Uh, oh. The Steelers are going to be that kinda team again in 2021, aren’t they?
That “30-Minute Men” team we talked about at length last season. Especially during that opening stretch of 2020 when Mike Tomlin’s crew won 11 in a row, largely by playing “above the line” football in only one half of the game.
And despite being lousy in the other half.
I never thought they could pull off that 30-minute trick on the road in Buffalo to start the year, since the Bills are one of the favorites to win the AFC and go to the Super Bowl. But that’s exactly what the Steelers did.
They went into the locker room down 10-0 after 30 minutes of anemic offense, shaky special teams and a defense that had just allowed a 13-play scoring drive to close out the first half.
Then, in the second half, they looked like Super Bowl contenders themselves en route to a 23-16 win in Western New York.
Let’s take a look at how the Steelers pulled it off during our first “Feats of Strength-Airing of Grievances” post for 2021.
Feats of strength
Cam can: Cameron Heyward was a force throughout the victory.
The Steelers defensive lineman recovered a fumble forced by T.J. Watt. He got credit for a forced fumble. He also deflected two passes, one of which was crucial. Heyward’s tip of a third-down toss at the team’s 19-yard line on the opening drive of the game forced the Bills to settle for a field goal.
That was huge because Isaiah McKenzie’s game-opening 75-yard kick return to the Steelers’ 24-yard line had the Bills Mafia ready to explode in the first five minutes.
In fact, the entire pass rush was impressive. Keith Butler’s defense only had three sacks. But it felt like much more than that. Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen was hit eight times, and the front seven generally was in Allen’s face most of the day.
“Those three edge guys Watt and (Alex) Highsmith and (Melvin) Ingram, they delivered along with others. Cam Heyward and so forth,” Tomlin said after the game.
Dominance up front by the Steelers defense also manifested in four holding flags against Buffalo.
Special teams turnaround: For as much as the Steelers special teams were an issue early in this game, they got back on the rails when it mattered.
They gave up that big opening kick return, Pressley Harvin III had an ugly 30-yard punt and almost had another one blocked.
However, as the game went along, the special teams were a major plus.
Harvin also had punts of 46 and 51 yards. Chris Boswell was 5 for 5 on place kicks, including a clutch 45-yard field goal with 2:42 left to give the team a two-score lead, 23-13.
But Miles Killebrew’s blocked punt and Ulysees Gilbert’s ensuing recovery for a touchdown was the biggest play of the game.
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) September 12, 2021
“At halftime, I heard a lot of the core special teams players — Derek Watt and others — saying we needed to even the score (for the big return) in that perspective,” Tomlin said. “We needed splash in that phase of the game. They delivered. And delivered big,”
Red-zone recoveries: Two defensive stands were key for the Steelers.
As mentioned, after McKenzie’s kick return to the Steelers’ 24-yard line, the Steelers forced a field goal.
Then the Steelers defense stiffened to withstand a Bills counterpunch to the Steelers punt-block touchdown in the fourth quarter. Down 20-10, Buffalo charged from its own 26 to the Steelers’ 10-yard line in five plays. But Allen and company only got three yards from there, settling for a field goal.
That gave the offense plenty of breathing room to bleed the clock on the ensuing drive and wind up with another field goal to extend the lead back to 10.
Practice what they preach: During his weekly news conference, Tomlin made a big point about the need for his team to limit turnovers and win possession downs.
The Steelers had been poor in both categories in losses against the Bills in both 2019 and 2020.
On Sunday, they were better, stopping Buffalo 12 times in 21 third- and fourth-down attempts. Additionally, they got one turnover and committed none.
Airing of grievances
Hacking before halftime: I hated the drive from Buffalo against the Steelers defense to end the second half.
For as lousy as the offense and special teams were to start the game, it looked like Tomlin’s team may go into halftime only down 3-0. But then the defense withered, allowing a 13-play, 91-yard touchdown drive that lasted five minutes and 39 seconds.
Buffalo only had four third-down conversions in the first half. Three of them came on that drive.
Offensive line as advertised: For as bad as the offensive line looked in the first half, it could’ve been worse. Consider how Roethlisberger saved one sack by barely avoiding an intentional grounding and another by forcing a pass — an overturned interception — on a free play because of defensive holding.
As it was, though, Roethlisberger got sacked twice and hit six times. Also, the Steelers only averaged 3.6 yards per run. Even that mundane total was bolstered by a 25-yard reverse from Chase Claypool.
In the second half, the offensive line at least looked capable. In the first half, it was as bad as we expected.
Thankfully for coach Adrian Klemm’s bunch, Buffalo couldn’t capitalize.
Rotten red-zone sequences: The Steelers started to find some offensive rhythm in the second half with two decent drives, but they couldn’t finish in the red zone.
One red-zone sequence started with a first down at the Bills’ 12-yard line. The other began first-and-goal at the Bills’ 4-yard line. Both resulted in short Chris Boswell field goals.
Those two drives totaled 21 plays, 131 yards and 8:38 of possession time for six points.
Fortunately for Steelers fans, Diontae Johnson made a sparkling touchdown catch to give the Steelers a 13-10 lead on a red-zone pass from Ben Roethlisberger on the next drive.
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) September 12, 2021
Then the special teams came through with the punt block, and the game turned for good.
Thinking about Tunch: The only thing that made me sad about the outcome of the game was thinking about how much my former iHeart Radio colleague Tunch Ilkin would’ve liked calling it on WDVE.
This was the first game the Steelers played since Ilkin passed away Sept. 4 following a battle with pneumonia. The former offensive lineman and Steelers Radio Network color analyst had been hospitalized for about 10 days, and he also was battling ALS.
That was exactly the kind of game Ilkin liked calling — a big second-half comeback on the road.
I just tell myself he was watching somewhere and enjoying every minute. I’ll miss seeing him this Sunday at Heinz Field.
Everybody who knew him will.