Defense rebounds as Steelers defeat Bills
A gusty November wind whipped through Heinz Field, sending chilly fans scurrying and EJ Manuel passes fluttering, and it felt like a summer breeze to the much-maligned Steelers defense.
Back on their home field for only the second time in seven weeks, and with chief tormentor Tom Brady safely tucked away 400 miles north, the Steelers were the intimidators and not the intimidated.
The NFL's next-to-worst rushing defense held C.J. Spiller, coming off a 116-yard day against unbeaten Kansas City, to 23 yards. They made Manuel look like … well, an underequipped rookie quarterback, and those guys are 2-17 against Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.
Most of all, the Steelers (3-6) looked like themselves for one of the few times in this major disappointment of a season, their 23-10 beatdown of the Bills on Sunday giving them a badly needed jolt of confidence, if nothing else.
After yielding a franchise-record 55 points to New England, they gave up only three points until the Bills scored their only touchdown with three seconds remaining. And they held Buffalo to 227 yards, or 383 fewer than the record 610 the Brady-led Patriots piled up during their 55-31 rout one week before.
“As a defender, that was embarrassing,” cornerback Ike Taylor said. “If you've got any pride, you want to bounce back.”
Winds blowing steadily in the 20 miles-per-hour range made the temperature feel much lower than the gametime 46 degrees, much to the delight of safety Troy Polamalu. To him, it felt like bounce-back conditions.
“When the Steelers weather starts coming in and it starts getting cold, we start settling in,” Polamalu said. “We play that blue-collar football, (with) that mentality. When the wind blows like it did, it kind of takes away their deep ball game, and we were able to stop the run.”
It helped that the Bills might have stopped themselves.
Manuel, held out the previous four games with a sprained right knee, checked out of a run and into a tricky fade pass on a third-and-goal from the Steelers' 1 early in the game. But he overthrew Stevie Johnson at the windy end of the stadium.
The Bills settled for a field goal, then didn't seriously threaten again until it was much too late as they were outrushed 136-95 — this after the Steelers were outgained 394-147 on the ground the previous two weeks.
“We said coming into this game we were going to run early and run it a lot, and we did that,” said Ben Roethlisberger, who was 18 of 30 for 204 yards and an early interception. “Elements also played into not throwing the ball as much. The wind was blowing pretty hard out there.”
They weren't trade winds, either, as Roethlisberger backed up his agent's earlier denial of an NFL Network story that he's not happy with the offense and might seek a trade during the offseason.
“Totally false,” he said.
As it has been all season, the offense was slow starting. The Steelers didn't get moving until Le'Veon Bell's 34-yard gain on a made-up-on-the-fly shovel pass and a 24-yard completion to Antonio Brown gave them a first down at the 5 late in the second quarter.
On the next play, Jerricho Cotchery came off the line of scrimmage as if to block, only to race to the corner of the end zone to make his fourth touchdown catch in two weeks.
Unlike the Bell trickery, this was a playbook call, and it put the Steelers up 10-3.
“Fall-asleep fade,” Cotchery said, referring to its name. “We kind of lull the guy to sleep, and once he peeks it's a touchdown. Ben did a great job of putting the ball up there so I could run under it.”
Cotchery said offensive coordinator Todd Haley brought back the play from his days as a Bears wide receivers coach.
“He went into the archives for that one, and he pulled it out at the right time,” Cotchery said.
Did the Steelers pull this one out at the right time? They're still 2½ games behind the Bengals (6-4) in the AFC North, and they probably can afford to lose only once more all season if they're going to make any kind of playoff push.
But, given the depths of discouragement to which they plunged against New England, this felt more like business as usual — despite their 11 losses in their previous 15 games.
“We know we're way better than we were in New England,” said rookie linebacker Jarvis Jones, who finally got his first NFL sack. “We had to respond, and we have to keep responding.”
The Steelers went ahead 17-3 in the third quarter on Bell's 4-yard touchdown run, one largely made possible by a pancake block by Mike Adams — lined up as a tight end — against linebacker Nigel Bradham. Bell managed 57 yards on 22 carries, a 2.6 average.
At the same time, the Steelers were limiting a rusty and oft-disrupted Manuel to 43 yards passing in the first half. He finished with 155, but 76 yards came on the final possession that ended with his 2-yard TD throw to Chris Gragg.
“We were out there doing what we were supposed to do, playing good against the run and tackling,” Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley said. “The offense put points on the board and allowed us to get after the quarterback.”
Despite the tricky winds that bothered both punters, Shaun Suisham made all three of his field goal attempts, of 36, 37 and 23 yards.
Brown had a slow start of his own, not catching a pass until near the midpoint of the second quarter, but the NFL's receptions leader finished with six catches for 104 yards. He also added punt returns of 50 and 24 yards.
“We want to control the tempo and clock and facilitate our will on teams, but we've definitely got to get better,” Brown said.
Brown was benched for the Steelers' last, meaningless series in New England for running an imprecise route that led to an interception, but he said it didn't affect his pregame preparation.
“The only negative thing is not thinking positive,” he said. “I took the positive approach, kept a positive mentality.”
With the Steelers trailing eight other teams for two AFC wild-card spots, they believe as a team they can do little else.
“We're consistent on being inconsistent,” Taylor said. “That's our problem this year. Today we were consistent for most part.”
Now they'll find out if this return to consistency will be gone with the wind.
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.
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