The Steelers opened the 2019 season getting bent over 33-3 by the Patriots (10-3); beaten by the Seahawks (10-3) 28-26 at home and; then suffering a come-from-behind 24-20 defeat in San Francisco to the 49ers (11-2). Hindsight offers the understanding of just how difficult a schedule this was. Brady threw for 373 and no picks against Pittsburgh in Week 1, and Wilson threw for 330 and no picks in Week 2. Between the San Fran and Seattle games, the Steelers picked up Minkah Fitzpatrick from the Dolphins. To put in simply: Fitzpatrick made a difference. Since acquiring him, Pittsburgh has intercepted more passes (18) than any other defense, and surrendered exactly zero games of 300 yards passing. Not to put too fine a point on it but in Weeks 1 and 2 the Steelers recorded four sacks total. Since then they've recorded a league-leading 44, due much in part to QBs needing to hold the ball longer, enabling TJ Watt and crew to run buckshot in the backfield. All told, the Steel Curtain has been, at least to a reasonable extent, restored.
If Pittsburgh is going to move to 9-5 and assume the lead of the first AFC Wild Card spot from their Week 15 opponents from Buffalo, it's going to be because the waving Terrible Towels spur on that once-again nasty Pittsburgh D. More specifically, TJ Watt is going to need to live in the backfield while Fitzpatrick stalks the secondary, accumulating sacks and forcing turnovers, respectively. If the Steel Curtain is firing on all cylinders, then all Duck needs to do under center is not lay an egg.
Speaking of the Duck (Devlin Hodges), in his four starts since taking over for Mason Rudolph, Hodges' numbers stand at a modest 153.5YPG, 4TDs and 2 picks. Though the intensity of Pittsburgh's affection for him may bely it, Duck has a straightforward, very unsexy job: don't fuck shit up.
The path to a Week 15 victory is a little bit different for Pittsburgh's Sunday night visitors, though.
Through Week 4, Buffalo's Josh Allen turned the ball over eight times, six times through the air and twice by fumbling. For anyone paying attention, the 16-10 loss to the Patriots in which Allen threw three picks, two of which were jaw-droppingly bad, the young quarterback learned a thing or two about game management from watching Tom Brady. It was an ugly day for Allen, who ultimately went 13-28, got sacked four times. And it was an ugly day for Brady, too, as he dinked a dunked his way to an 18/39 day for 150 yards, no touchdowns and a pick in the end zone. Brady seemed to throw the ball into the ground to avoid a turnover or a sack more often then he actually tried to hit a receiver in stride, and that seems to have been the very lesson that Allen, sitting on the opposing sideline, needed: live to see another day.
Since then, Allen has thrown two picks and lost two fumbles in nine games. To repate, Allen turned the ball over eight times in the first in the first four weeks, and proceeded to commit only four turnovers in the next nine. Statistics aside, Allen's poise in the pocket and overall decision making have seen marked improvements. What's more, members of the Bills Mafia will agree that OC Brian Daboll's move into the coach's box for Buffalo's 37-20 Week 11 win in Miami has breathed a bit of life into a previously stagnant offense. Eye tests and a win in Dallas aside, Daboll's move really only breathed, again, a bit of life into the offense. The Bills gained a total of nine yards over their first four drives against Baltimore in Week 14, a game they would lose 24-17. If Buffalo starts the same way in Pittsburgh on Sunday, all of the positivity Bills fans have been experiencing this season may abruptly convert into anxiety.
The Bills' offense in ranked 20th in DSR (Drive Success Rate is the rate at which a team records either a first down or touchdown). What adds frustration for Bills fans to this sub-par metric is the fact that Buffalo ranks 10th in average starting field position, which is pretty solid. Moreover, the Bills' defense ranks in the top-5 as regards Yards Per Drive, TOs Per Drive, Plays Per Drive and defensive DSR. This means that the Bills' defense forces a lot of punts and doesn't allow many touchdowns, while the Bills' offense fails to take advantage of good scoring opportunities. Against an aggressive defense like Pittsburgh's, Josh Allen and the offense must find a way to graduate beyond "sub-par" and take advantage of what the Bills' defense provides. That means getting into the red zone more than their average of 2.8 times (27th in the league), and continuing to convert those red zone trips into touchdowns at their 10th-ranked rate of 61%. Allen and Co., in fact, convert greater than 70% of their red zone trips into TDs on the road. At the very least, the chess match between the Pittsburgh defense, which allows TDs on only 51% of opponents' trips to the red zone (8th in the league), and Buffalo's relatively efficient red zone offense will make for tremendous television.
Buffalo can clinch a playoff spot this Sunday night. Buffalo can win 10 games in a season for their fans for the first time since 1999, Andre Reed's last with the team. Buffalo can win in Pittsburgh for the first time since a 24-3 win in the '92-93 Divisional Round. Six days prior, the Bills completed the greatest comeback in NFL history. Buffalo doesn't that kind of magic on Sunday. They just need their OC and QB to sustain some drives and score some fucking touchdowns.