The 2021 NFL season enjoyed an incredible start last weekend. An overwhelming majority of the sixteen games that were played consisted of dramatic endings and intriguing storylines. The Buffalo Bills‘ loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in New York, one of the biggest upsets that week, was no different.
The Bills suffered a disappointing 23-16 loss at the hands of Ben Roethlisberger and company. Now, many are wondering if that might have been indicative of more serious problems that could haunt the Bills for the entirety of the campaign. Heading into the club’s Week 2 game against the Dolphins, this dilemma has maintained its troubling character for evaluators and members of the media across the NFL.
However, many that have jumped to extreme conclusions based on BUF’s loss last Sunday may have been too quick, failing to make themselves familiar with the details.
Buffalo was considered to be an enormous front-runner heading into its Week-One showdown with Pittsburgh. That was despite the former winning the AFC North in 2020 amid starting the campaign with eleven straight victories. The Bills entered their season-opener at Highmark Stadium as 6.5-point favorites, per Caesars Sportsbook. That means they were projected to defeat the Steelers by almost a touchdown, which is quite the pre-game margin at the NFL level.
Yet, what emerged was an outcome precisely the opposite of that estimate. Pittsburgh’s seven-point win was surprising, at that not just based on the expectations before the game. It would not be difficult to find individuals, fans, and experts alike, who are a little shocked to see that score after watching the entirety of the game. These conclusions, despite being jumped to purely intuitively, are perfectly understandable upon further review.
Buffalo picked up exactly where it left off as regards its strengths during the 2020 NFL season. Firstly, the Bills passing defense dominated the Steelers just like any team they faced last winter. Pittsburgh only turned in 177 yards through the air. Meanwhile, Ben Roethlisberger completed merely just over 50 percent of his throws on Sunday. Last year, the Bills finished fifth in allowed passer rating and 16th in conceded completion percentage.
At the same time, Josh Allen‘s air attack was far from its usual standards. Allen himself was only accurate on 58% of his passes, compared to 68% for the 2020 season. Yet, the unit put on nearly 300 yards against the Steelers, with the offense overall registering 371 against one of the league’s premier defenses.
In the meantime, the Bills succeeded in some areas where their performance in 2020 left a lot to be desired. The reigning AFC East champions allowed just 75 yards from the reigning AFC North champions. During the team’s most prolific campaign since 1993, the Bills noticeably struggled to stop the run. Their rushing defense surrendered 4.6 yards on average per carry, tied for seventh-most in the NFL.
The club’s own running stable also seemed drastically improved at the outset of the year. The Bills running group, barely changed from last year’s near bottom-ten unit, averaged 4.7 yards per attempt on 25 carries. Moreover, Devin Singletary had an encouraging afternoon with 4.6 Y/C on eleven rushes. These figures were huge progress from the season-wide 4.2 and 4.4, respectively, posted in 2020.
The small sample and the still homologous competition they have faced make the Bills’ numbers from Week 1 irrelevant when it comes to long-term conclusions. But that will be the subject of the investigations carried out in the following paragraphs. However, based solely on their turnout in this particular matchup, no part of the puzzle, with the exception of the passing offense, was dramatically off.
- The majority of what was an immensely successful secondary last winter might be back for the Bills in 2021. However, they did face a woeful passing offense en route to a Week 1 performance defined by not just stability but also domination. In 2020, the Steelers’ air attack had a 65% completion percentage and a 93.5 collective passer rating. Therefore, the unit ranked 17th in the league in both regards. So the competition the Bills went up against was not strong in that department.
- Buffalo’s numbers on the ground draw a starkly contrasting picture. As already mentioned, the Devin Singletary-led stable registered 4.7 yards per rush on 25 carries. That can be compared to the unit’s turnout last year when it was close to the Bottom Ten of the NFL. Virtually, the only difference between the two factions is the offseason addition of Matt Breida. Still, the former 49er was used for only four rushing attempts against the Steelers. The situational rise of the Bills’ running group was not just unexpected, though. It ensued against one of the league’s best defensive units in that field. Across the 2020 campaign, Pittsburgh allowed just 4.3 yards per carry, 12th-fewest in the National Football League.
- Problems in “Allen-town”? Unlikely. The former Wyoming Cowboy and his reinforcements were not impressive and more has been (and will continue to be) anticipated from them. However, Josh Allen and company did go head-to-head with what is not just a good secondary but the best in the league. In 2020, the Steelers conceded the lowest completion percentage in the league. Furthermore, the same applied to their figure in the passer rating department. Yet, it has to be noted that the AFC North champs lost some of the cornerstones of their pass defense. Major departing assets included the likes of cornerbacks Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton. What this means is that it is still relatively unknown whether this year’s unit will enjoy the same success. However, it would be a shocker if it falls even to the middle part of the league rankings.
It seems apparent the Bills underperformed in almost no regard against the Steelers in Week 1. In some matchups, with the running faction being an example, they even managed to put on terrific values against prolific competition.
Promises of Consistency
Even though Buffalo began the 2021 campaign with a dire loss at home, their performance was just as advertised in most areas. Firstly, the team’s defense, particularly through the air, showed no signs of a downturn in effectiveness as opposed to 2020. Little should change here as regards the Bills’ final stat-lines come early January.
The two units on the offensive side of the ball are not in the same boat. On the one hand, Josh Allen’s air raid, which terrorized most secondaries in the NFL, had serious issues against the remains of a dominant passing defense. On the other hand, what was once considered a weak running faction impressed against a solid rush defense. The track records of the two groups indicate that a trend in the opposite direction should be predicted between now and the conclusion of the year.
However, that will not hold the Bills back. Especially now that Allen has even more weapons at his disposal with the signing of Emmanuel Sanders.
Therefore, should only a mild shift in one/multiple units’ values occur, the Bills should be as rarely on this side of the score again as possible. Most games, in which Buffalo demonstrates the same capabilities, are likely to see BUF come up with the victory.
However, once again, the conclusions drawn from one game are in no way relevant in the long term. So more observations will have to be carried out for the Bills’ identity to be clearer. The next experiment in that series is no easier as the team travels to Hard Rock Stadium in Week 2.
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