Buffalo Bills: Ben Roethlisberger

Observation Deck: Buffalo Bills

August, 16, 2014
Aug 16
10:59
PM ET


PITTSBURGH -- The Buffalo Bills' 19-16 preseason loss Saturday night to the Pittsburgh Steelers was overshadowed by an injury to Sammy Watkins, the Bills' prized acquisition from May's draft.

Watkins was hit in the ribs on a third-down pass early in the first quarter and quickly grabbed at the area in pain. He was taken to the locker room for evaluation and did not return.

Here are some other thoughts on the Bills' preseason loss:
  • Quarterback EJ Manuel and the Bills' first-team offense played the entire first half, although that wasn't the plan entering the game. The Bills failed to get into the end zone on their first three trips into Steelers territory, so Doug Marrone wanted his offense to try a fourth time. It failed, as the Bills reached the Steelers' 3-yard line before two consecutive incompletions led to a turnover on downs. The Bills' red zone offense struggled last season and it's a problem that hasn't gone away. Manuel has yet to throw a touchdown pass this preseason.
  • As for Manuel's overall performance, there were ups and downs. His best throw of the night came on a 16-yard completion to Robert Woods that moved the chains in the second quarter. Overall, the Bills' first-team offense was 5-for-9 on third downs, which was a brighter spot. However, Manuel's night was marred by an interception by Ryan Shazier on a pass that was thrown slightly behind tight end Scott Chandler. Manuel's final stat line was 17-for-27 for 148 yards. There was not marked improvement over his outing on Aug. 8.
  • Watkins and Mike Williams received the start at receiver, with Chris Hogan entering on the first drive as a slot receiver. When Watkins was injured, he was replaced by Woods, who finished the first half with three catches for 49 yards. The Bills' leading receiver? Running back Fred Jackson, who caught seven passes for 28 yards. It was more of a dink-and-dunk night from Manuel, especially without Watkins.
  • The Steelers' offense got off to a quick start when Ben Roethlisberger found Antonio Brown for a 76-yard catch-and-run on the Steelers' second play from scrimmage. On the play, safety Duke Williams collided with cornerback Corey Graham, allowing Brown to run free over the middle. Williams received the start in place of Aaron Williams, who came on with the second-team defense in the third quarter. Marrone previously said not to read into Aaron Williams' playing time as an indication of his performance in the preseason.

W2W4: Buffalo Bills

August, 16, 2014
Aug 16
12:00
PM ET
PITTSBURGH -- The Buffalo Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers will meet in a preseason contest Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET) at Heinz Field.

1. EJ Manuel's consistency: Speaking to reporters after his 17-for-22 performance in Thursday's practice, Manuel stressed how he wanted to be more consistent and to carry over his successes from one practice (or game) to the next. He'll have a chance to do that Saturday. It's a similar story to last season. He completed 69 percent of his passes in Week 2, only to see his rate drop to the mid-40s in Weeks 3 and 4. Likewise, he posted a 71.4 rate in Week 11 before dropping down to the mid-50s the next two games. Manuel completed 69 percent of his throws in last Friday's game and 77 percent in Thursday's practice. Staying in that general range Saturday will suggest an improvement over his inconsistencies from last season.

2. Sammy Watkins' strides: If Manuel is storyline No. 1A with the Bills, then Watkins is No. 1B. Outside of his early drop in Wednesday's session, Watkins had another strong week of practice. Last week, it translated over into the game, with Manuel finding his top receiver three times for 21 yards. The two are likely to see more playing time together Saturday -- potentially through the first half -- so there should more opportunities to build chemistry in a live game setting. We've yet to see the duo stretch the field vertically in the preseason. Perhaps that will change Saturday.

3. Can defense maintain its pace? Outside of the Panthers' early touchdown drive, the Bills' first-team defense hasn't allowed more than 5 total yards on any drives this preseason. They've been downright smothering and it starts with the defensive line. They'll have a longer run in Saturday's game and a tougher opposing quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger. Does the defense continue to hold up well, or are some holes exposed? Our attention will be on the cornerbacks, especially Stephon Gilmore's potential matchup with Antonio Brown. Expect Roethlisberger to test that one early.

Double Coverage: Bills at Steelers

November, 8, 2013
11/08/13
11:00
AM ET
Roethlisberger/ManuelUSA TODAY SportsBen Roethlisberger, left, and EJ Manuel are trying to guide their teams through difficult seasons.
Two teams that have combined for five wins and don’t appear to be going anywhere this season meet Sunday at Heinz Field. The Pittsburgh Steelers will be angry after getting routed Sunday in New England, but the Buffalo Bills might be equally desperate after losing four of their past five games.

It looks like EJ Manuel will return for the Bills, but rookie quarterbacks have not fared well against Dick LeBeau defenses. But no rookie quarterback has faced the Steelers defense when it has been this vulnerable under LeBeau.

ESPN.com reporters Mike Rodak (Bills) and Scott Brown (Steelers) take an in-depth look at the first meeting between the teams since the Steelers won a 19-16 overtime game at Buffalo in 2010.

Brown: Mike, is this team Pittsburgh North? There are a lot of Steelers connections there with general manager Doug Whaley and a handful of the players. The two I’m interested in hearing about are the starting guards -- Doug Legursky and Kraig Urbik. How have the two played, and how has the offensive line played overall?

Rodak: Scott, I think Whaley would like it to be Pittsburgh North, eventually. The Steelers are one of the most successful franchises, and Whaley comes from that background. Defensively, there are similarities between Mike Pettine's blitz-heavy scheme and much of the zone blitzing that LeBeau uses. And offensively, Manuel is a big, mobile quarterback with some speedy receivers, much like Ben Roethlisberger and his pass-catchers in Pittsburgh. Ultimately, though, I think the Bills want to forge their own identity, and the Steelers connections don't run much deeper than Whaley and a few others.

As far as Urbik and Legursky, they haven't been Pro Bowlers by any stretch. Returning from a knee injury last month, Legursky helped stabilize a left guard position that has been reeling since losing Andy Levitre in free agency last offseason. But as a whole, the offensive line has allowed more sacks -- the seventh most in the NFL, to be precise -- than it would prefer.

Looking at the Steelers' big picture, what has gone wrong this season? From an outside perspective, an aging defense appears to be part of it, but that can't tell the whole story. What are the biggest problem areas?

Brown: Age is only part of the equation when looking at the Steelers’ struggles. The other half is that the Steelers were so good for so long at developing younger players to step in for veteran stalwarts who retired or signed elsewhere. That hasn’t happened in recent years, in part because the quality of Steelers’ drafts has slipped.

The drop-off in talent hasn’t been as severe as it would seem for a team that has lost 11 of its past 15 games, which leads me to perhaps the Steelers’ biggest problem on the field: This team is simply allergic to momentum. The Steelers, when they were winning regularly, played so well off one another as far as the different units. This season, more often than not, the offense has not been able to bail out the defense and vice versa.

I’m curious what has held back the Bills, aside from the instability and inexperience at quarterback. This team seems to have its share of talent, so why aren’t the Bills winning more?

Rodak: The quarterback situation is a big part of it, like you said. No matter who's been out there -- Manuel, Thad Lewis or Jeff Tuel -- they haven't been able to make enough plays to win in the NFL. It's really been the defense that has picked up the slack in two of the Bills' three wins this season. Against the Baltimore Ravens, it intercepted Joe Flacco five times, and just when it looked like the Miami Dolphins were going to win a few weeks ago, Mario Williams came up with a game-changing strip-sack. So when dissecting why the Bills are 3-6, their quarterback play is the overriding factor.

Otherwise, I think the story is similar to Pittsburgh's. The defense has played well at times, but when it hasn't played well, the offense hasn't been up to snuff. And when the offense has started cranking -- and that's been rare -- the defense has dropped off. Doug Marrone referenced Wednesday the need for the defense to generate more turnovers -- it hasn't forced one in more than two games -- which has caused the Bills' turnover differential for the season to turn negative this week.

What has been the problem offensively for the Steelers? I've always counted Roethlisberger among the top 10 quarterbacks in the league, and at least on paper, there is some serious talent between Le'Veon Bell, Heath Miller and Antonio Brown. Is the offensive line really that bad to drag everyone down?

Brown: The offense played without Bell and Miller for the first two games, and it showed as the Steelers managed just two touchdowns in those contests. Bell has stabilized the running game, and Miller’s return has been huge considering his value in the running and passing game.

The offense’s struggles stem most from the ongoing shuffling along the offensive line. The unit, for whatever reason, is consistently decimated by injuries, and this season is no different. Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey went down with a season-ending knee injury in the opener. The Steelers even lost a lineman (Levi Brown) to a season-ending injury in pregame warm-ups. Those kinds of things have happened to the Steelers’ offensive line, it seems, every season since Mike Tomlin took over as head coach in 2007.

The line has played better in recent weeks, and I thought it did fairly well in New England even with the crowd noise forcing the Steelers to use a silent snap count. It faces another challenge this week as the Bills have the kind of defensive line that can really give the Steelers fits.

Williams has been a beast, and the Steelers will probably have to give left tackle Kelvin Beachum some help with Williams. Mike, what about the two interior lineman, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus? They seem like they can be plenty disruptive.

Rodak: They certainly can be, Scott. Each has four sacks this season, which puts both on pace for career highs. It seems like each week, when we talk to opposing head coaches, they start off by mentioning Dareus, Mario Williams and Kyle Williams. They're the strength of the team. Kyle Williams in particular has shown a knack for being disruptive in the backfield at the right time, while Dareus has improved from what some felt were subpar seasons since being drafted third overall in 2011. The Steelers' offensive line will need to hold its ground and allow Roethlisberger to take shots at the weaker points of the defense.

What do the Steelers need to do to turn this season around? Does any hope remain that they will make the playoffs?

Brown: Believe it or not, the players still believe they have a shot at the playoffs given how mediocre the AFC has been aside from a few teams. But they are also realistic that their focus has to stay squarely on what is in front of them.

The biggest thing the Steelers need to do to turn around their season is get back to what has worked for them for so long. That starts with stopping the run. As much as some Steelers fans want to lay blame for the defense’s failings on LeBeau -- and the fact that he is 76 -- the reality is this: LeBeau didn’t suddenly forget how to coach. However, his defense doesn’t work if the Steelers can’t stop the run and force teams into obvious passing situations.

Offensively, the Steelers have been at their best this season when they have established balance. If they want to take better care of Roethlisberger, who is taking another beating this season, they need to limit his passing attempts. The best way to do that is establish the ground game and run Bell early and often. Sounds easy enough, no?

 

SPONSORED HEADLINES