Patrick Mahomes touchdown passes keyed the Chiefs’ second consecutive Super Bowl berth. The Bills have brought back most of the players who won 14 games a season ago, as 20 of Buffalo’s 22 starters from 2020 will take the field on Sunday.
Both teams are once again vying for playoff positioning in 2021. Buffalo is the odds-on favorite to win a second consecutive AFC East title. The Steelers’ odds to repeat as NFC North champs are not as good, but they are expected to be in the thick of things as far as the playoffs are concerned. With Sunday’s game just around the corner, here’s a deeper dive at both teams as far as a prediction and a key matchup to watch.
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How to watch
When Buffalo has the ball: As noted above, the Bills are bringing back most of their players from last year’s 15-win team. The biggest difference on offense is the addition of Emmanuel Sanders, who Mike Tomlin lauded during his weekly press conference. Pittsburgh’s third-round pick way back in 2010, Sanders will look to complement Stefon Diggs and Gabriel Davis. The onus of Buffalo’s passing attack will continue to revolve around Diggs, who earned All-Pro honors during his first season with the Bills. Diggs will be shadowed on Sunday by Steelers cornerback Joe Haden, with Sanders drawing coverage from Cam Sutton, a five-year veteran who has replaced Steven Nelson in the starting lineup. Expect Josh Allen to test Sutton as well as James Pierre, who has replaced Mike Hilton as Pittsburgh’s new nickelback. The Bills will also likely test the middle of the Steelers’ defense with tight end Dawson Knox, who caught four passes in last year’s matchup. The Steelers are hoping that recently-acquired inside linebacker Joe Schobert will help minimize opposing tight ends in 2021.
Devin Singletary is the Bills’ starting running back, but the team is expected to use second-year back Zack Moss and veteran Matt Breida on a consistent basis. Look for the Bills to test the Steelers’ interior defensive line early, as Chris Wormley will fill in for injured veteran Stephon Tuitt at defensive end. Tackles Dion Dawkins and Daryl Williams will have their hands full against Pittsburgh’s pass rushers, led by T.J. Watt, Melvin Ingram and 2020 third-round pick Alex Highsmith. Given Watt’s lack of practice time this summer, expect a significant workload from Ingram, who has shown flashes of his Pro Bowl self since joining the Steelers.
When Pittsburgh has the ball: All eyes will be on Ben Roethlisberger on Sunday as he begins his 18th season. Roethlisberger was bedeviled by dropped passes during December’s loss in Buffalo. Diontae Johnson, the main culprit of those drops, has worked extensively on his hands during the offseason. Roethlisberger will surely give Johnson some opportunities on Sunday. He will also continue to spread the ball around to fellow wideouts Chase Claypool and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Another player to keep an eye on Sunday is rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth, who caught two touchdowns from Roethlisberger during the preseason. Pittsburgh’s receivers will be challenged by Buffalo’s talented defensive backfield, led by cornerback Tre’Davious White and safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde.
Sunday will the regular season debut of Najee Harris, the first running back selected in this year’s draft. While fans can expect to see Benny Snell and Kalen Ballage receive carries Sunday, Harris will receive the bulk of the workload.
It will be interesting to see how often Matt Canada goes after Bills Pro Bowl linebacker Tremaine Edmunds on intermediate routes, something that was a stable of the Steelers’ offense in 2020. Expect to see more pre-snap motion, jet sweeps and bubble screens with Canada calling the shots. The Steelers will also be out to prove that Big Ben’s deep ball is as potent as ever.
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Biggest matchup to watch
The Steelers’ revamped offensive line will have to win their share of plays against the Bills’ veteran defensive line, a group that is led by Jerry Hughes, Ed Oliver, Star Lotulelei and Mario Addison. Last season, the trio of Hughes, Addison and Oliver combined to record 12.5 sacks, 17 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles. The Steelers will have two rookies starting on their offensive line in left tackle Dan Moore Jr. and center Kendrick Green. Chukwuma Okorafor has moved back from left to right tackle, while second-year lineman Kevin Dotson remains at left guard. Five-time Pro Bowler Trai Turner was signed in July to replace David DeCastro at right guard. What this unit lacks in experience they are hoping to make up for in physicality.
As witnessed in the preseason, this unit will give up some negative plays. Whether or not they can keep those plays to a minimum while keeping Roethlisberger relatively healthy will likely help determine the outcome in not only this game but throughout Pittsburgh’s 2021 season.
Latest Odds: Pittsburgh Steelers +6.5
Caesars Sportsbook has tabbed the Bills as a 6.5 favorite while the over/under is now 48.5. While they only combined to score 41 points in last year’s meeting, I expect the two teams to exceed 50 points on Sunday. The weather will be better than it was on that December night, and both teams have since added significant weapons to their skill positions. As far as picking a winner, I’ll go with the Bills. They’re playing at home, and given their continuity and the Steelers’ questions on the offensive line and in the secondary, Buffalo is the much safer pick. Look for Allen to take advantage of a Steelers secondary that is still figuring each other out. But if the Steelers’ offense can stay out of too many third-and-long situations, Roethlisberger and company may keep things interesting. And as you can see below, I have a feeling that both teams’ red zone offenses will surely not be in midseason form.
Bills 30, Steelers 23