It took awhile in the preseason, it took some time in Saturday night’s game, but the new Steelers offense finally broke free and flexed a little bit of its muscle. The result was a 38-7 victory over the Buffalo Bills, a victory that came with a cost.
Rookie guard David DeCastro had his right knee bent awkwardly while pass protecting on the Steelers’ second series of the game. In obvious pain, the team’s first-round draft pick was taken off the field on a cart into the locker room for tests. He did not return. The question now becomes, how serious is the injury, and can he return this season? The Steelers had no immediate update.
“It’s potentially severe,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “We’ll see what the MRI says.”
Most players who were asked about the injury to DeCastro said it did not look good.
Once the Steelers’ offense got loose, it unloaded and received a large helping hand from its defense while doing so. Last season, the Steelers forced a paltry 15 turnovers. Saturday, it forced three that led to three touchdowns.
“It took us awhile to get started,” cornerback Ike Taylor said, “but once we finally settled in we were doing what we needed to do.”
Trailing 7-0, the Steelers scored three touchdowns — two on receptions by Antonio Brown — over four series, then added two more in the fourth quarter. Three were set up by the defense and one came after a 98-yard drive that featured Ben Roethlisberger at his very best in the no-huddle offense.
The most important play of that long drive came on third down at the Steelers’ three. Roethlisberger threw a pass to halfback Jonathan Dwyer, who made a nice catch along the left sideline for a 33-yard pickup. It was the first of eight passes on the drive, seven of which were completed for 92 yards. The drive ended when the quarterback threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Brown — who had over 108 yards receiving — with 13 seconds left in the half. It was the only time the Steelers’ offense drove into Buffalo territory on its own in the first half.
“I just started calling my own plays,” Roethlisberger said of the drive. “We went no-huddle and up-tempo and we were throwing the ball.” Backup quarterback Byron Leftwich played the entire second half and threw for two touchdowns and directed the offense to 24 points over the final two periods. But it all started with the defense that had so much trouble forcing turnovers last season. Linebacker Lawrence Timmons hit Buffalo halfback C.J. Spiller, forcing a fumble that Ziggy Hood recovered at the Bills’ 18.
It took the Steelers five plays to move 18 yards before Isaac Redman plowed over from the two, carrying two defenders with him into the end zone for their first score of the night, and it unleashed a flurry of points that would swamp Buffalo’s early 7-0 lead. The Steelers and Bills played their first teams on offense and defense throughout the first half, as is custom in the third preseason game for NFL teams. Roethlisberger left the game having completed 17 of 24 passes for 169 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. Mario Williams sacked him twice. “They are a good defense,” said Roethlisberger. “They obviously have some high-profile guys that are good players and they wreak havoc on you.” That first half signaled a different direction for the Steelers’ offense, which had run 58.6 percent of the time through the first two preseason games. Saturday, they ran just 16 times vs. 26 passes intended (two were sacks) with the first team in the first half.
Both coaches replaced their starting quarterbacks to open the second half, Leftwich taking over for Roethlisberger and Vince Young replacing Ryan Fitzpatrick for Buffalo. It did not take long for the backup quarterbacks to figure into another score. Troy Polamalu intercepted Young’s first pass, which came on the second play of the second half.
That interception put the Steelers in Buffalo territory for the third time, at the 39, and they did not stay there long. On first down, Leftwich faked a handoff to Dwyer — who proceeded to block a blitzing defender — and heaved a pass to Brown, who caught it behind two Buffalo defenders in the end zone. The 39-yard scoring play gave the Steelers a 21-7 lead. Brown left the game with seven receptions for 108 yards and two scores to go with one from last week. “It is about being on the same page,” Brown said. “I continue to get better. I continue to think about what the quarterback is thinking and get in his vision and get an opportunity.” Rookie safety Robert Golden, punctuating what has been a good training camp and preseason, intercepted a Young pass and returned it 47 yards to the eight in the fourth quarter. Two plays later, Leftwich had his second touchdown pass, of 10 yards to Derrick Williams.
It gave the Steelers a 28-7 lead, and that became 31-7 on rookie Daniel Hrapmann’s 40-yard field goal.
Rookie halfback Chris Rainey scored his second long touchdown of the year late in the fourth quarter when he ran around right end 41 yards for the score. He took a short pass 57 yards for a touchdown in the first game. That new offense under Todd Haley had trouble getting out of its own way early-on and trailed the Bills 7-0 after the first quarter. “We had a slow start on offense,” Roethlisberger said. “We just couldn’t move the ball. I knew that we would be okay and that we would move the ball.” The Bills scored on their second series — and second straight start with good field position. They opened at the Steelers 49 and it took only five plays before Fred Jackson ran one yard for the touchdeown.
Polamalu did not have a good series. He missed Jackson on his 15-yard run around right end on the first play. Then, Fitzpatrick completed a 25-yard pass to tight end Scott Chandler, who beat Polamalu to catch the ball at the seven and make it to the one. The Steelers’ offense managed three first downs on four series that never made it into Buffalo territory in the first quarter. Besides DeCastro, defensive end Brett Keisel left the game in the first quarter with an ankle injury and did not return.