"Moment of Truth" Game for Bills

<B>Where to begin…: </B> <P> Will the real Buffalo Bills please stand up! <P> The foolin' around with games versus the league's dregs is over. This Steelers game will be a "day of reckoning" of sorts for these Bills.

The Bills have built incredible momentum over the last six weeks largely vs. teams that couldn't work themselves out of the proverbial wet paper bag and most sporting a laundry list of injuries contrasted with the Bills with few injuries total and no key ones. What the Steelers bring to Buffalo this Sunday will be interesting to say the least given that on paper they are playing for nothing other than a 15-1 record, which as I see it is worth playing for, a game short of perfect and a Steeler regular season record. It may not however be enough to motivate a Steelers team simply awaiting a much needed bye week for their wounded to heal prior to facing a wild card round winner in the divisional round of the playoffs in two more weeks.

Defense:

Rush D: Bills 5th, Steelers 1st
Pass D: Bills 3rd, Steelers 4th
Yardage D: Bills 3rd, Steelers 1st
Scoring D: Bills 7th, Steelers 2nd

Offense:

Rush O: Bills 13th, Steelers 2nd
Pass O: Bills 25th, Steelers 26th
Yardage O: Bills 24th, Steelers13th
Scoring O: Bills 8th, Steelers 10th

Key Players and Matchups:

Humpty vs. himself:

Humpty + Big Game vs. Excellent Defense = DISASTER

This game will be interesting insofar as Humpty goes. There is no question that Humpty will be called upon to ante-up in this game vs. a team featuring the top rushing D, top yardage D, and second ranked scoring D. This is also a big game. Humpty does not exactly have a portfolio of successes in big games such as this one. In fact, history suggests that if he can post an average game here by typical performance standards then he will be "ahead of the curve" as it were. As such, this game figures to provide fans and media with yet another data point regarding Humpty's value and viability going forward. In fact, this game could single-handedly either heap accolades or criticism on the Bills' management and coaching staff for their decisions regarding Humpty.

Versus top 10 scoring defenses this season Humpty has tossed 5 TDs and had 12 turnovers with 2 of those TDs having come in the second game vs. the Jets. He has a completion percentage in those games of 56.7% and has averaged 176 yards passing and three sacks per game.

Bills OL vs. Steeler Front-7:

The Bills are outmatched here if the Steelers start their starting line. Kendrell Bell may start as well, however the Steelers may give their backup DTs more playing time in this game which would favor the Bills.

Willis McGahee vs. the Steeler Rushing Defense:

There are two schools of thought here. The first follows the typical national level media mantra that Willis McGahee has somehow been the catalyst for the scoring and offensive success of this Bills team. The second, held by moi, says that his "success" has more followed and occurred as a result of the success of other parts of the team least of all not the special teams in setting up uncanny field position on the season. The latter has also seen none of the speed and "pounding ability" often mentioned in the same sentence with McGahee. As such, this will be a very good test for the youngster from Miami.

Steelers OL vs. the Bills DL & Front-7:

The Steelers bring a much better OL to the table than most that the Bills have played this season easily. Steeler coach Bill Cowher has insisted that he plans on protecting Tommy Maddox who is his security blanket in the playoffs for Ben Roethlisburger. The Bills, at least for the early going, can fully expect to see the Steelers starting OL.

Tommy Maddox vs. the Bills Front-7:

This matchup will be determined by the amount of time that Maddox has in the pocket as well as how well the Steelers can run the ball. The Steelers are a rushing team yet one that has a solid cadre of wide receivers and other receivers and one that rivals the best in the NFL. If the Bills blitz often as they have throughout their six game winning streak, then they will risk getting burned deep. The only team among those beaten by the Bills that had a similar capability was the Bengals who had little difficulty moving the football. Rather, their woes came about as a result of a rusty and off Jon Kitna having started for an injured Carson Palmer for the first time. The Steelers have a better rushing game than the Bengals and a comparable passing game yet a vastly superior defense and rushing defense in particular. The Bills struggled to move the ball vs. Cincy. Regardless, as this analyst sees it, if the Bills are unable to capitalize off of Maddox's errors and/or sloppy play, then this game may be over by the half or early in the third quarter.

Bills 12th Man vs. the Steeler Offense:

The Steelers will attempt to take the wind out of the Bills sails by dominating this game early on. The Bills' players should be up for this game as none other during the Commander Tom era, so motivation and emotion should not be a problem. The legendary 12th Man at the Ralph will aid in the cause in spades as long as the Steelers do not take them out of the game early.

Injuries:

The Bills have been more fortunate with injuries this season than any other team. The most significant injury has been to Travis Henry which fit the team's plans very well giving them all license to start Willis McGahee without any contest from an injured Henry at all. Mark Campbell's injury and placement on IR along with that of his backup Tim Euhus are the only injuries of concern as a result heading into this game. Should the Bills win, injury wise they will be in fine shape heading into the playoffs should either Denver or the Jets lose.

The Steelers have had far more extensive injuries than the Bills beginning with rookie sensation Ben Roethlisburger who will not play on Sunday. The drop from Roethlisburger to Maddox will be a greater drop-off than it was for Cincy from Palmer to Kitna to be sure. Tommy Maddox, while the Steelers' starter for a couple of seasons prior to Roethlisburger's drafting, is a less than stellar journeyman backup type QB, nothing more. Linebacker Kendrell Bell, RB Deuce Staley, and CB Chad Scott may all play while RB Jerome Bettis will sit along with CB Deshea Townsend likely being replaced by Scott if Scott is ready to go. The backup defensive linemen are likely to see more time for the Steelers as well.

Keys to the Game:

3rd-down Conversions: The Bills rank in the middle of the stack in 3rd-down conversions but have not been able to convert 3rd-downs with any consistency in two games each vs. New England and the Jets and in one game vs. Baltimore going an abysmal 24.6% in those games. Willis McGahee has been highly unreliable on third downs this season to be polite and the Bills seem to have avoided his use on third downs, even short ones, adding additional pressure to Humpty and the passing game on third downs, not a good thing vs. a team that likes to blitz.

Stopping the Steelers rushing game: The Steelers are averaging over 150 yards-per-game rushing. The Bills must prevent the Steelers from running the ball the way that Rudi Johnson and the Bengals did two weeks prior. Verron Haynes may be a household name for the Bills following this game. He had a very good game vs. the Ravens, a top rushing defense, in relief. Jerome Bettis likely will not see action on Sunday but Deuce Staley may play. Haynes is fresh and seemingly capable and speedy.

Moving the Ball: The Bills will have to move the ball from their own end of the field likely. Anything can happen, however vs. a team such as the Steelers with the defense that they possess, it is unlikely that the Bills will set themselves up for some of the field position that they have been fortunate to have had on the season courtesy of the Special Teams or Defense and giving false perceptions that the Bills' offense has improved.

Regular readers know that I have been attempting to enlighten fans to this point throughout the season. It should raise an eyebrow as to how a team can be ranked 8th in points scored but 24th in yardage offense. Clearly yardage offense are yards produced only by the offense whereas scoring offense is misleading given that it is a tally of total points scored by the entire team, not simply the offense. In conducting an analysis of the average number of yards each team has moved on a per point scored basis, the Bills rank dead last of all 32 teams. In other words, the Bills have the most points scored as a team per yardage gained by only their offense of any team in the league giving serious legs to the point that has been made throughout the season.

Special Teams and/or Defensive Point Production: As has been pointed out, and as the team has benefited per the brief analysis in the preceding paragraph, the special teams has largely been instrumental in "setting the table" for the offense. Once again, the Bills first team offense has only scored a touchdown on five occasions on drives begun within their own 30-yard line other than the "Moorman patch" drive. They have only scored a touchdown nine times from within their own 37-yard line in the same fashion. The special teams (or defense) will once again likely have to contribute to putting points on the board in order for the Bills to win this game and even then, if the offense fails to move the ball and does not consistently obtain starting field position near or beyond midfield. Both teams have a combined five defensive and special teams TDs on the season.

Turnovers: Both Tommy Maddox and Humpty are disasters waiting to happen vs. top defenses. Maddox has not played this season other than for a game and a half to start off the season and should be somewhat rusty. He has not thrown a touchdown in that game and a half. The key to success here will likely be the extent to which both teams can run the ball. The edge easily goes to the Steelers. Otherwise, key turnovers, particularly those in either team's own end of the field can drastically alter this game and could easily be the deciding factor.

Summary:

Having received numerous e-mails telling me what lock this game is for us given that the Steelers are "playing for nothing", I decided to look into exactly what the Steelers may be "playing for" in this game. Well…

First, there's a 13-game winning streak in progress.
Secondly, there's a 15-1 record, best of all-time for the Steelers, at stake.
Thirdly, and not least of all, there's this Cowher-Commander Tom "tiff thing" whatever it is or has been, given that it has been shrouded in secrecy.
Fourthly, there's the notion that Bill Cowher would prefer not to get upstaged by his protégé and former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and former quarterbacks coach Tom Clements.

Which of those rank as important to Cowher, and possibly Dan Rooney, if any, remain to be seen.

Also, while much of the media has annointed the Bills the hottest team in the league at present, methinks that with a 13-game winning streak that the Steelers are a wee bit hotter, especially since quality of opponents played apparently is not fitting into mix in the least. If the Bills had been able to beat teams such as the Steelers have beaten, namely Baltimore and New England, then they too would be bringing an 11-game winning streak into this game. As well, Indy with its 8-game winning streak would be ahead of the Bills by the same measure. Buffalo is third with a 6-game winning streak. The Bills are still hot, although perhaps not the hottest team with their opponent on Sunday a step ahead of them in this category.

The Steelers are a blitzing team and that's the way they play defense. Humpty and the Bills react horribly to blitzing. The Bills are not that much different an offense than the Ravens are, whom the Steelers held to only seven points last week. Evans and Moulds are a cut above the Ravens receivers to be sure, but the Ravens rushers and OL are superior and Boller and Humpty are comparable.

Fans should make no mistake, if the Bills are to win this game and advance to the playoffs, then they will need to move the ball on offense, something that they have not done well on the season, particularly vs. top defenses. Unless the special teams and defense once again plan on putting up a touchdown or two as well as setting up several scores inside Pittsburgh territory, something that has not generally happened for the Bills vs. better teams this season, then the offense will need to move the ball and score. Again, this is something that they have simply not been able to do with any degree of regularity vs. the few better teams that they have played this season and those with top defenses to be sure.

The Bills best offensive output vs. defenses ranked among the top 10 in scoring defense has been 20 points and that was vs. the Jets coming off of a Monday Night game and short on rest and preparation. Other than that the offensive outputs vs. top 10 scoring defenses have been 14, 10, 10, 6, and 0 points for an average of 8 points-per-game. The Steelers bring the highest ranked scoring defense that the Bills will have seen to the Ralph on Sunday. This will indeed be a good test to see whether or not beating up on the league's bottom third teams translates to similar performances vs. true playoff caliber opponents.

Favoring the Bills will be an atmosphere at the Ralph that will reach a fevered pitch no doubt with the most meaningful game for the Bills during the entire Commander Tom era to be sure. If ever there has been a big game under Commander Tom's oversight, then this is it. Depending upon the outcome, this game could very well impact the shaping of the future of the team one way or another. The Steelers' success is predicated on two solid lines. The Bills success is based with more invested in skill position players. So in this game, the conventional NFL formula for success meets "Tommy ball."

Bottom line:

The Bills have not beaten a team of Pittsburgh's caliber without the aid of some significant and favorable mitigating circumstance throughout Commander Tom's tenure and certainly not under the offensive guidance and direction of Humpty. This has largely been exactly because of Humpty. Regardless, the Bills will have perhaps some significant mitigating circumstances once again working in their favor. A below average and "well-known" by Mularkey Tommy Maddox starts for the first time since the second game of the season after having been replaced for injury and not having thrown a touchdown in a game-and-a-half then. Roethlisburger replaced Maddox in the 3rd quarter and promptly threw the Steelers' first two touchdown passes vs. an aggressive Ravens' defense in his first NFL action as a rookie. To think that Roeth being out is not an enormous advantage for the Bills is to be naïve. As well, the Steelers have nothing concrete to be playing for as they have clinched homefield advantage throughout the playoffs last weekend.

This is clearly a "come to know ya" game for the Bills. While some readers seem to somehow believe that my conclusions are based somehow ridiculously on notions that these have been my preferences, the simple truth is that they are all based on very simple mathematics and statistics. Trends, patterns, and other clues and developments over the course of the season coupled with player awareness and the past two seasons reveal much for those willing to face the beast and grab the bull by the horns. Then there are those fans that would prefer not to "dig too deep" or stick their heads in the sand lest they see something unpleasant. I have always been a "let's get to the truth" type of guy. So it is with this season.

Either the Bills degree of success this season has been largely circumstantial or the highly improbably has actually occurred. While this will clearly not be the same Steelers team that has played throughout the season given that it is playing for nothing and given that inferior Tommy Maddox starts in place of the now seasoned and rookie sensation Ben Roethlisburger, they should be a formidable opponent nonetheless and at least a tweak above every team that the Bills have beaten this season.

So now, on with the numbers:

Versus teams ranked 14th or worse in scoring defense, the Bills have averaged over 27 offensive points-per-game, 33 total points-per-game. The Bills are 8-1 in those games. Versus teams ranked higher, the Bills have averaged 10 offensive points-per-game and 12 total points-per-game. The Bills are 1-5 in those games. Five of the teams in the now six game string of teams whereby the Bills have averaged 32 offensive points-per-game in are ranked in the 20s or dead last in scoring defense.

The Steelers rank 2nd in scoring defense.

The statistics, outcomes, and characteristics are identical for opponents ranked 19th or worse in rushing defense and those ranked higher that the Bills have played.

The Steelers rank 1st.

Versus teams ranked among the top half in sacks made, the Bills are 2-4 with their two wins over Miami. Versus teams ranked among the bottom half in sacks, the Bills are 7-2.

The Steelers rank 8th.

Versus teams ranked among the top half in rushing offense, the Bills are 2-5 with wins over Seattle and the Jets. Versus teams ranked among the bottom half in rushing offense, the Bills are 7-1.

The Steelers rank 2nd.

When the Bills have average starting field position at their own 35-yard line or better they are 7-1. When they have average starting field position at their own 31-yard line or worse they are 1-4.

The Bills "success" this season has been built on teams currently ranked 14th or worse in scoring defense, 19th or worse in rushing defense, among the bottom half in generating sacks, and among the bottom half in rushing offense.

The Steelers are the antithesis of the prototype team that the Bills have beaten this season.

I am going to step out here and say that if these Bills are for real this season, then vs. a Maddox led Steeler team more preoccupied with leaving the game with as few injuries as possible, they should be able to win this game decisively given that it essentially boils down to a playoff game in its own rite for them.

Much more simply, the bottom line is that rushing and defense win championships. The Steelers are provenly superlative in both while the Bills are completely unproven in either with a trend suggesting that current rankings are more the result of an easy schedule than of any proven success. The Steelers OL, RBs, rushing game, and defense are all much better than that of the Bills.

Prediction:

Bills 6, Steelers 23

If the Bills special teams or defense scores then tack those points on. My feeling is that if the Bills struggled to move the ball vs. the Ravens, then they will be no more successful here. It will also be highly interesting to see if the Bills can avoid having 4 or more turnovers in this game much as in the Ravens game.

Against such a defense, putting up 20 or more points by the offense on field position originating within their own end of the field would indeed be a good start to proving how good these Bills truly are. If the Bills' recent success and the media hoopla is to be believed, then at home, this should not be a problem for a team that has developed into such an offensive juggernaut. To date however, this season's history suggests that if they can put up 14 it will indeed be fortunate in spite of recent scoring fests vs. the league's weak and feeble defenses. The Ravens and Giants both put up 30 and the Cowboys 20 in Steeler road games. Oakland put up 21, Cleveland 23, and New England 20 in Pittsburgh in more meaningful games for the Steelers.

Happy New Year!!!

Comments: mweiler.billsreport@cox.net


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