ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The Bills are a popular – some might say fashionable – pick to reach the Super Bowl.
It’s easy to see why. Loaded roster led by an elite quarterback. Strong coaching. A division title that looks even more ripe for the taking than it was when the Bills won it with relative ease last year.
It’s also easy to understand why anticipation of a Bills season is the highest it has been since their 1990s Super Bowl run – if not higher. Visions of a February parade through downtown Buffalo are dancing in heads everywhere in Western New York and wherever else Bills faithful live.
Of course, a lot needs to go right between now and then. Here’s the short list:
Josh Allen finds a level, or two, above where he performed in 2020.
It’s a given he must be at least as good as he was during his record-setting season last year. But that doesn’t figure to be good enough to overcome what opposing defenses undoubtedly will have cooked up to try to impede Allen’s effectiveness. Beginning with Sunday’s season-opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers, he’ll face a variety of blitzes, coverages and disguises within each. That was what Allen had in mind when he talked about the ability of Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick to “wreck a game plan,” noting that he “just switches up his style every couple plays. You don’t know if he’s dropping into the box or if he’s trying to play over the top on something.”
The efforts to put more teeth into the Bills’ pass rush pay off from the very start.
End Greg Rousseau had an impressive enough training camp and preseason to prompt defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier to say, “We expect big things from him. … His growth from rookie minicamp through the preseason has been tremendous.”
One thing Rousseau and the rest of the defensive front have to do is consistently disrupt the passing of Ben Roethlisberger. That doesn’t always mean sacking him. A hurry against a quarterback with one of the fastest releases in the NFL can be every bit as effective as a sack. Frazier also talked up tackle Ed Oliver, also praising his performance through camp and the preseason and saying he was “expecting him to have a really good season as well.”
The running game that looked so promising in the preseason continues to look that way beginning Sunday.
The Bills will face a challenge of their own trying to contain rookie running back Najee Harris. Doing so could be more difficult with the possible absence of tackle Star Lotulelei, who has been dealing with a calf injury. That’s even more reason for the Bills to have a solid running game of their own. The Bills will rely on their usual formula for success, with an explosive, quick-striking passing game leading the way.
As receiver Cole Beasley said: “As an offense, you want to get to the point to where every time you step on the field, you’re getting points. I know that’s hard to do, but we come out there with the mentality that nobody’s going to stop us and we’re going to score. … We don’t hope it’ll happen; we expect it to.”
But the Steelers’ defense is bound to make its presence felt, and there will likely be points in the game where ball-control will matter more than others. If there was a notable flaw in a Bills offense that ranked second in the league in scoring and total yards last season it was an inability to consistently take firm control of games and close them out in the final minutes. Roethlisberger might not be the dominant force he once was, but he’s still capable of late heroics if given enough time to perform them.
Sunday will be all about the hype.
Hyped up expectations. Hyped up crowd. Hyped up … everything. The Bills can’t allow themselves to fall into the trap of allowing the most electrified atmosphere most players and coaches on the team have experienced for a home game get the better of them.
There will be jitters, perhaps even some tightness from the thought of avoiding even the smallest setback and anything else that could threaten the overwhelming belief, in and around the team, that losing is not an option. I, too, fully believe the Bills will begin a journey that should, at the very least, result in another deep postseason run 1-0.