As the Pittsburgh Steelers walked off the field and into the locker room at Highmark Stadium on Sunday, rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth pulled veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger aside after they upset the Buffalo Bills on Sunday afternoon, 23-16.
'Holy cow, it's loud out there," Freiermuth said to his quarterback.
'Yeah," Roethlisberger replied. "Welcome to the NFL."
Six players on the Steelers offense played their first game in front of a full NFL stadium on Sunday. And playing in front of over 70,000 fans, who are also known as Bills Mafia, is no picnic. They're rabid. They're passionate. And now, they cheer on one of the better teams in the entire league.
"We had a lot of first-timers out there," Roethlisberger said. "And that's a hostile place. Those fans are awesome. They were loud. It was very, very loud."
It was no fluke or oversight that the Steelers were 6.5-point underdogs heading into Sunday's matchup with the Bills. Not only is Buffalo poised for another run at the AFC Championship, or even their first Super Bowl appearance since 1993, the Steelers offense comes with several question marks this season—and one big question in particular.
Listen, the offensive line was bad in the first half. Plain, pure and simple. There are no two ways around it. First-round running back Najee Harris had eight yards on the ground in the first half. Both of the sacks against Roethlisberger was in the first 30 minutes of the game. It was a half of football where every Steelers fan had the right to think their worst fears about this season were realized.
The offensive line was a concern last season when it included veteran Pro Bowlers like David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey. Now, the only returning member of last year's starting unit is Chukwuma Okorafor.
To put it lightly, the offensive line is a unit in transition. To be a little more blunt, expect a lot of growing pains this season. And they were evident, and at times, hard to watch on Sunday.
But when Big Ben walked up to the podium to greet the media after the victory, he expressed how proud he was of the young group for putting their heads down and playing through the adversity. He even used a Tomlinism, saying, "they didn't blink."
"A lot of environmental factors," Roethlisberger said. "That's fans, that's weather, that's a really good defense, a good team. You know what? I'm proud of the guys ... They stood up in the face of not playing well early."
To be fair, the young guys weren't the only ones with their backs against the wall. Even Roethlisberger himself was off on several throws in the first half. Diontae Johnson, who has become a go-to target for Roethlisberger, went down with what looked to be a scary injury as he hobbled off the field after colliding with a defender on a crossing route.
Overall, the offense just couldn't find a rhythm. But, with the help of a phenomenal performance by the defense, the offense remained within striking distance by not making the big mistake and letting the game get out of reach.
"That was huge," Roethlisberger said. "We didn't do what we wanted to do but we didn't turn the ball over, we didn't do anything catastrophic. The fact that we came in at halftime and it wasn't like there was a big rah-rah, no one really spoke and acted crazy; it was just like, "Okay, this is what we're going to do in the second half. Let's go do it."
And the adjustments made by the offense worked. What's more, they didn't panic and get one-dimensional. That's what the 2020 Steelers did. When they got into trouble and couldn't run the football, the answer was to let Ben throw the ball 60 times, forfeit any effort to possess the ball and try to out-gun the opposing offense.
The very first play out of the gate in the second half was a run out of the shotgun to Najee Harris for a nine-yard gain—more yards than he had in the entire first half. The offense opened things up a little more, continued to mix in plays, called a heavy dose of RPOs and even pulled off a nice end-around that resulted in a 25-yard run by Chase Claypool that nearly found pay dirt.
In addition, Johnson came back from his first half injury and made arguably the play of the game with a stellar catch in the back corner of the end zone to give the Steelers a 13-10 lead. Of course, you might remember that Johnson was benched when the Steelers visited the Bills last season after dropping several passes in the game. So the adversity for a key player in the Steelers offense was not only physical or environmental.
"There are a lot of guys who pushed through a lot of things in an effort to deliver the victory," said head coach Mike Tomlin.
"He's a phenomenal football player," Roethlisberger said of Johnson. "He's a guy that is an incredible talent ... He's one of those guys; you get the ball in his hand and just sit back and watch it."
Outside of the victory formation at the end of the game, the offense produced points in every possession in the second half. It wasn't perfect, and this group has a lot of growing up to do. The offense could have helped close out the game with better execution of some RPO plays to keep the clock running.
But as Mike Tomlin said in his postgame press conference, the Steelers were not "style point oriented" on Sunday. They were just looking to get a win in a hostile environment against a very good football team.
A win like this can't be underestimated.
"I can't say enough about the effort of our guys, and they're ability to collectively smile in the face of adversity," Tomlin said. "Hopefully it's a sign of what we're capable of from a will standpoint. One week in is not going to write your stories. It's just good to come into an environment against an AFC giant, if you will—the defending AFC East champs—and get a win in September."
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