Sullivan: Preseason darling Bills don't answer the bell

Jerry Sullivan

There was a palpable sense of anticipation leading up to Sunday’s season opener. For the first time in nearly two years, the Bills would get to play in front of a full house at their renamed home stadium.

I was eager to feel that surge of raw communal joy, that sense of people coming together in a shared obsession for their beloved football team. And it was electric at Highmark. As Darryl Talley liked to say, all you had to do was plug in.

But even more so, I was waiting to see how the Bills would respond to the heightened expectations. It can get pretty heady when you’re the chic preseason pick, a team many of the national experts are expecting to take that next step and go all the way to the Super Bowl.

The early answer was not encouraging. Sure, it’s only one game in an expanded 17-game season. The Bucs lost their opener last season and won it all. Bills fans can recall the Patriots losing 31-0 in Buffalo in the 2003 opener and doing the same thing (granted, a guy named Tom Brady played quarterback for both teams).

Still, it was a troubling start for a team that came into the new season as a media darling, with an offense that was regarded as close to unstoppable. The Bills were anything but that in a 23-16 loss to an inspired Steelers team that brought back memories of their unraveling against the Chiefs in last season’s AFC title game.

The offense never got into a rhythm. Josh Allen played more like the Josh of 2019 than an MVP favorite. Allen was a pedestrian 30-for-51 passing, badly overthrowing a couple of deep balls and completing just one throw of more than 16 yards on the day.

The offensive line was whistled for six holding calls, five of them accepted. Three came on one possession alone in the first quarter, two of them neutralizing first-down gains. If you’re going to throw the ball more than 40 times a game and treat the run like an afterthought, the pass blocking needs to be a lot better than that.

The defense was utterly dominant in the first half, forcing punts on all five Pittsburgh possessions as the Bills took a 10-0 lead into the locker room. In the second half, the Steelers scored all four times they had the ball. A complete turnaround.

Oh, the special teams allowed a blocked punt for a touchdown in the fourth quarter, giving the Steelers a commanding 20-10 lead just a minute and a half after they scored a touchdown to take the lead for the first time.

“You guys know it’s a week-to-week league and I give credit where credit is due,” said Bills head coach Sean McDermott. “Mike Tomlin and his team came in here and outcoached us and outplayed us. We’ve got to learn from this as coaches and players and get ourselves ready.”

They have a target on their backs now. The Steelers played like a team with a grudge. They started the season 11-0 a year ago. They have never had a losing season in 14 years with Tomlin as head man. But judging from the pre-game predictions, you’d have thought it was the Jets or Jaguars coming to town for the opener.

You don’t think the Steelers were motivated to take down the hotshots from Buffalo? They have one of the best defenses in the NFL, led by rush linebacker T.J. Watt. Three days after signing a four-year, $112 contract extension, Watt was a whirling menace with two sacks and five quarterback hurries on Allen.

Sure, Pittsburgh is an elite NFL defense. The Bills won’t face many that good this season. But they’re playing to a higher standard these days. When people are picking you to get to the Super Bowl — or at least back to the conference title game — you get judged against the best teams, not the fourth-best team in the AFC East or South.

The offense wasn’t up to the task. It doesn’t matter if it was the opener. This was a measuring stick for Allen and Co., and they fell short, same as they did in the AFC title game against Kansas City, or in the divisional round against the Ravens.

There’s justifiable chatter around the league about a possible regression by Allen. When a quarterback improves as dramatically as he did a year ago, there will be doubts. What’s of immediate concern is that Sunday looked like a continuation of the way last season finished, with Allen struggling to make the big throws.

Allen admitted he pressed a little early in the game. He has said in the past that he’s most comfortable without a big crowd. After this one, you have to wonder.

“There’s a lot to learn from this tape,” Allen said, “starting with me. Early on, just being a little too aggressive, instead of finding some easier throws. Hats off, that’s a really good team. They had a really good plan today.”

The Bills’ plan wasn’t so admirable. Brian Daboll, the offensive coordinator, didn’t have a lot of answers. Counting designed runs, Allen was involved in 60 plays. His running backs had 15 total carries. McDermott was asked if he needed to get his backs more involved in the offense.

“I don’t want to give away things here,” McDermott said. “But overall, I can do better.”

McDermott answers virtually all criticism by pointing at himself. He said he has to do a better job with the offense. He has to do a better job getting takeaways. If you asked him about the janitorial performance at One Bills Drive, he’d say, “I have to do better.”

But you learn to read between the lines, and it sure sounded as tough McDermott wasn’t happy with his offense on Sunday. I asked him if a team that throws the ball more than 40 times a game can afford all the holding calls on pass plays.

“Unacceptable,” he said. “Yeah, you can’t beat yourself. Let’s just start there.”

Safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer said the defense couldn’t stop the bleeding. Poyer said the difference in the game was the defense’s inability to force a single turnover. If they had done so, the margin could have been 17 points in the first half, when the Bills held Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers to 54 total yards of offense.

There was an echo from the past in the defense taking the blame. In the old days, the defense would play its heart out, then point to itself in the locker room after the offense failed to hold up its end of the bargain. But McDermott wasn't shy about defending his defense after the loss.

“Overall, I thought our defense gave us a chance,” McDermott said. He pointed out that they allowed only 16 points, when you subtract the touchdown on the blocked punt.

Remember, McDermott is a defensive coach by trade. It had to sting to see the defense play so well in a losing effort. The offense set a franchise record last season, averaging 31 points a game. This isn’t the Dick Jauron era. It’s supposed to be more than enough when you hold a team to one offensive touchdown.

It gets back to Allen. He’s now the highest-paid athlete in Buffalo history. With a $258 million contract extension comes a corresponding pressure. If the standard has been raised for the Bills this season, it’s heightened to an even greater degree for the star quarterback.

This is Allen’s team now, his time and his town. He needs to play a lot better than he did on Sunday, and he knows it. You don’t throw a quarter billion at a guy to miss wide-open receivers down the field. He did it twice against the Steelers.

I’ve said for years that the NFL is a league that invites overreaction. There are 16 more games this season. This was the most anticipated Bills home game in more than two years. But it was still only one game.

“Don’t panic!” safety Jordan Poyer said when he left the interview room late Sunday afternoon.

No one needs to panic. But it’s not panic to examine Allen’s play in the last three games that mattered, when the offense sputtered and the Bills averaged 19 points a game, and wonder how long it’ll be before he’s equal to this lofty new standard.

Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at scoreboard@gnnewspaper.com.

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