It was tale of two halves in Buffalo. After doing virtually nothing in the first half, Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense put together four consecutive scoring drives in the second half. Pittsburgh also tacked on a special teams score while turning a 10-0 halftime deficit into a 23-16 upset victory.
The game started fast, with Isaiah McKenzie returning the opening kickoff 75 yards to set up Tyler Bass' 37-yard field goal. But both teams would struggle on offense for the remainder of the half before Bills quarterback Josh Allen was able to lead a 13-play, 91-yard drive that ended with his 3-yard touchdown pass to Gabriel Davis on Buffalo's final drive before intermission. Buffalo had nearly twice as many yards on that drive as the Steelers had during the entire half.
Pittsburgh countered with four consecutive scores to take a 20-10 fourth-quarter lead. The Steelers started the half with two 10-play drives that ended with short Chris Boswell field goals. Their third drive of the half ended with Roethlisberger's 5-yard touchdown pass to Diontae Johnson, who made an impressive grab over Levi Wallace. Najee Harris' best run of the day, an 18-yard burst through the left side of Buffalo's defense, set up Johnson's touchdown. The Steelers' lead swelled to 10 points after Ulysees Gilbert III returned Miles Killebrew's blocked punt 9 yards for a score.
Devin Singletary's runs of 15 and 25 yards set up Bass' second field goal with 5:26 left. The Steelers responded to Boswell's third field goal with one of their own, which was set up by Roethlisberger's 14-yard completion to Chase Claypool on a third-and-8 play. The Bills responded with yet another field goal, but JuJu Smith-Schuster's onside kick recovery sealed the Steelers' first win of 2021.
Here's a breakdown of what transpired Sunday in Buffalo.
Why the Steelers won
The Steelers played complementary football. Pittsburgh's defense managed to keep the Steelers in the game despite the offense's early struggles. T.J. Watt's sack/forced fumble of Allen in the first half was part of Pittsburgh's dominant defensive performance. While Buffalo gained 371 total yards, the Steelers allowed just 254 passing yards from Allen, who averaged 284 passing yards per game in 2020.
After just 54 yards in the first half, Pittsburgh's offense found its footing in the second half. Similar to 2020, Roethlisberger went back to his short, quick passing that is predicated on spreading the ball around. Eight different Steelers caught passes, with Johnson, Smith-Schuster, and Claypool catching a combined 12 passes for 133 yards. Pittsburgh also received a steady performance from Harris, who had 17 touches in his regular-season debut.
The Steelers special teams made a bevy of solid plays following their hiccup on the opening kickoff. Gilbert's score was the big play, but rookie punter Pressley Harvin III had a 51-yard punt and two other punts that landed inside the 20-yard line. Boswell made each of his five kicks that included his game-clinching, 48-yard field goal.
Why the Bills lost
The Bills were just 1 of 4 in the red zone. They also committed several costly penalties that included several holding calls in the first half. Wallace committed several penalties in the second half that contributed to Steelers scores. And while they were exceptional in the first half, the Bills defense was unable to force a turnover.
The Bills offense (minus running back Zack Moss on Sunday) did not try to establish its running game until falling behind by double digits. Buffalo's offense also came up short on two critical fourth-down attempts during Pittsburgh's second-half scoring spree. Allen made several plays with his feet, but he was under considerable pressure throughout the game. He was sacked twice by Watt and a third time by Cameron Heyward.
Ahead 10-6, the Bills decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Steelers' 41-yard line with 13:36 left. Instead of a long field goal attempt or a punt that would have pinned the Steelers deep inside their own territory, the Bills called an outside run play for running back Matt Breida that was stuffed by cornerback Cam Sutton for a 7-yard loss. The Steelers took their first lead five plays later.
Play of the game
We'll put the spotlight on the Steelers' special teams, specifically on Killebrew and Gilbert for their play on Pittsburgh's blocked punt. It was Pittsburgh's first special teams score since Johnson's 85-yard return for a touchdown in the Steelers' 2019 win over the Cardinals in Week 14.
Honorable mention goes to Claypool's leaping grab over Tre'Davious White that set up the Steelers' first score.
"It was just something that we anticipated. They've gotten in that structure a bunch; four, five times in the preseason they just [ran] the dive to the fullback. We figured that that would be the next phase of [that play], to fake that dive to the fullback and flip that ball out there to [the running back].
"We talked about it, but you can't take anything away from Cam Sutton. Just a really aware play and big-time football play." -- Steelers coach Mike Tomlin on his defense's key fourth-down stop while Pittsburgh trailing 10-6 in the fourth quarter
Buffalo will begin the AFC East portion of its schedule with a road game in Miami. The Dolphins kicked off the regular season with a home game against the Patriots. Pittsburgh will make its home debut against the Raiders, who have won five of the last seven matchups against the two rivals from the '70s. The Raiders will open their season with a home game against the Ravens on Monday night.
Can Big Ben return to glory? Will Najee Harris rush for 1,000 yards in his rookie season? Get the latest Steelers scoop from Bryan DeArdo, our local expert who's on the ground in Pittsburgh, by downloading the CBS Sports app. If you already have the app, favorite the Steelers to get up-to-the-second news.