After a so-so preseason opener last week, the Pittsburgh Steelers provided many signs for optimism Saturday night at Heinz Field, controlling the first half in an eventual 19-16 victory over the Buffalo Bills.
Pittsburgh’s first exhibition win since Aug. 30, 2012 – a span of five games – featured a nearly-flawless Ben Roethlisberger and a dynamic performance from rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier in his black and gold debut. The Steelers, now 1-1 in the preseason, led 13-6 when most of their starters left the field late in the second quarter.
Roethlisberger, given good protection on most dropbacks, had his right arm finely tuned. No. 7 went 8 for 11 for 128 yards and two touchdowns, displaying his readiness to lead an attack that projects to be among the NFL’s best. His 76-yard scoring pass on an intermediate slant to Antonio Brown vaulted the Steelers ahead 6-3 after the Bills’ Dan Carpenter notched an early field goal.
If Brown did most of the work on the impressive catch-and-run, Roethlisberger should get all of the credit on his deft 11-yard touchdown toss to second-year wideout Markus Wheaton in the left corner of the end zone. That pretty throw late in the opening quarter capped an eight-play drive that started on the Buffalo 37.
Pittsburgh had that advantageous field position because of Shazier’s first “splash” play as a Steeler, an interception of Bills quarterback EJ Manuel and subsequent 27-yard return. Shazier, a first-round pick from Ohio State, used his elite speed to rack up 11 tackles (all solo) in front of an appreciative crowd, including a pair of special-teams takedowns.
Veteran defensive catalysts Lawrence Timmons and Troy Polamalu had five tackles each, while defensive lineman Cameron Heyward frequently harassed Manuel over the opening 30 minutes. On top of Shazier’s pick, the Steelers forced two turnovers on downs against the Bills’ first-team offense, including a de facto goal-line stand by the backups just before the half.
There wasn’t much with regards to the rushing game, as Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount combined for just seven carries. Rookie Dri Archer got a couple attempts, but his biggest impact came on an electrifying 40-yard screen pass from backup passer Landry Jones.
A fumble by Jones three plays later helped Buffalo score its first touchdown of the night, with Landon Cohen returning the ball 59 yards deep into Pittsburgh territory. Veteran Bills running back Anthony Dixon went over the top of the defensive line from 1 yard out to tie the score at 13 midway through the third quarter.
Third-year Steelers defensive back Robert Golden put together a productive second half, recovering a fumble and intercepting a pass. Neither of those led to a score, but kicker Shaun Suisham redeemed himself for a miss on the experimental 33-yard extra point in the first quarter with a 48-yard field goal early in the fourth that put the Steelers back ahead.
Bills third-string QB Jeff Tuel authored a 12-play, 55-yard drive that resulted in a 16-16 tie after Carpenter’s 44-yard field goal sailed through the uprights with 1:56 left in regulation. However, following a stalled Steelers drive, Pittsburgh linebacker Vic So’oto sacked Tuel, causing a fumble that Howard Jones scooped up and returned to the Buffalo 1.
That same combo teamed up for a touchdown on a similar play last week in New Jersey. This time the strip-sack led directly to Suisham’s winning chip shot with no time left on the clock.
Pittsburgh travels to Philadelphia to face the Eagles on Thursday night.