The Steelers’ perfect season died with Monday’s lackluster 23-17 home loss to Washington.
The question now is whether their momentum heading toward the postseason is dead, too.
We’ll know a lot more about how strong the Steelers’ pulse is on Sunday when they play at Buffalo.
The Bills (9-3) are riding high off of their win over the 49ers last week, have a one-game lead over the Dolphins in the AFC East and are 5-1 at home. The Steelers (11-1) will be playing their third game in 12 days. So, this will be a tough spot for the Steelers.
The Steelers have rushed for just 285 yards in their past five games, including a season-low 21 yards on 14 carries against Washington. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has thrown 105 passes in the past two games — including 53 against Washington, seven of which were dropped by his receivers.
Through 12 games, he has attempted a league-high 484 passes and is on pace for 645 attempts, which would be the second-most in his career.
The Steelers hope to get their top running back James Conner back. He was activated from the reserve/COVID-19 list Wednesday after missing the past two games. They, too, hope for the return of Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, who missed the past two games on the COVID list and also was activated Friday. The return of those two players would immediately help the sagging running game, which ranks 29th in the NFL.
As much as the lack of rushing production, the drops also have been a concern. The Steelers’ receivers have 13 dropped passes in the past two games, prompting Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin to rant that if his guys aren’t going to catch the “makeable, catchable’’ passes, he’ll replace them with some “who can catch it.’’
The primary culprits have been receiver Diontae Johnson (five drops) and tight end Eric Ebron (four).
Roethlisberger this week took some blame for the drops.
“I think I need to give them more catchable balls, put them in position to catch balls where they’re not going to get hit,” he said.
The Steelers’ biggest challenge on the other side of the ball, which happens to be their strength, will be Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen — who ranks fourth in the league in completion percentage (69.9), fifth in passing yards (3,403), is tied for sixth in touchdown passes (26), seventh in passer rating (105.9) and tied for 15th in interceptions (eight).
“Josh Allen is a big-time challenge because of his throwing ability, his ability to extend plays and to scramble,’’ Tomlin told reporters.
Allen will be a facing a Steelers defense that’s ranked first in the NFL in fewest points allowed, yielding an average of 17.6 per game, and second in pass defense, allowing 199.8 passing yards per game. The Steelers, too, are first in the NFL with 44 sacks and with 16 interceptions.
“They’ve got a very stout front,” Allen said. “They’re able to get to the quarterback. They like to pressure early downs. As long as we can have some first-down success against that, maybe try to get them out of their game early, that’s going to be big for us.”
Allen’s top target, Stefon Diggs, who had 10 catches for 92 yards on Monday night, now has 90 receptions for 1,037 receiving yards through 12 games, his third consecutive season with at least 1,000 receiving yards.
The perfect complement to Diggs is Bills slot receiver Cole Beasley, who had seven catches for 122 yards last week. Beasley leads the NFL with 778 receiving yards from the slot this season. He also became the NFL’s all-time leader in TD receptions by a player 5-foot-8 or shorter, with 33.
This game could deliver a signature win for the Bills, who are looking to solidify their hold on the AFC East, or a big bounce-back victory for the Steelers, who are trying to regain their mojo.
“I’m excited about facing the adversity of losing with this group, man, smiling in the face of it, preparing, getting ready for our next challenge,” Tomlin told reporters after the loss to Washington. “Different points along the journey you get a chance to learn about yourself, who you are, what you’re made of individually and collectively. It takes the journey to reveal that.’’