Opponent Preview: The Buffalo Bills

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at San Diego Chargers

via Steelers Wire/USA Today

Anyone who isn’t nervous about this game, please raise your hand. And then please tell us what you are smoking. The Bills are fighting for their playoff lives. The game is on the road. The weather is predicted to be inclement. The Bills have far and away the best rushing numbers in the league. They average 161.9 yards per game on the ground, and only the Cowboys and the Titans are within 20 yards of that. They average 5.4 yards per attempt, which is just crazy. They have 23 rushing touchdowns, and again only the ‘Boys are at all close.

And to make matters worse, the Steelers have not only lost Cameron Heyward, their best run defender, but their next-best, Javon Hargrave, is “Doubtful” for the game as he is still in the concussion protocol.

And yet the Steelers are slightly favored in this game, and on Dave Dameshek’s Football Program the four “experts” (it’s hard to think of people as experts when they get it wrong so often) all picked the Steelers. Perhaps more importantly, Football Baby picked the Steelers, and he has a far better record than the experts or even than his own dad. (He’s 102-42 lifetime, which is so much better than any of the experts it’s just funny…) And before you protest that he always picks the Steelers since his dad is a Steelers fan, I give you Week 3 of this season, when everyone was assuming the Steelers would beat the Eagles handily. He picked the Eagles. Need I say more?

Perhaps the reason most people are picking the Steelers to win lies in how the Bills achieved their 6-6 record. Their six losses are to the Ravens, Jets, Dolphins, Patriots, Seahawks, and Raiders. Their six wins are against the (Brady-less) Patriots, the Cardinals, who have turned out to be a much weaker team than anyone suspected, the Rams, the 49ers, the Bengals, and the Jaguars. Their schedule looked a lot more difficult at the beginning of the season than it looks now. However, the Steelers are the biggest bump in the road for them now. After this week they play the Browns and Dolphins in Buffalo and the Jets in New York (or New Jersey, really.) So you can see that getting past the Steelers is a big deal for them.

But on to some actual facts. Fact No. 1: If the Steelers defense can’t stop Shady McCoy, Tyrod Taylor, and even on occasion Reggie Bush and Sammy Watkins, it’s going to be a long afternoon. Of course, if the Bills can’t stop Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, and Ladarius Green things will get interesting. Just how likely is this? Since we’re talking offense, let’s see what Football Outsiders has to say.

The Bills are ranked No. 1 in rush offense by FO. It’s hard to see how it could be otherwise. But they are only No. 10 in total offense, as their passing offense is ranked 20th. This, I suppose, explains how a team who is garnering so many accolades for their rushing attack can be 6-6. Pittsburgh’s offense is ranked No. 8, despite not putting up amazing numbers in either passing or rushing offense. (PIT is up from No. 9 last week, BUF down from No. 8 last week.)

So let’s look at the offensive lines, as you would expect the Bills’ line to be pretty awesome if they are racking up all those yards. And oddly, the Bills’ line is only ranked No. 15. (PIT’s is No. 5.) The secret of Buffalo’s success appears to be a similar offense out of which they can run multiple plays, including the ever-present threat of Tyrod Taylor running. He looks at his primary read on passing downs and if he doesn’t like what he sees he checks it down to a back (did I mention he has a really good running back?) or takes off running himself. McCoy is just amazing. He is very shifty, and makes a lot of guys miss when they go to tackle him. A lot.

So tomorrow’s game, from the opponent standpoint, is pretty much as opposite to the Giants game as is humanly possible. The Giants have essentially no running game and a pretty immobile quarterback (so far every single Eli Manning “run” this season has resulted in negative yardage). The immobile quarterback, however, is smart and has an otherworldly receiver. It’s pretty difficult to imagine two more diverse offenses.

On the defensive side, the Bills are not, at least according to Football Outsiders, nearly as good as the Giants. They rank No. 21 (they dropped two spots in the rankings last week.) They are No. 21 against the pass and No. 24 against the run. Unfortunately if you just look at the defensive line the story is different. They are still not highly ranked (17th overall) but they are ranked No. 1 against the pass, with 33 sacks, which is second only to Denver (with 36.) They sack the quarterback on 7.9% of pass attempts.

By comparison, PIT’s defense overall just moved up three spots to No. 8, with their rush defense and pass defense almost equal. Who knew? As for the defensive line, they are No. 12, but only No. 20 in pass protection, and their 26 sacks make for an adjusted sack rate of only 5.5%.

Injuries can change the equation a great deal, as we all know. For the Bills, the only player ruled out is a back-up OLB. A number of offensive players are Questionable, including their starting left tackle and most of their passing offense (Sammy Watkins, Charles Clay, and Robert Woods.) But “Questionable” appears to mean “If we need him, he plays,” so I expect to see all of these guys on the field. Defensive tackle Kyle Williams is also questionable, and it would probably be very helpful to the Steelers if he were out, so once again I expect to see him.

As for the Steelers, the news isn’t great. Shamarko Thomas is definitely out with the concussion, as is Darrius Heyward-Bey. Javon Hargrave is Doubtful. The main concern on the Questionable list (since it seemed unlikely DeAngelo Williams would play, or Chris Boswell) is Ramon Foster, who apparently has re-injured his pectoral muscle, or so I surmise from the designation “chest.” It would be a big loss to have Foster out on a day when the Steelers are probably going to need to run the ball, but B.J. Finney did well in relief of Foster earlier in the season. (He wasn’t nearly as successful at center…)

But enough doom and gloom. Let’s look at a really fun aspect to this game—the return of Arthur Moats and Ross Cockrell. As I noted in Thursday’s article about Moatshe is not only the Steelers’ Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee, he was the Bills’ 2013 nominee. The Bills let him walk and I’m happy to have him.

Ross Cockrell is a different story. He was their 2014 fourth-round pick, and they expected to develop him into a starting CB. The Director of Player Personnel for the Bills characterized him as “off the charts smart.” Cockrell graduated from Duke in 3 1/2 years with a degree in political science. He was the team captain twice at Duke and a first-team All-ACC choice for his last two seasons.

Cockrell intrigued new head coach Rex Ryan during the 2015 training camp, but he was injured and only played in part of one game. So Ryan figured he could sneak Cockrell onto the practice squad for further development, but the Steelers, who had liked Cockrell prior to the draft, claimed him off waivers.

Although it was painful for everyone at the time, it was probably fortunate that the cornerback situation was so bad in Pittsburgh, as Cockrell was thrown into the fire and had to learn on the fly. That’s a real make-or-break situation, and he passed the test.

Pro Football Focus has taken notice of his play this season, and his development and that of Artie Burns has allowed William Gay to return to his best use as the slot corner. Gay is ranked No. 7 in the league as a consequence—let that sink in for a moment—and Cockrell is ranked No. 26.

I don’t believe we had a single defensive back ranked higher than about No. 60 last season, except for perhaps Gay and Mitchell at times, so this is a huge upgrade. And Cockrell has been an integral part of that. And young Artie Burns is coming along—he is ranked No. 57, just two slots below Jimmie Smith of the Ravens.

In fact, there is not a single starting defensive back for the Steelers at the moment who Pro Football Focus has rated lower than 70.0, which is amazing, really. Last season most of the defensive backs were rated lower than 60.0, some considerably lower, which, yes, is definitely a failing grade. A couple of them were rated in the 40s. This year is so much nicer in every way.

I’m sure both guys (to return to Moats and Cockrell) are very grateful for the opportunity given to them by the Bills. And I’m sure both guys would really love to beat them tomorrow. Let’s hope they get their wish. Here we go, Steelers…

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