They say week 1 sets the tone for the rest of the season. As the Pittsburgh Steelers travel to face the Buffalo Bills, both franchises who were playoff competitors last season, have a chance to lay down an early marker.
The Steelers will look to repeat the blistering opening that they got off to in the 2020 season. The final remaining undefeated team after starting 11-0. The wheels fell off somewhat after that with only 1 win coming in the next 6 games including a first round playoff exit.
Buffalo on the other hand grew into the season and were one of the hottest hands going into the playoffs. They will be looking to take the next step to overcome the powerhouses of the AFC and this opening contest will be a good measuring stick as to how good they might be.
Quarterbacks at the opposite end of the scales
Both sides have undoubted “franchise” quarterbacks at the helm. The significant difference is that whilst 1 tries to prove he is worthy of a huge new contract, the other is trying to defeat father time.
There can be no denying that Josh Allen was a revelation last season. Rarely do we see such growth from a player between year 2 and year 3. Passing completions were up from 59% to 69%, despite throwing significantly more passes in the 2020 campaign. Touchdowns were also up from 20 to 37, all whilst maintaining the threat on the ground where he scampered home for a further 8 touchdowns. The question now is can he repeat with the pressure of a huge investment weighing on his shoulders?
Big Ben is now the lone survivor from the stellar 2004 quarterback class that also produced Eli Manning and Phillip Rivers. Where as the other 2 have bowed to father time, Ben wants one more crack at it all before he hangs up the cleats himself. Statistically he is still a very good quarterback but the offence will surely need to adapt and move away from an average of 40 passing attempts per game. With that said though he needs just over 3,000 yards on the season to move into the top 5 NFL passers by yardage of all time.
It may be stating the obvious but the play of the quarterbacks for both of these sides will be crucial, not just on the day, but throughout the entire campaign if they have desires on holding the Lombardi trophy.
Can Harris get the ground game going?
If the Steelers are to rely less on Ben’s arm then the shining new toy at running back may well be their best hope. Najee Harris joins the backfield via Alabama fresh of 1,900 all purpose yards and 30 touchdowns in his senior year.
The first running back selected in the 2021 NFL draft will look to propel a running game that averaged a measly 3.6 yards per carry last season. Unsurprisingly this ranked dead last in the league, as did their overall yardage number of 1351 on the season. With James Conner moved on, this now becomes the issue they hope Harris can solve.
A new look offensive line to run behind does raise some concerns. Retirements and releases of established names such as DeCastro and Pouncey leave some big shoes to fill. Kevin Dotson played well in pre season, whilst 2 rookies in Dan Moore jr and Kendrick Green are set to make their professional debuts.
A lot of the off season talk around the Bills has focussed on the Covid-19 vaccine, and the outspoken nature of some in their objections to it. Cole Beasley is of course the main focus here after saying he would rather retire than take the jab and having many a twitter fight (including against his own team mates) with those who disagree.
Beasley quietly put together his best season of his long career to date last time out and paired with Stefon Diggs formed a great 1-2 punch. Diggs shone in his debut Bills campaign and will look to cement himself as one of the games best at the position. Emmanuel Sanders brings further depth and experience to the room, whilst at tight end Dawson Knox seemingly is always threatening to break out.
Similar to Pittsburgh, questions come in the ground game where leading rusher Devin Singletary could only muster 156 carries a year ago. This is clearly a passing offence.
The Bills undoubtedly open up as favourites for this one but history should tell you to never write of the Steelers. Buffalo being 6.5 points favourite feels probably about right however I would suggest.
Both teams play excellent defence and the field position battle will be an important one. It just feels as though there are a few more question marks surrounding Pittsburgh than there is against the home side.
I wouldn’t expect a huge ammount of points but I think the Bills will take it by a touchdown.
Steelers 13, Bills 20