NFL Preview - Pittsburgh (7-3) at Buffalo (2-8)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Back-to-back victories and a stirring second-half comeback in their most recent outing have provided undeniable evidence that the Buffalo Bills are making strides following a forgettable beginning to this 2010 season. The suddenly-surging team now gets an opportunity to see just how far it has come this Sunday, when the playoff-contending Pittsburgh Steelers take a trip to Ralph Wilson Stadium for a late-November clash.
After stumbling out of the gates with eight straight losses, including a pair of gut-wrenching overtime defeats on the road to a pair of present AFC division leaders in Baltimore and Kansas City, the Bills finally broke through with a hard-fought 14-12 decision over visiting Detroit in Week 10. Buffalo then backed up that result with a rousing rally against the reeling Cincinnati Bengals this past Sunday, erupting for 35 unanswered points after halftime to produce a 49-31 win that helped erase the painful memories of that poor start.
Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick threw three of his four touchdown passes over the final 30 minutes to help trigger the revival, while a much-maligned defense stiffened in the second half to force three Cincinnati turnovers that directly led to 21 of the team's 35-point barrage.
The 17-point deficit Buffalo overcame was its largest since fighting out of a 26-0 hole to deliver a 37-35 triumph over Indianapolis on Sept. 21, 1997.
The galvanized Bills will now test their progress against an obvious step up in competition, as the 7-3 Steelers represent a far more formidable opponent than the Lions and Bengals, each of whom have won just two games all season. Buffalo's improving offense, which piled up 449 total yards against Cincinnati, also figures to face a challenge from a Pittsburgh stop unit that's been one of the league's stingiest over the course of this campaign.
Pittsburgh's defense was at its stifling best last week, limiting a previously-rolling Oakland team to a meager 182 total yards and coming up with three takeaways in a 35-3 shellacking that kept Mike Tomlin's charges even with rival Baltimore at the top of the AFC North standings. The Steelers will visit the Ravens in a colossal Week 13 matchup the following Sunday.
The Raiders had entered Heinz Field riding a three-game win streak in which the Silver and Black eclipsed 500 yards of offense on two separate occasions.
Pittsburgh dominated Oakland on the other side of the ball as well, amassing 431 total yards and getting three touchdown passes out of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who also ran for a score in the rout.
The Steelers will be attempting to build upon a 4-1 season road record when they head to Ralph Wilson Stadium, while Buffalo comes into Sunday's tilt seeking consecutive home wins for the first time since Sept. 21-Oct. 19, 2008. The Bills have lost 14 of 18 games as the host team following that streak, with three of those setbacks having taken place at Toronto's Rogers Centre.
Pittsburgh holds an 11-8 lead in its all-time regular-season series with the Bills and has won seven of the last eight meetings between the teams, including the last three matchups. The Steelers posted a 26-3 victory at Heinz Field in the most recent encounter, which took place in 2007, and also prevailed in stops in Buffalo in both 2001 and 2004. Buffalo last topped Pittsburgh via a 24-21 decision at Ralph Wilson Stadium in 1999, the last year the Bills reached the playoffs.
In addition to their regular-season advantage, the Steelers have also won two of three lifetime playoff games with Buffalo. Pittsburgh defeated the Bills in AFC Divisional Playoff contests in 1974 and 1975, with Buffalo earning a 24-3 triumph on the road in the 1992 Divisional Round.
Tomlin is 1-0 against the Bills over his career, while Buffalo's Chan Gailey has never faced Pittsburgh or Tomlin as a head coach. Gailey spent four seasons as a Steelers assistant under Bill Cowher from 1994-97, serving the last two as offensive coordinator.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Pittsburgh put forth its sharpest offensive performance of the year last week, as its 431 total yards were a season high and the club converted 5-of-10 third-down attempts in addition to manhandling the Raiders for 162 rushing yards, 55 of which came on scrambles by Roethlisberger (1579 passing yards, 12 TD, 4 INT). The Steelers have been primarily a passing team since the standout quarterback returned from his well-publicized four-game suspension in mid- October, however, with Roethlisberger having averaged 263.2 yards through the air over his six starts while firing 12 touchdown strikes during that stretch. The most dangerous receiver has clearly been Mike Wallace (33 receptions, 759 yards, 8 TD), with the second-year speedster averaging a robust 23 yards per catch thus far and surpassing the 100-yard mark for a third straight week after toasting the Raiders for 116 yards and a score on only three grabs. Venerable veteran Hines Ward (33 receptions, 4 TD) and tight end Heath Miller (28 receptions, 1 TD) serve as Roethlisberger's trusted underneath targets, while promising rookie wideout Emmanuel Sanders (11 receptions, 2 TD) has become a larger part of the game plan as of late, having caught a touchdown pass in two straight contests. Workhorse Rashard Mendenhall (811 rushing yards, 8 TD, 16 receptions) is the unquestioned feature back of the NFL's 11th-rated rushing offense (118.0 ypg), but managed just 59 yards on 23 carries last week.
Mendenhall should find the going a bit easier on Sunday, considering the Bills have surrendered a league-worst 163.5 rushing yards per game and 4.7 yards per attempt this season, with the Bengals' Cedric Benson going off for 124 yards and score in last week's meeting. Buffalo has also come up with an NFL-low four interceptions on the year, but two of them came in the Cincinnati win and cornerback Drayton Florence (36 tackles, 1 INT, 10 PD) returned a fumble for a touchdown in addition to registering one of those picks. The Bills also haven't rushed the passer well, as their total of 19 sacks is the fourth- lowest sum in the league, and they accumulated only eight takeaways through the first nine games before getting three against the Bengals. Florence and fellow corner Leodis McKelvin (41 tackles, 8 PD) will have the unenviable task of trying to slow down Wallace, with inside linebackers Paul Posluszny (88 tackles, 1 sack) and Akin Ayodele (40 tackles) in charge of keeping Mendenhall's contributions to a minimum.
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
Last week's outburst showed the considerable potential Buffalo's offense possesses when all its parts are operating in sync. Fitzpatrick (1961 passing yards, 18 TD, 9 INT) has been somewhat inconsistent since supplanting the since-released Trent Edwards as the starting signal-caller in Week 3, but the Bills have averaged a respectable 24.5 points over his eight starts and the Harvard product has tossed an impressive 18 touchdown passes during that span, half of which have gone to emerging star Steve Johnson (52 receptions, 728 yards, 9 TD). The third-year wideout's numbers have taken off with Gailey's quarterback switch, and he's coming off a monster eight-catch, 137-yard, three-touchdown showing against the Bengals. Undrafted rookie Donald Jones (7 receptions, 1 TD) added five grabs for 70 yards and a score out of the slot in his best day as a pro, while veteran Lee Evans (33 receptions, 4 TD) has a pair of 1,000-yard seasons to his credit and rounds out what's become a quality corps of receivers. Buffalo has also run the ball well during its win streak, with top back Fred Jackson (562 rushing yards, 21 receptions, 6 total TD) having gone over the century mark in both victories while scoring four touchdowns. With rookie understudy C.J. Spiller (164 rushing yards, 18 receptions, 1 TD) likely to miss a second straight week with a hamstring strain, Jackson should be in line for another heavy load come Sunday.
The Bills may need another big effort from Fitzpatrick to prevail this week, as the Steelers have reduced the opposition to NFL lows of 63 rushing yards per game and 2.9 yards per carry on the season. Oakland entered last week's test sporting the league's second-best running game, but mustered an insignificant 61 yards on a fierce front seven headed up by the stout inside linebacker duo of leading tackler Lawrence Timmons (89 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INT) and James Farrior (70 tackles, 2 sacks). Outside linebacker James Harrison (69 tackles, 9 sacks, 2 INT) had the biggest impact in Pittsburgh's dominating shutdown of the Raiders, however, with the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year generating two sacks, an interception and a forced fumble on the afternoon. He and counterpart LaMarr Woodley (32 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 1 INT) form a devastating edge-rushing tandem that will out to bring the heat upon Fitzpatrick, while five-time Pro Bowl strong safety Troy Polamalu (52 tackles, 3 INT) headlines a secondary that's had both up and down moments this year. The group was torched for 350 yards and three touchdowns by New England superstar Tom Brady in a Week 10 loss to the Patriots, but bounced back to hold Oakland quarterbacks to a paltry 121 net passing yards and a 46.5 percent completion rate last Sunday.
Fitzpatrick may have merited a start against the fragile Bengals last week, but the Buffalo quarterback isn't a recommended play in a much more daunting draw with Pittsburgh's stellar defense. Johnson has earned the benefit of the doubt through his outstanding accomplishments, however, and Jackson should get enough opportunities to warrant a spot in fantasy lineups, though he'll be hard-pressed to match his numbers over the past two games. As for the Steelers, Wallace has vaulted himself into must-start status due to his present tear, and Mendenhall has been in that category all season long. Roethlisberger's a solid choice at quarterback as well, but Ward and Miller owners need to be cautious with those two usually strong candidates, as the production for each has been very spotty. The Pittsburgh defense always makes for an excellent selection, while Buffalo's should never be used under any circumstances.
This has the makings of a trap game for the Steelers, who could be tempted into looking ahead to next week's huge showdown in Baltimore. However, Buffalo's recent exploits should be enough to get Pittsburgh's attention. While the Bills have done some very positive things over the past few weeks, the fact remains that this is still a bad defensive team as well as one that can be turnover-prone on offense, a real cause for concern against a Steelers outfit that's one of the best in the business at inducing mistakes out of its opponent. They'll force a few more on Sunday and tune up for their upcoming heavyweight bout with the Ravens by delivering one of those sound overall performances that's often been symbolic of the Tomlin era.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 27, Bills 17
11/25 13:23:26 ET