W2W4: Bills at Steelers

November, 9, 2013
11/09/13
12:00
PM ET
PITTSBURGH -- Back in the spring, this game was considered among the tougher contests on the Buffalo Bills' schedule.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, although 8-8 last season, haven't lost at home to the Bills since 1993. For a young team with a first-year head coach and rookie quarterback, it would be a challenge.

That's still true, but after the Steelers have stumbled through the first half of the season with a 2-6 record, Sunday's trip to Pittsburgh could be a prime opportunity for the Bills, the first of many on their second-half schedule.

Here's what to watch for:

1. Can Manuel turn it around Since Week 6, the first week the Bills were without EJ Manuel, they've had the second-worst QBR in the NFL; their 18.5 mark ranks ahead of only the New York Jets over the past four weeks. The expectation is that Manuel, who head coach Doug Marrone confirmed Friday will start, can turn the ship around. If he's to do it, the situation could hardly be better: the Steelers allowed 55 points last week to the New England Patriots, who've had an inconsistent offense. On the season, opposing quarterbacks have a 97.7 QBR against Pittburgh, second worst only to Oakland (99.0).

2. How does Manuel change his game? The Bills were hesitant to admit it after Manuel was injured in Week 5, but it's now clear that they want Manuel to better protect himself as a runner. The strongest indication of that came Wednesday, when Marrone said Manuel "better be better" about avoiding injury. We'll be keeping an eye out for the possibility of Manuel taking less designed runs, as well as how he handles himself with the ball. Does he slide, go out of bounds or keep charging ahead? Marrone has made the point that it's hard to coach competitiveness out of players, including quarterbacks who want to gain big yardage on scrambles.

3. Adjusting without Woods: Wide receiver Robert Woods (ankle) is doubtful for Sunday's game. He's played over 90 percent of snaps this season, and while there has been an ebb and flow to his production, he's become a significant part of an offense that relies on more than just its top two receivers. Without Woods, the Bills will have a mix of T.J. Graham and Marquise Goodwin -- who will play despite a hamstring injury -- alongside top target Steve Johnson. The one problem that comes to mind with this group is that, while there is no shortage of speed and big-play ability, it lacks a true short-range, possession-type receiver.

4. Spiller a 'full go?' Marrone made no mistake about it this week: after removing running back C.J. Spiller from the injury report, he feels that Spiller is a "full go." For Spiller, who played just 29 percent of snaps last week, that doesn't necessarily mean his playing time will spike. Spiller said Thursday that he still feels like he's not completely back to normal following his high ankle sprain. While he exploded for a couple of big runs against the Kansas City Chiefs, there still isn't a feeling on this end that he'll get a "full" workload Sunday.

5. Field conditions worth watching: Heinz Field is one of the few remaining natural grass fields in the NFL. On Saturday night, the University of Pittsburgh will host Notre Dame on the turf, followed hours later by the Steelers-Bills tilt. That doesn't leave a whole lot of time for the field to be treated and prepared for the next game, so how players from both teams deal with what could be difficult footing is something to monitor. Complicating matters is the chance of rain during Sunday's game.

Mike Rodak

ESPN Buffalo Bills reporter

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