The Bills Defense dominated the Steelers, holding them to just 224 yards, 15 points, and generating a touchdown of its own. Sean McDermott and Defensive Coordinator Leslie Frazier accomplished this in multiple ways. From start to finish, they used pressure that threatened inside, aggressive coverage that disrupted receivers at the line, and disguised looks that made Pittsburgh uncomfortable.
The below play was a 3rd-and-5 on the opening drive. Look at the Bills’ alignment from the end zone angle. This was a double-A-gap pressure look with linebackers standing up on both sides of the center. Buffalo had 6 immediate-threat potential pass rushers on the line of scrimmage that had to be accounted for.
The threat of inside pressure puts strain on an offense. The middle has to be protected at all costs. However, offenses do not want to end up with a running back blocking a defensive end or a defensive tackle. The goal is to orchestrate the protection so that the 5 offensive linemen can account for the 4 biggest pass rushers (the defensive line) and a linebacker. The running back can then take the other linebacker. That’s what the Steelers did here, as you can see below.
This left James Conner on linebacker Matt Milano. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, the matchup of a running back on Milano was a bad one all night.
If the running back can’t meet the linebacker near the line of scrimmage and throw a good block to solidify the inside, the quarterback ends up with pressure in his face. That’s what happened on this play.
You’ll also notice that Buffalo’s two edge rushers dropped out into underneath coverage at the snap. The Bills ended up occupying 5 offensive linemen with 3 pass rushers and forced a running back, the weakest pass protector on the field, to take on the 4th pass rusher right in front of the Roethlisberger. With only 4 defenders rushing the quarterback, the Bills didn’t have to sacrifice any men in coverage. That’s great play design.
Speaking of coverage, let’s look at this play from the sideline angle. Focus on the highlighted matchups.
You’ll notice that Tre’Davious White and Taron Johnson were physical with their receivers at the line. White practically tackled Chase Claypool. At the top of the screen, Levi Wallace played soft but was sitting on his route, anticipating a quick throw.
The Bills were ready for Pittsburgh’s quick throws and clearly weren’t scared of getting beat over the top. This theme repeated itself throughout the night.
On this 3rd-and-4 in the second half, the Bills again aligned with defenders in the A-gaps. This time, they did it with one linebacker and a defensive tackle. The other linebacker (Matt Milano) aligned in the B gap.
Again, the Steelers wanted to make sure they matched up big-on-big. You can see how they did so below.
Again, Matt Milano was left on a running back. Again, Milano overwhelmed him and impacted Big Ben’s throw.
The Bills again forced the Steelers to use their weakest blocker in the protection to handle pressure right in front of Roethlisberger. It’s not easy to play quarterback with defenders constantly in your face.
As we mentioned earlier, the Bills used lots of disguise in both their pressure schemes and coverage, as they often do. From the sideline angle, look at the matchups on this play.
That’s Buffalo’s best cornerback, Tre’Davious White, on a tight end and a safety, Micah Hyde, on wide receiver Chase Claypool. Normally, you wouldn’t anticipate this being man coverage based on those matchups. But the Bills do this often. They don’t always have their cornerbacks travel in man coverage. Sometimes, they just match up to whoever aligns on their side. They also don’t always have their corners stay on the same side of the field if playing zone. They mix things up so it’s difficult for the quarterback to find any pre-snap indicators. Here, the Bills ended up playing tight-man coverage (and again were physical at the line of scrimmage).
The disguise was something to note on this play, but it didn’t necessarily make that play successful for the Bills. On the below play, however, the disguise was a major factor.
Pre-snap, it looked like Buffalo was in man-free coverage.
Roethlisberger wanted JuJu Smith-Schuster on a quick-out route, which he probably had if the Bills were playing man coverage. But the Bills weren’t playing man. They would spin out into Cover-2 post-snap. What did that mean for the coverage? It meant cornerback Levi Wallace would be sitting in the flat to the side of Smith-Schuster’s out route.
Roethlisberger recognized this post-snap and couldn’t lead Smith-Schuster as a result. So he tried to put the ball behind him to avoid leading him into a big collision. The only problem was that Taron Johnson was closing on Smith-Schuster’s route from behind.
The thing with disguise is that it’s not only effective if it completely fools a quarterback. It’s effective if it prevents a quarterback from getting into the best possible play pre-snap. It’s effective if it delays his decision-making post snap. It’s effective if it prevents a quarterback from being able to account for as many defenders. That’s what happened here.
Roethlisberger saw the coverage spin out to Cover-2, as he said during his post-game press conference. So he intentionally threw the ball behind his receiver. But the disguise prevented him from focusing on every defender in the area. He did not account for how close Johnson was to Smith-Schuster, and the throw to settle his receiver in the zone led to a game-changing pick-6.
The Steelers are reeling right now. The defense is a little less dangerous due to recent injuries, and the offense has failed to put much pressure on any opponents in recent weeks. They are the #2 seed in the AFC at the moment, but things have to change soon if they’re going to do any damage in January.
The Bills, on the other hand, are coming together at the right time. The defense has been meshing in recent weeks and they had their most complete performance of the season against Pittsburgh. Right now, they are the biggest threat to the Chiefs in the AFC.
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