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Steelers top expectations in Week 1 victory: Bounce back after slow start with big second half

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris (22) is tackled by Buffalo Bills outside linebacker Matt Milano during the second half of an NFL football game in Orchard Park, N.Y., Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Joshua Bessex)

PITTSBURGH — The growing pains Ben Roethlisberger warned about were unmistakable.

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ new-look offensive line didn’t muster much in the running game, leaving first-round pick Najee Harris with little room to work.

The special teams let up a big kickoff return on the season’s first play. And for a half the defending AFC North champions looked as listless as they did during that 1-5 thud that ended 2020.

And it didn’t matter. Not with outside linebacker T.J. Watt looking as if he’s worth every penny of the staggering deal he signed last week that made him the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL.

Not with the secondary shutting down a Buffalo Bills offense that is supposed to rank among the league’s best. Not with Roethlisberger deftly guiding a second-half turnaround that led to a 23-16 victory, upending the modest external expectations surrounding the Steelers in the process.

“I don’t want to say a dominant performance because obviously there’s still a lot left on the table and I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of film to watch and make corrections,” Watt said after dropping Bills quarterback Josh Allen twice.

“But I’m very happy with where we are, especially in Week 1. I love playing with this group. We fly around. We handle adversity really well.”

It certainly looks like it. Fourteen times in the franchise’s 89-year history the Steelers had fallen down by double digits in the opener. And 14 times they had lost. Facing a raucous crowd and a team that reached the AFC championship game nine months ago, Pittsburgh pulled out a win that provided a blueprint of how 2021 might go.

The offense sputtered for long stretches. Yet it also didn’t turn the ball over. The defense looked even better than it did a year ago when it led the NFL in sacks and finished third in the league in yards allowed.

The special teams bounced back from that rough start to block a punt for a touchdown late in the third quarter that gave the Steelers a 10-point lead they never came close to squandering.

“We knew it would be tough sledding,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “They’ve got a great defense. They’ve got continuity, not only in players but schematics. We were playing them in their place. We had a bunch of new pieces. We weren’t style point-oriented today. We just had to win this game.”

A victory that could perhaps send the Steelers on a similar trajectory to 2020, when they ripped off their first 11 games to cruise to the division title before flaming out in the first round against Cleveland.

The schedule is considerably tougher than it was a year ago, but Pittsburgh’s performance served notice that when at their best, the Steelers will remain a threat in a loaded AFC.

“The last few times we’ve played (Buffalo), we haven’t had our best game,” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “But it’s one win. We’re happy we got the win, but we’ve got 16 more.”

WHAT’S WORKING

Maybe Watt should wait until the week before the opener to practice fully for the rest of his career. Watt opted to do a “hold in” while contract negotiations dragged on, meaning he spent the six weeks of training camp avoiding 11-on-11 full-contact drills.

Even with the lack of practice reps, Tomlin said he expected the two-time All-Pro to “be T.J. Watt.” And Watt was his usual disruptive self as part of a defense that never really let Bills star quarterback Josh Allen get comfortable.

WHAT’S NOT

Pittsburgh’s most explosive running play was a 25-yard jet sweep by wide receiver Chase Claypool. Harris, meanwhile, ran for just 45 yards on 16 carries behind a completely retooled offensive line that returned zero starters from the 2020 season opener.

While it’s fair to expect the line to get better as the season goes on, the bar was low coming in and the unit did not clear it.

STOCK UP

The Steelers took a flyer of sorts on veteran linebacker Melvin Ingram when they signed him to a one-year deal in July. Ingram looked right at home in Pittsburgh’s 3-4. He played 64% of the snaps while rotating with Alex Highsmith and allowing Watt to take the occasional breather.

STOCK DOWN

Rookie left tackle Dan Moore Jr. and rookie center Kendrick Green survived their first NFL starts and were part of an offense that came to life in the second half.

Still, the entire group — left guard Kevin Dotson, right guard Trai Turner and right tackle Chuks Okorafor — left a lot of room for improvement.

INJURIES

Backup inside linebacker and special teams ace Rob Spillane found himself on the inactive list after injuring himself during warmups. Spillane was replaced by rookie linebacker Buddy Johnson, who earned a shout-out from Tomlin in the aftermath.

KEY NUMBER

10 — the number of players in NFL who reached the 50-sack plateau in their first 63 games after Watt pushed his career total to 51 1/2 with two takedowns of Allen.

NEXT STEPS

Try to get the running game going in Sunday’s home opener against the Raiders. Pittsburgh should have a bit of an advantage with Las Vegas going cross-country for an early kickoff on a week after facing Baltimore on Monday night.

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