Meet The Opponent: Steelers Host Bills in Pivotal Prime Time Showdown
Who: Buffalo Bills (9-4) at Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5)
When: Sunday, December 15 at 8:20 PM ET
Where: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, PA
Broadcast team: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth & Michelle Tafoya
Spread: Steelers (-1.5)
"Meet The Opponent" is a weekly conversational piece between Donnie Druin and a tremendous writer covering their opponent. This week, Donnie is joined by Bradley Gelber, a man of many talents that can be found writing for USA Today's "Bills Wire", and on Twitter @BradleyGelber.
Donnie Druin: First things first, drums or flats? Ranch or blue cheese? America needs to know.
Bradley Gelber: I'm a drums guy and if I said anything other than blue cheese I would be forced to leave Buffalo
Donnie: Much like you pointed out on twitter, this will be Buffalo's first Sunday Night Football appearance since 2007. The Bills have their franchise quarterback, they're playing great defense and are just a game out of first place of the AFC East with a match-up still left against the New England Patriots. The tide appears to be turning in Buffalo, no?
Bradley: It certainly feels like it. A lot of folks outside of the area are quick to point out the Bills' strength of schedule, but you can only beat the teams you play. The Bills played both New England and Baltimore tough and made the league MVP in Lamar Jackson look pedestrian. They had tough losses to the Eagles and Browns, who both have a lot of talent. Overall though, with the defense, it certainly feels like the Bills are on the rise, while New England's time atop the AFC East might finally be coming to an end.
Donnie: I've watched Josh Allen's progression from afar, and I must say, I don't think he's getting enough love around the league for the steps he's taken. Could you talk about his progression and what that's meant for Buffalo? Full disclosure, I wasn't Allen's biggest fan, but he's proving me wrong.
Bradley: I wasn't his biggest fan either. As a matter of fact I was devastated when they took him. I was a Josh Rosen fan, but that's why I cover the team and don't work in the front office. It's hard to always quantify what Josh Allen has meant to this franchise. He has all of the intangibles that you look for in a franchise QB. He is great off the field, a tremendous leader, poised, confident and humble. On the field as you mentioned he has taken steps forward. We all know from his rookie season the threat he can be with his legs, but this year he has grown significantly in his short/intermediate passing game. Despite having arguably the strongest arm in the league, he has really struggled with the deep ball, which remains a key area he needs to improve it.
Overall many outside of WNY will cling to their pre-draft evaluations, or stats without context when they want to put Allen down. To many of us that watch him regularly, he has shown flashes of being the real deal.
Donnie: Not to overstate the obvious, but this is a very important match-up for both teams. The Steelers return home with another impressive defensive performance, and will look to keep that going in front of a primetime crowd. If you had to select one player on the Steelers defense to completely shut down, who would it be?
Bradley: Minkah Fitzpatrick. The Steelers went out and got him for a reason. He can take the ball away like few Safeties in the league and if the Steelers are able to pressure Allen, which given the talent they have upfront is likely, turnovers could ultimately swing this game in either direction. Allen has been much better in terms of turning the ball over of late after struggling with it earlier in the season, but he still makes poor decisions at times. A guy like Fitzpatrick can certainly make you pay for those.
Donnie: Tremaine Edmunds looks to hit over 100 tackles on the season this Sunday. Shaq Lawson and Ed Oliver both have five sacks thus far. The Bills have a very impressive front seven, needless to say. Who's one underrated player you feel like Steelers fans should take note of when Sunday night rolls around?
Bradley: Matt Milano. Perhaps the most underrated linebacker, or dare I say player in the league. When he was injured earlier this season the Bills really struggled, especially in their run defense. He isn't the flashiest player, but always seems to be in the right spot at the right time. The Bills defense has been dominate at times and there are so many different guys the contribute, but Milano slots in perfectly in his role. If you aren't aware of him, you should be.
Donnie: Buffalo's defense has been stout, and will be on the road against an undrafted rookie quarterback who appears to have a hot hand right now. From a schematic standpoint, what's to like about facing Devlin Hodges and the rest of the Steelers offense?
Bradley: I think you nailed it in terms of what's to like. The fact that Hodges is so inexperienced is obviously a benefit to the Bills, who will hope to confuse him. The Bills defense is very, very good at disguising looks having played together for so long, which makes it tough for any young QB, just ask Lamar Jackson.
As I mentioned earlier, the Bills have struggled at times in stopping the run and with Conner returning this week, that could be a potential issue for the Bills. If he can get out to a hot start, that might allow Hodges to take some deep shots as he's shown he's willing to do. If the Bills maintain their gap integrity and can shut down the run, I think it will be a long day for Hodges. The Bills also have one of the better secondaries in the league with Tre White, Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde.
Donnie: If you could, circle some important match-ups that (in your humble opinion) could determine the outcome of the game.
Bradley: I would have liked to see Juju and Tre White go at it, but that obviously won't happen now. I think the main one I look at is how the Bills and Josh Allen handle the blitz. TJ Watt vs. Cody Ford is a huge advantage for Pittsburgh. The Bills rookie RT has been forced into the starting role with Ty Nsekhe out with an injury. Allen was sacked six times last week vs. Baltimore who threw a lot of cover 0 at the Bills because of Allen's issues with the deep ball. The Steelers have much more skilled pass rushers and won't need to send the house to get to Allen. The Bills will need to find ways to be ready, whether it is incorporating more screens and quick throws, or have Allen find a way to take shots and actually connect.
Also, the turnover battle as I mentioned before is huge. When two good teams play, especially with good defenses, the team that takes the ball away more naturally wins more often than not.
Donnie: Final score prediction?
Bradley: I think this is going to be a low scoring slug fest, with two great defenses and two offenses that have some question marks. I'll say the Bills win 16-13 and clinch a playoff berth in Pittsburgh on Sunday night.