As we’ve been doing for several years now, we’ll break down the Pittsburgh Steelers’ opponent each week, telling you what to expect from a scheme and individual standpoint. This year, Jonathan Heitritter and I will cover the opposing team’s defense. I will focus on scheme, Jonathan on the players.
Continuing things with the Buffalo Bills’ defense.
ALEX’S SCHEME REPORT
Bills’ Run Defense
An impressive unit allowing just 3.5 YPC, 4th best in football. They’ve allowed just eight runs of 10+ yards, tied for seventh fewest in the league, and it’s a solid front seven with a secondary that’s willing and able to tackle too. It’s a versatile front that works out of a 3-4 structure but can employ four defensive linemen against heavy personnels like the Ravens 22 groupings.
They’ll run a 3-3-5 too with NCB Taron Johnson as part of the run fit. Their Mike Hilton.
Matt Milano is the team’s leading tackler with 27 followed closely by Tremaine Edmunds with 26. Nickel back Taron Johnson has 24 and is one of the league’s best slot corners in football. Edmunds and Milano are all-situations guys, playing 94.9% of the defense’s snaps this season. Guys who just don’t come off the field and they only were taken out in blowout wins. Johnson may be *only* a slot corner but he logs time like a starter, logging 91.9% of the Bills’ snaps
Buffalo is more aggressive and likes to one-gap and blow plays up with their good interior defensive line. The most successful concept against them are gap runs with guards pulling. It’s allowed them to seal and wash down the penetrators and allowed both the Dolphins and Ravens to have some healthy runs. Take a look.
That’s the scheme I’d lean on if I’m Pittsburgh. It’s certainly in their playbook and nothing new they have to add.
Some other defensive stats. They’re the second-best defense in football from a PPG standpoint, allowing just 14.5 PPG. They haven’t given up more than 21 points in a game this season, an ominous sign against a Steelers’ offense that hasn’t scored more than 20 and not more than 23 as a team. Buffalo has nine defensive takeaways this year, tied third-most in football. Their one blemish is situational football, just 19th on third down (41.3%) and 24th in the red zone (70%). Pittsburgh’s red zone offense has been surprisingly good this year and they need to keep that rolling Sunday. Field goals don’t cut it. Nor does turning the ball over.
Bills Pass Defense
Another stifling unit. They’re allowing just 6.1 YPA, tied 5th-best in football while allowing just three passing touchdowns all year long, tied for second-best in the league. Pittsburgh’s thrown just two touchdowns this season, tied for the fewest this season. Buffalo’s also picked off seven passes this year, tied for the most by any team. They also have 13 sacks, fifth most and have allowed only eight passes of 20+ yards, tied third-best overall. Basically, they’re top five in basically every key metric.
Von Miller has three sacks but he’s not the team’s sack leader. That honor goes to Greg Rousseau who has four followed by Miller’s three. Six total Bills have at least one sack this year. Four of Buffalo’s seven interceptions to go Jordan Poyer but he’s dealing with an injury and his status is uncertain. The dynamic duo of him and Micah Hyde are no more with Hyde done for the year.
Schematically, they are the least blitz-heavy team in football. They’re blitzing just 8.8% of the time, basically 3.5% fewer than the next closest team (Chicago). Despite that low rate, their front four is getting home and their 27.7% pressure rate is tied for sixth-best in the league. Don’t need to blitz when the front four is eating. They will blitz the nickel corner from the boundary but with how infrequent things were, it was hard to identify a pattern.
Coverage-wise, they’re a zone based team that plays a lot of Cover 6 (quarter-quarter-half). But they don’t often spot drop and you can see them carry routes vertically. A match-zone type of defense.
After being more of a LOLB in Denver, Von Miller can and has played both sides. So it won’t just be Chukwuma Okorafor seeing Miller this weekend. Dan Moore Jr. will too. In fact, Miller has started games at LOLB but they will move him around and isolate him on key downs, like here with this spin move. With the over front and the 1t to Miller’s side rushing away, it gives him the freedom to have this two-way go on the RT.
Jonathan’s Individual Report
The Pittsburgh Steelers lost at home last Sunday against a New York Jets squad that many would have guessed that Pittsburgh should have beaten. The offense again struggled to get anything going in the first half, prompting Mike Tomlin to bench Mitch Trubisky in-favor of Kenny Pickett. While Pickett threw three INTs in the game, two of those picks were tipped passes into the hands of the defender and the final one came on a Hail Mary heave to the end zone as time expired. Pickett managed to complete 77% of his passes while also showcasing mobility in the pocket, extending plays, and scored two TDs on the ground.
The Steelers now look to prepare Picket for his first career NFL start on the road versus a vaunted Buffalo Bills defense. Buffalo has been hit with the injury bug early to start the season, especially in the secondary where CB Tre’Davious White has yet to suit up for the team after suffering a torn ACL last season and Pro Bowl S Micah Hyde has landed on IR for the remainder of the 2022 season with a neck injury.
Still, Buffalo still has a plethora of talent on the defensive side of the football, especially in their front seven. One player that hopes to get back onto the football field this week after dealing with an ankle injury is DL #91 Ed Oliver. The former first round pick got injured Week 1 against the Rams but looks to be on his way back to the field soon. The 6’1, 287lb interior defender is undersized, but possesses a combination of strength and explosiveness that makes him difficult to block. He can defeat guards with quickness or power as a pass rusher and is a stout run defender, playing almost an Aaron Donald-lite role for Buffalo’s defense.
Alongside Oliver on the interior of the defensive line is #92 DaQuan Jones who is a big, strong presence on the inside that best excels as a run plugger. The long-time Tennessee Titan signed with Buffalo this offseason to beef up the team’s defensive front and is a steady player with a high floor but a relatively low ceiling.
Buffalo also hopes to return #97 Jordan Phillips to the lineups who is working his way back from a hamstring he suffered in Week 2. Phillips is a giant in the middle (6’6, 341lb), but brings more upside as a pass rusher, having logged a career-high nine sacks in his first stint with the team back in 2019. #99 Tim Settle also provides depth as a young but talented rotational player in his first season with the team after spending four seasons in Washington.
On the edges for Buffalo, star FA acquisition #40 Von Miller looks to have found the fountain of youth this season as he is playing like an absolute madman for the Bills in his first season with the team. The 33-year-old looks like he is still in his prime, showing great burst off the snap along with impressive bend around the edge to give offensive tackles fits in pass protection. He has three sacks in four games thus far along with five TFLs and two PBUs, giving Buffalo a much-needed QB hunter on a championship contending team.
While being a premier edge rusher, Miller also plays sound run defense, being able to set the edge and take on blocks to allow stud ILBs Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano to run free to the ball, blowing up opposing running games.
On the opposite side of Miller is budding star #50 Gregory Rousseau. The 6’6, 266lb DE fell to the end of the first-round last season after opting out of the 2021 season back at Miami. Many wondered if the immense talent could overcome the technical flaws in Rousseau’s game, and he has exceeded those expectations now in his second season. He has four sacks, five TFLs, and six QB hits through four games, utilizing his phenomenal length and impressive athleticism at his size to keep blockers off his frame and win around the corner or across the blocker’s face to get after the QB.
Buffalo runs deep along the defensive line at EDGE, having both former second-round picks #57 A.J. Epenesa and #55 Boogie Basham as big-bodied DEs that can set the edge against the run and provide a viable pass rush thanks to strength and power at the point of attack. #90 Shaq Lawson also provides depth on the defensive line, being a former first round pick back in 2016 who may be limited as a pass rusher but is fairly stout as a heavy-handed run defender.
Buffalo rocks to studs on the inside as mentioned earlier in #49 Tremaine Edmunds and #58 Matt Milano. Edmunds is the younger brother of Terrell Edmunds, but you wouldn’t guess it looking at the 6’5, 250lb athletic marvel that is still only 24-years-old that is in his fifth NFL season. Edmunds is a tackling machine, having posted over 100 stops in his previous four season as a sideline-to-sideline player against the run, giving Brian Urlacher-like vibes due to his size and pursuit. He is effective as a blitzer and uses his length well covering zones in pass coverage but can be taken advantage of in man coverage situations.
Milano isn’t as physically imposing as Edmunds, standing at 6’0, 223lb, but he is an extremely instinctive defender both against the run and the pass. He is quick to make his read and relentlessly pursues the football, making plays out in space as well as in the backfield. Milano also excels as a coverage defender having racked up28 PBUs in his NFL career along with six INTs, one being returned for a TD. Rookie #43 Terrel Bernard also sees playing time in Buffalo’s base defense as a weakside linebacker along with backups #53 Tyrel Dotson and #44 Tyler Matakevich who provide viable special teams play.
With Tre’Davious White still rehabbing his way back, Buffalo has had to do some shuffling in the defensive backfield. Rookie sixth-round pick #47 Christian Benford has been a pleasant surprise this season, overtaking first-round pick #24 Kaiir Elam for playing time, but he is currently nursing a hand injury. Buffalo signed veteran CB Xavier Rhodes to the practice squad just recently, but he was placed on the injured list this week. #30 Dane Jackson has played admirably in-place of White on the outside, picking up an INT and two PBUs thus far this season while #39 Cam Lewis also provides depth.
The one player in the CB room to watch out for is #7 Taron Johnson. You may remember him from the pick six he had against Pittsburgh two years ago on Ben Roethlisberger, jumping the route and taking it to the house. Normally a nickel back, Johnson has been playing more on the boundary due to injuries and has rose to the occasion. He is an extremely feisty defender, excelling on blitz situations coming off the edge as well as near the LOS in run support. He has six sacks and four forced fumbles prior to this season and is opportunistic at undercutting routes when in zone coverage. However, Johnson is susceptible to getting beat deep in man coverage which Pittsburgh should challenge him on.
With Hyde out the remainder of the year, his running mate #21 Jordan Poyer has been called upon to step up in his absence. The veteran has delivered, pacing the league with four INTs in only three games played while also logging six PBUs, and 12 total stops. Poyer has never been selected to a Pro Bowl and remains one of the most underrated defenders in all of football. He excels playing on the backend of the defense, using his range, instincts, and ball skills to contest passes and create turnovers while also having the physical playstyle to roll up in the box and make sound plays against the run. He’s currently nursing a rib injury but should be good to go on Sunday.
#3 Damar Hamlin has been asked to step up in-place of Hyde and has played well thus far in 2022, logging 15 total stops, a TFL, QB hit, and half a sack playing more in the strong safety/box safety role for Buffalo. Hamlin and #4 Jaquan Johnson have been splitting time at the safety spot opposite Poyer as high effort players that do well closer to the LOS but lack exceptional speed and quickness to consistently cover TEs or slot WRs.