Insider take: Steelers put NFL on notice with dominant finish against Bills

Safid Deen
USA TODAY Sports Plus
Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt (90) pressures Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) during the first half at Highmark Stadium in Buffalo on Sept. 12, 2021.

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger seemed to be shaking off the cobwebs. Rookie Steelers running back Najee Harris has trouble breaking free in his first career game.

And it was a shame because the Steelers defense, one of the best in the NFL, did its best to slow down Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen and his explosive offense during the first three quarters of Sunday's 1 p.m. matchup.

The Steelers looked very much like the team that fell flat toward the end of the 2020 season. That was until they came alive in the fourth quarter and put the NFL on notice with their dominant finish on the road in Sunday’s game against the Buffalo Bills.

Roethlisberger threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to receiver Diontae Johnson, and the Steelers returned a blocked punt for another touchdown less than two minutes later in the fourth quarter to take a commanding lead and beat the Bills 23-16 at Highmark Stadium.

Where the game turned for Pittsburgh was a pivotal fourth-down play by the Bills: Allen threw a short pass backward to backup running back Matt Breida, who was quickly tackled in the backfield by Steelers defensive back Cam Sutton.

It was a turnover that gave the Steelers new life in a game they trailed 10-0 after halftime, and put the Bills behind for the rest of the game.

On the ensuing drive, Roethlisberger found receiver Chase Claypool smothered by Bills defensive back Levi Wallace for a pass interference call, Harris had his best run of the day for 18 yards, and Roethlisberger found Johnson in the end zone to take the lead.

While the Bills answered with a field goal on their next drive, the Steelers put the game away with one of their own with less than three minutes left.

Roethlisberger struggled most of the game, completing 18 of 32 passes for 188 yards. Some of his passes were simply off target. The Bills defense harassed him and the Steelers offense much of the day. Harris also had troubles during his debut, often met in the backfield by Bills defenders.

Roethlisberger labored, but made key plays (finding Claypool and Johnson late) to take advantage of his defense’s performance in Buffalo.

The Steelers defense is one of the deepest in the NFL – behind outside linebacker T.J. Watt, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and defensive lineman Cam Hayward – primed to help Pittsburgh make a deep run in the playoffs if Roethlisberger and the offense can hold its own.

As for Buffalo, Allen and star receiver Stefon Diggs remain a formidable one-two punch. And the Bills defense is just as talented as Pittsburgh’s, also able to make another playoff run like they did before falling short in the AFC title game last season.

Sunday’s Steelers-Bills matchup had a playoff feel, and both teams will make some noise in the AFC this season.

But Pittsburgh kicked off this season making a statement: If Roethlisberger can deliver in key moments, his Steelers teammates can take them over the hump.