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Sunday Night Football Preview

Sunday Night Football: Deep Dive

by Warren Sharp
Updated On: December 11, 2020, 12:16 pm ET

The Pittsburgh Steelers Defense has played the NFL’s #1 easiest schedule of opposing offenses and #1 easiest schedule of passing offenses

The Steelers have played 6 straight passing offenses that rank bottom-11 in the NFL.  Now they must face Buffalo’s #4 passing offense.  

This will be what I call a “shock to the system” game.  The last 6 weeks the Steelers Defense has played Alex Smith, Robert Griffin, Jake Luton, Garrett Gilbert, Joe Burrow and Lamar Jackson.

None of those quarterbacks nor passing offenses are close to what the Bills bring to the table with Josh Allen.

The Steelers, already without Bud Dupree and Devin Bush, lost LB Robert Spillane last week against Washington and he will miss this game.  Pittsburgh played without CB Steven Nelson, who had the NFL’s second lowest passer rating allowed in zone coverage on the season.  He injured his knee and there is a chance he may be out for the season pending an MRI.  Additionally, the Steelers other CB Joe Haden was concussed in the game against Washington and left the game early.   As with Nelson, it is TBD if Haden will clear concussion protocol in order to play against the Bills.

The Bills passing offense should have substantial success in this game.

Buffalo should take a lesson from the only two teams with top-15 passing offenses the Steelers have played this year and pass the ball on early downs because it will be successful

The only two offenses the Steelers faced that ranked top-15 in passing efficiency this year were the Texans in week 3 and the Titans in week 7.

The Texans Deshaun Watson averaged 11.2 YPA and put up 200 passing yards in the first half, completing 14 of 18 passes while producing a 55% success rate, a 151 passer rating and 2 TDs.  

But on first half early downs, the Texans unintelligently tried to stay balanced against the Steelers #4 run defense.

On these first half early downs, the Texans went 57% pass, running the ball with David Johnson 9 times and CJ Prosise once.  These runs gained a total of 21 yards on 10 carries (2.1 YPC) with a 20% success rate.

Meanwhile, Watson’s passes on these downs recorded 10.1 YPA and a 54% success rate.

Despite the rushing inefficiency, their passing game led the Texans to 21 first half points and they led on the road in Pittsburgh at halftime.  

But things got worse in the second half.  Bill O’Brien predictably thought, with a lead, he could run the ball more.  So he went 71% run on early downs in the second half.  He didn’t bother to realize that runs in the first half were terrible.

These early down runs in the second half gained just 1.6 YPC with a 20% success rate.  And led to terrible down and distance situations.

In the second half, the Texans averaged 11.5 yards to go on second down and 12.4 yards to go on third down.  The Texans didn’t score a single point in the second half and lost.

Like the Texans, the Titans had a strong passing offense.  But like the Texans, the Titans didn’t use it.

On early downs in the first half, the Titans ran the ball on 63% of their plays.  These runs averaged just 3.3 YPC with a 30% success rate.

Because of the style of the Steelers Offense, which is a pass focused, dink and dunk offense, Pittsburgh is able to control the clock just like they would with a run game.

With the Titans Offense being so unproductive on these early downs, they punted on 50% of their first half drives and turned it over on downs in their own territory on another drive.  Additionally, they faced an average of 8.0 yards to go on third down and rarely bypassed third down in the first half.

As such, Tennessee had only 22 first half plays while the Steelers had nearly double that number (39).

Tennessee fell into a huge 24-7 deficit at halftime, had to completely change up their strategy in the second half, and they lost the game.

The moral is, the Steelers haven’t faced hardly any good passing teams.

The two teams that had good QBs, receivers and passing attacks didn’t pass enough.  The Titans and Texans both got too conservative, both prior to getting a lead as well as with a lead.  And it cost each a chance to win.

The Bills must take advantage of the fact that this Steelers secondary hasn’t been tested and test it with the strength of their own offense, the passing game.  Rather than using their offensive weakness (the run game) against the strength of the Steelers Defense (run defense).

Pittsburgh’s DC Keith Butler has a tendency to stick LBs on slot WRs and TEs.  

Buffalo should look at the tape to uncover exactly what personnel they should be in to bring him onto the field.

But he is terrible when in coverage.  I’ve noticed him for years.  This DC even lined up 98 on Keenan Allen.

Buffalo MUST look to isolate these mismatches pre-snap.  The Bills can have a field day targeting WRs or TEs vs the Steelers LBs, particularly slot WRs.

Looking at WRs on early downs in the first three quarters, and splitting by pre-snap target alignment:

Out wide:    8.1 YPA, 37% success, +0.14 EPA, 19 att
Slot:        9.5 YPA, 68% success, +0.08 EPA, 28 att

Targets out wide still have high YPA and EPA, but much lower success.  However, these wide targets could be much worse if the Steelers are without multiple CBs who may be unavailable in this game against the Bills.

I expect another big game out of slot WR Cole Beasley.

The lookahead on this game was the Steelers -2.5.  But then the Steelers dropped their game to Washington while the Bills won their game as an underdog to the 49ers.  The line took a strong shift to Buffalo, moving as high as the Bills -2.5.  

It since took Steelers money and is down to between Buffalo -1 and -2.  This market is moving based on action and it certainly looks like we’re going to get solid, balanced action in this game.

Warren Sharp

Warren Sharp is a football and betting analyst for NBC Sports. As a leading voice in football analytics, Warren writes a yearly book previewing the upcoming season from all angles at his Sharp Football Analysis website. You can follow Warren Sharp on Twitter @SharpFootball.