E.J. Returns For Bills’ Turning Point
by Dave Staba - posted 10:04 am, November 10, 2013
This could be really good.
The Buffalo Bills visit Pittsburgh today with their first pick from each of the past two drafts, their most explosive offensive weapon and their highest-paid defensive player ever all operating at full strength — or as close to it as possible in Week 10 — for the first time in 2013.
Now the Bills get a shot at the staggering Steelers, whose resemblance to the team that won two Super Bowls in The Aughts extends only as far as the presence of Ben Roethlisberger, their historically scary uniforms and the hair sticking out from under Troy Polamalu’s helmet (at least until Monday).
This could be terrible.
Buffalo has not won a game in Pittsburgh since the week after The Comeback — 20 years and 10 months ago — and the 2-6 Steelers figure to be desperate to salvage their season and atone for the worst statistical defensive performance in the franchises 81-season history.
It’s Sunday morning, so let’s look at the bright side first.
After a month of hoping for anything but complete disaster every time one of the quarterbacks nobody else wanted takes a snap, the development of E.J. Manuel resumesjust as C.J. Spiller seems to finally be finding his stride. That’s especially helpful with Pittsburgh’s run defense ranking as the league’s second-most-permissive and showing anuncharacteristic knack for yielding big plays.
The Steelers haven’t been able to run much themselves, averaging just 73.6 yards per game on the ground. So they are left to rely completely on Roethlisberger, a strategy that has produced just two wins against six losses. In the last two weeks, he has thrown four interceptions and been sacked 10 times in losses to Oakland and New England.
And they haven’t been particularly valiant in defeat. It’s one thing to get torched by New England. That happens to everyone. Giving up a 93-yard run to Terrelle Pryor and getting smacked around by the likes of Chicago (at home, no less) and Minnesota (anywhere with a yellow sun) really could not be less Steeler-like.
Meanwhile, Buffalo beat division rival Miami with Thaddeus Lewis at quarterback and dominated the NFL’s last unbeaten team everywhere but on the scoreboard despite Jeff Tuel. So Manuel’s return — along with the Buffalo secondary gelling around a healthy Stephon Gilmore and behind a pass rush led by a full-value Mario Williams — means the Bills start converting all those widely loathed moral victories into real ones.
Let’s check ourselves here for a moment.
As promising as Manuel looked at times, his two regular-season road games as a professional resulted in a performance that bordered on the Losmanesque against the Jets and a sprained knee in Cleveland. Manuel has yet to show that he’s capable of going into an environment as hostile as Pittsburgh and remain ambulatory, much less win. It can’t help that Robert Woods’ ankle injury not only means Manuel’s emerging favorite target will probably not be on the field, but also that emerging bust T.J. Graham probably will.
And as good as Buffalo’s healthy defense looked against Kansas City’s no-risk offense, Roethlisberger will give the Bills more opportunities to make big plays — and to give them up.
Losing today negates much of the good, and good will, created through the first nine games of Doug Marrone’s tenure, when each of the three wins were cause for mini-celebration and the six losses could be explained away one way or another, if you try hard enough.
A win in Pittsburgh, though, puts Buffalo at 4-6. Then it’s the Jets (1-3 on the road) at Orchard Park, the bye week, the flailing Falcons in Toronto, a swing through Florida to face the equally winless Jaguars and Buccaneers, and back home for a rematch with the Dolphins — who, you might have heard, have some issues of their own — before traveling to New England for the season finale.
The first five remaining games look highly winnable, and given the state of the AFC East, there’s a good chance the Patriots won’t have much, if anything, to play for in the sixth.
Yes, expecting a team that hasn’t reached the postseason since 1999, or even had a whiff in nine years, to go on a run like that is an exercise in nearly delusional optimism.
A loss to the Steelers, though, means it is time to start talking about next year, nearly three weeks before Thanksgiving.
And that can’t be good.
David Staba has written about the Buffalo Bills, among other topics, since 1990 for a variety of outlets, including We Want Marangi since way back in 2012.