December 2, 2021

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How do the Steelers avoid a 3rd straight loss to the Bills? Mike Tomlin has 2 specific ways

In advance of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ season-opening road game against the Buffalo Bills, head coach Mike Tomlin spoke extensively about Buffalo’s continuity within their coaching staff and their roster ever since Sean McDermott took over in 2017.

“That (continuity) is one of the reasons why they’re regarded the way that they’re regarded,” Tomlin said at his weekly press conference Tuesday. “I think that’s one of the reasons why they’ve continually been highly competitive within this conference over the last several years. Their core players have basically remained the same, and they’ve gained the benefits of that continuity through players and schematics in terms of their coaching staff.”

Tomlin should know. It’s the third matchup between the franchises over the past three years, with Tomlin’s team losing the first two contests.

And another thing that’s been consistent beyond the results is how the games were played. Neither game was very high scoring. Buffalo won in 2019 by a final score of 17-10 at Heinz Field. The Bills took the 2020 game 26-15 in Orchard Park, N.Y.

The Bills didn’t run wild on the ground in either showdown, averaging just 3.4 and 3.9 yards per carry. But McDermott’s team did win the rushing battle 104-47 last year and 130-51 the previous season.

Also, time of possession has been titled toward the Bills in both affairs, 32:20-27:40 in 2019 and 35:15-25:45 in 2020.

But there are at least two other significant areas of concern Tomlin addressed Tuesday: possession downs and turnovers.

In the 2019 game, Buffalo was 7 of 15 on third and fourth down conversions. The Steelers were 5 of 14. The disparity was worse last year when the Steelers went just 1 of 10 on third downs while the Bills were 7 of 14.

Three of those conversions in 2020 came on a 13-play clock-killing drive in the fourth quarter to seal Buffalo’s victory.

“I think it’s important that we perform particularly in those weighty downs early,” Tomlin said. “We’ve got to play well on possession downs on both sides. We’ve got to do a good job of taking care of the ball and working to minimize the crowd element of it, particularly early on. That’s a component that we’re concerned about.”

As for turnovers, the Steelers forced a pair in both games. But Buffalo’s defense created seven during those eight quarters, five in 2019 and two more during last season’s rematch.

“The turnover game is also significant,” Tomlin said. “If you look at the recent history of this matchup, it’s played out in a very significant way. In 2019, we threw four interceptions here in Pittsburgh against them, and, obviously, that was significant in terms of how the game unfolded.”

It hasn’t just been the volume of turnovers for the Steelers against McDermott’s defense. It’s also been the timing and what has resulted from them.

For instance, last December the Steelers did get one touchdown after a Bills fumble to take a 7-0 lead. However, earlier in the half they went three-and-out after a Mike Hilton interception of Allen.

Meanwhile, Taron Johnson closed the first half with an interception off Ben Roethlisberger that went back for a pick-six. And Levi Wallace’s fourth-quarter interception set up Allen’s game-ending clomp down the field we referenced earlier.

“I thought that the pick-six right before the half last year was as big a play as there was in that game and really kind of changed the trajectory of that game,” Tomlin recalled.

Of the five turnovers the Steelers gifted in 2019, one was a fumble while the offense was at Buffalo’s 10-yard line, down 7-3. A direct snap to James Conner from Maurkice Pouncey was botched. That negated an interception by Steven Nelson just a few plays earlier.

In the second half of that 2019 game, Devin Singletary fumbled. The Steelers recovered up 10-7 at their own 31. They lost six yards on a three-and-out.

Then at 1:54 of the third quarter, Tre’Davious White intercepted Devlin Hodges near midfield and returned the ball to the Pittsburgh 18. That resulted in a field goal to tie the game at 10-10.

Then, trailing 17-10, Hodges threw two interceptions on passes into the end zone on the club’s last two possessions of the game as they were scrambling back in an effort to force overtime.

Chief among those who gave the Steelers problems defensively has been White. The former All-Pro has eight tackles (one for a loss), two interceptions and three passes defensed during the two games.

“I can’t say enough about White at corner,” Tomlin said. “Highly productive. An elite guy at that position and has been for a number of years. He’s been big in the recent history of this series in terms of his playmaking.”

In Wednesday’s podcast, TribLIVE Steelers beat writer Joe Rutter and I talk about how the Steelers will try to reverse these trends. We also address the latest on T.J. Watt, attempting to overcome Stephon Tuitt’s injury, the movement at both offensive tackle spots and big picture predictions on all the teams in the AFC North.

Listen: Tim Benz and Joe Rutter preview the Steelers-Bills game, the latest T.J. Watt news, and more

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.