Some think the Buffalo Bills have amazingly improved over the past several games. Meanwhile, critics merely credit the sudden turnaround to facing NFL punching bags Detroit and Cincinnati over the past two weeks. We’ll learn unquestionably if the Bills development is genuine or a sham this afternoon when they face the Pittsburgh Steelers at a sold-out Ralph Wilson Stadium.
After a substandard 2009, the Steelers (7-3) are back among the NFL’s elite teams. They possess the fifth-ranked defense in the league and although many consider him the king of douchebaggery, Ben Roethlisberger is leading an offense that’s showing more potency with each game.
Buffalo (2-8) can earn itself reverence in league circles if they can upend Pittsburgh or at the very least play them down to the wire. Even before the Bills current two-game winning streak, they lost three straight games by a field goal, all against playoff contenders Baltimore, Kansas City and Chicago.
Entering this contest there’s two stats that pop off the page; No one can run on the Steelers… and the Bills are the polar opposite. Pittsburgh is the best in the league at stopping the run, allowing just 63.1 yards per game. Conversely, the Bills are dead last in run defense, surrendering 163.5 yards per game.
For those mathematically challenged, that’s a difference of over 100 yards every Sunday.
The stats are anything but pleasant news for Bills running back Fred Jackson, who’s been sensational over the past two games. Jackson has run for 249 yards and accounted for four touchdowns over the past two Bills games, both wins. It’s highly unlikely he’ll find success on the ground against Pittsburgh and it doesn’t help that starting right guard Eric Wood won’t be in the lineup. His knee injury forces former Steeler Kraig Urbik into a starting role.
To steal a quote from Will Ferrell George W. Bush, the Bills “strategery” will live and die against Pittsburgh on the arm of Ryan Fitzpatrick.
It came out of nowhere but unpredictably Fitzpatrick has become one of the league’s true feel-good stories. All he’s done in eight starts is throw for 1,961 yards and 18 touchdowns (nine interceptions).
He’s on pace to throw for 30 touchdowns. Only once in franchise history has a Bills quarterback thrown for more than 30; Jim Kelly tossed 33 in 1991. Joe Ferguson is second in franchise history with 26 touchdown passes in 1983.
A principal reason Fitzpatrick has had a lot of success is the continual materialization of Steve Johnson. The unheralded star has 52 receptions this season for an AFC sixth-best 728 yards and nine touchdowns, tied for second-best in the conference.
He’s just two touchdowns catches away from tying Bill Brooks team record of 11, set in 1995. The most touchdowns Andre Reed or Eric Moulds ever caught in a season during their storied careers were 10.
Of course, Fitzpatrick may spend an abundance of time running for his life against a vaunted Steelers defense. Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison, James Farrior and Lamar Woodley form arguably the league’s best linebacking tandem, and Troy Polamalu is no slouch at safety either. Harrison leads the Steelers with nine sacks while Woodley has seven.
As a team, Pittsburgh is second in the NFL with 30 sacks. Buffalo has exactly half that at 15, good for just 29th in the league.
When the Steelers have the ball, running back Rashad Mendenhall is sure to carry a heavy workload. Mendenhall has run for 811 yards and scored eight rushing touchdowns this season. He’s been held to less than 100 yards rushing in four straight games; a number that’ll be hard for the Bills to make a five-peat.
When Roethlisberger takes to the air his new favorite target has become Mike Wallace. The third round pick from 2009 is tied with Hines Ward for the team lead with 33 catches and is fifth in the AFC with 759 receiving yards and a mind-boggling 23 yards per catch average.
Roethlisberger has played well since coming back from a four-game suspension to start the season. He’s thrown 12 touchdown passes and only four interceptions this season and has an AFC third-best passer rating of 101.9.
Even though the Steelers are the road team, expect plenty of support at the Ralph this afternoon from the Steelers faithful. From what I’ve seen around town over the past 24 hours, the black and gold will be well represented in the crowd.
Although the Bills are at or near the bottom of nearly every statistical category, the unit has played better of late. Buffalo has not surrendered more than 105 team rushing yards in their last two games and for the first time this season, they’re doing a decent job of covering tight ends in the passing game.
They even got their first two interceptions of the season from the secondary last week in Cincinnati when George Wilson and Drayton Florence picked off Carson Palmer. Florence also returned a Cedric Benson fumble for a touchdown for the Bills lone defensive score of the season.
Injuries could be a problem for the Bills. Besides Wood, defensive end Spencer Johnson has been ruled out for today’s game. C.J. Spiller is questionable with a hamstring injury, but it didn’t sound likely from Chan Gailey that Spiller would play. Cornerback Terrence McGee (knee) is also questionable.
Polamalu (strained Achilles) and defensive end Brett Keisel are questionable for Pittsburgh. Tight end Matt Spaeth (concussion) is doubtful while receiver Antonio Brown (knee) has been ruled out.
Team two teams have met 19 times during their existences, with the Steelers holding an 11-8 all-time advantage and have won three straight. The teams last met in 2007 in week two at Pittsburgh, with the Steelers coming out on top, 26-3.
The last time the Bills were victorious over Pittsburgh was 1999 when the Bills won at home, 24-21 behind three Doug Flutie touchdown passes.
After this the Bills travel to Minnesota to face Brett Favre and the Vikings next Sunday.