Pittsburgh Steelers vs Buffalo Bills: A Preview of Team’s Skilled Positions
|Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire/USA Today Sports|
After suffering their first defeat of the season against the Washington Football Team, the Pittsburgh Steelers get less than a week to prepare for a primetime AFC heavyweight battle against the Buffalo Bills.
The Sunday Night matchup will feature the first and third ranked team in the AFC that will have heavy implications on the eventual playoff seedlings.
Pittsburgh, now 11-1, is tied with the Kansas City Chiefs when it comes to their records, but the Steelers still hold the tiebreaker over the defending Super Bowl Champs.
Now just two games back of the Steelers, the Bills still have an outside shot of take the top spot in the AFC, and a win here is exactly what they need to get started (obviously they will need a lot of help in the form of Kansas City losing a couple of games).
I decided to take a closer look at the skill position players who will be tasked in going up against each other and who could potentially decide the game. I broke it down by position group, between the quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers, and used NFL Next Gen Stats to a deeper look.
This is an interesting matchup as it features two quarterbacks with similar builds and are on two completely different points in their careers.
Ben Roethlisberger is the seasoned vet, owner of two Super Bowl rings and one of the better quarterbacks to have ever played the game. After missing the majority of last season with an elbow injury, Roethlisberger has returned this year and thanks to a safer approach to the passing game, owns a very respectable touchdown-to-interception reaction of nearly four-to-one.
After raising some doubts about his draft placement, the Bills are paying dividends for the patience given to Josh Allen, whose name was being floated around as the MVP front-runner earlier in the season.
While that talk has certainly cooled, he has his team currently in the AFC East lead, third place in conference overall and has totaled over 30 touchdowns this season (26 passings, 6 rushing, and one receiving).
A win on Sunday Night Football against the Steelers’ defense would be a nice resume builder to get back into that conversation.
The former Wyoming Cowboy, Allen, definitely is a better overall runner than Roethlisberger ever was, but it’s hard not to draw parallels due to their size, and how difficult it can be to bring them down.
You can see the difference between the two almost right off the back. Roethlisberger has the quickest time-to-throw (TT) of all qualified quarterbacks in the league right now. He has constantly relied on the short, quick passing game as opposed to stretching the field like he has always been known to do.
Allen on the other hand has the second slowest TT in the league, and a couple yard average difference in completed air yards average (CAY). With his arm, he takes the extra steps back to allow his receivers to get down the field.
The difference can also be seen in the intended air yards (IAY) mark, with Allen leading Ben by over a yard.
Although the Steelers have relied on a quick passing game, that hasn’t led to a higher completion percentage, at least when compared to Allen. The Bills quarterback is completing at a near 70% clip, and is far exceeding his expected completion mark (xCOMP%) of just 65.6%.
Ben on the other hand is completing less than what is expected of him, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
Advantage: Buffalo. While the MVP hype has died some, Allen is still having a breakout season. If not for a Hail Mary by the Arizona Cardinals, the Bill would have the opportunity to tie the Steelers in the standings with a win on Sunday.
Ben hasn’t been bad this season, he’s actually on pace to post his best touchdown-to-interception ration of his career. There has been some glimpses of the old Ben but this offense has turned into a reliance of having the playmakers on the outside make a play as opposed to the other way around.
This will be interesting because nether team has a good running game, with the Bills outranking (23rd) the Steelers (29th), but neither standing out.
For the Steelers, their ineffective running game was a key factor in them taking a loss against Washington, as they rushed for just 21 yards on 14 carries Monday evening.
Part of the reason was the team was without starter James Conner, who ranks 18th in the NFL in rushing yards with 645 but has also missed two games this season, and left early in another with an injury.
The Bills have employed a two-headed machine at running back this season, with both Devin Singletary and Zack Moss getting carries, though the latter’s impact has varied from week-to-week.
Singletary has been the ‘go-to’ guy for the majority of the season, also pulling in 31 catches to go along with his 128 rushing attempts.
Efficiency (EFF) is defined on Next Gen Stats as ‘rushing efficiency is calculated by taking the total distance a player traveled on rushing plays as a ball carrier according to next gen stats per rush yards gained. The lower the number, the more of a north/south runner they are’.
Outside of his 100-yard performance in place of Conner in week-one, Benny Snell has been largely ineffective, but that could have some to do with him facing such a high percentage of eight defenders in the box.
Singletary actually has the lowest percentage of eight defenders in the box faced among qualifying running backs.
Conner’s RYOE/Att puts him in the top half of the league, showing he’s done a good job of creating extra yards that he wasn’t supposed to get.
Moss, a rookie out of Utah, on the other hand has struggled this season, posting the ninth worst RYOE in the league currently.
Advantage: Depends on Conner. If Conner plays, despite the Steelers having the fourth worst rushing game you can certainly make the case at favoring Pittsburgh at the position. If he doesn’t and the Steelers have to go with Snell as the featured back it shifts in favor of the Bills.
Since his week-one performance, Snell has averaged just 2.37 yards per carry on the season, so having him as the lead back would certainly play into Buffalo’s advantage.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
I broke the charts into two, one for each team to make it easier to read.
The Bills gave up a first-round pick to get Stefon Diggs from the Minnesota Vikings, and it has been every bit worth it.
Diggs currently is in a tie with Keenan Allen for the most receptions in the league, is second in targets, and fifth in receiving yards. He’s done this while catching the ball in tight windows, averaging 2.9 yards of separation at the time of the ball getting to him (for both completions and incompletions).
Both John Brown and Gabriel Davis have been the team’s deep threat, averaging 12.4 and 14.5 targeted air yards, respectively. Brown himself has been great after the ball into his hands, averaging 5.6 yards after catch.
The Steelers receiving group had a rough game against Washington, being credited with eight drops - one of which by Eric Ebron in the end zone.
JuJu Smith-Schuster leads the team in receptions, but Diontae Johnson has by far been Roethlisberger’s favorite target. The former Toledo Rocket, Johnson, has averaged 9.6 targets per game compared to JuJu’s 7.8.
Smith-Schuster has caught a higher percentage of his targets, but is feeling the effects of the shift to the short passing game in the process. JuJu has averaged just 5.6 air yards per target, meaning Ben is hitting him short and quick.
Johnson has been able to create greater separation than his teammates, but drops have plagued him as of late and has hurt his catch percentage. He’s also been doing a lot after the catch with a 5.2 YAC/R mark, best among his teammates listed above.
He’s followed closely by Chase Claypool, whose also been Ben’s go-to receiver when he decides to throw the ball down the field. The rookie out of Notre Dame is averaging 12.9 air yards per target this season.
Being the option to stretch the field has hurt Claypool’s catch percentage, but he also hasn’t been able to separate from his defender much at all.
Once he does get the ball into his hand, he’s been just as explosive as Johnson, also averaging over five yards after the catch, and has the highest difference between his YAC/R and xYAC/R, meaning he’s creating even more than expected from him.
Advantage. This is close. The Steelers have been more explosive with the ball in their hands over expectation. Buffalo has been able to create more separation and catch at a higher rate, while stretching the field more.
Buffalo will have the best receiver on the field in Diggs, but the Steelers are probably deeper especially since we didn’t even mention James Washington until now, whose YAC/R leads the team among qualifying receivers, and has posted a 11.7 TAY, second only to Claypool on the Steelers.
Pittsburgh going to have to play better offensively if they are going to win this game, and no matter how frustratingly cliche it might be - it all starts with the running game. Buffalo is ranked 24th against the run this season, so the opportunity is there.
This is a big opportunity for the Bills here to win a primetime game at home against the top seeded team in AFC. They put up a good performance against the San Francisco 49ers on Monday Night, but this would send an even bigger statement.
What do you think of this matchup? Which team’s skill positions has the advantage? Which team will win on Sunday? Let us know in the comment section below, subscribe to the site at the top of the article and follow me on Twitter, @AJ_Murfy and @SportBlogMurphy.