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Three questions: The big picture on what went wrong in Bills' loss to Steelers

Three questions: The big picture on what went wrong in Bills' loss to Steelers

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Bad break

Josh Allen fumbles the ball as he is tackled by Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt (90) during the second quarter.

Here’s the big-picture analysis of the Buffalo Bills’ season-opening, 23-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers:

Where was the game lost?

In the offensive trench. Pittsburgh has one of the top three front fours in the NFL – maybe No. 1 – and it was the best unit in the game by a lot. To oversimplify, NFL games usually are won either at quarterback or in the trenches.

The Steelers’ defensive game plan was to put the game on the shoulders of their front four. How? They didn’t blitz a lot, unlike in last year’s December loss to the Bills in Orchard Park. Their plan was to force Josh Allen to hit underneath throws, prevent the big play and see if the Bills could execute 12-play scoring drives.

Somewhere along the way, the Steelers figured, one of their stud defensive linemen would derail the drive. That’s exactly how it played out. Pittsburgh blitzed on just one of Allen’s 27 dropbacks in the first half.

Defensive tackle Casey Hayward, who dominated the Bills’ guards last December, did it once again. He gave Jon Feliciano fits. Interior defensive lineman Tyson Alualu was good, too. Bills offensive tackle Dion Dawkins was great against the Steelers last December. Not this time. Dawkins committed three holding penalties, two against veteran speed rusher Melvin Ingram and one against youngster Alex Highsmith.

Dawkins has played too many good games over the past three years to get panicky about his prospects for the season.

The Bills’ guard play was a concern entering the season. Feliciano and Cody Ford can play. But are they good enough against elite competition? It will be something to monitor.

What’s the biggest second guess?

Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll.

He has justifiably received almost universal praise over the past three years for his management of the offense.

This game was not one of his finer moments. Daboll showed supreme faith in Josh Allen and the team’s top four wide receivers. That’s going to be a theme of the season. Daboll thinks his four receivers are better than your top four coverage defensive backs.

The Bills are a passing team, and rightly so. But using so many empty-backfield sets puts a ton of pressure on the quarterback and the offensive linemen. The Bills ran an empty backfield on 25 of 79 plays, by The News’ unofficial count. In hindsight, maybe the Bills should have spread out the Steelers and run the ball against “light boxes” (six-man defensive fronts) more often. Devin Singletary looked good. Running him more or having the option of bringing the hammer with No. 2 back Zack Moss could have helped keep the Ingram and T.J. Watt from pinning their ears back and going from 0 to 60 with the pass rush. Moss was inactive.

Daboll has gotten the better of Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler each of the previous two seasons. This time Butler got the better of Daboll.

Where is the Bills’ Super Bowl Bandwagon?

It’s still in the garage – idling.

This is a deep-breath moment for Bills Mafia. Super Bowl talk in September – even for Tom Brady and Tampa Bay – is premature. First things first. Get in position to win the division. Make the playoffs. That means winning a bunch of tough games along the way.

“I know the expectations are high and that comes with the territory,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said. “But that said, you've got to stay humble and hungry in your approach every week. You guys know it's a week-to-week league, and give credit where credit's due."

The Bills might not face another defense this season as good as Pittsburgh’s. The margin for error against good teams is not huge. You can’t afford six holding penalties. You can’t give up a special teams touchdown. You can’t miss a wide-open receiver for a touchdown against an elite defense.

There were some positives. The Bills’ run defense looked good. The Bills’ pass rush showed some teeth.

It’s dangerous to overreact to anything that happens in Week 1. Maybe the best Bills example was the 2003 opener – 31-0 over New England. Last year, Jacksonville beat Indianapolis in Week 1. The Colts made the playoffs and the Jaguars didn’t win another game.

So it’s on to Miami. Buffalo will need fewer self-inflicted mistakes to beat a good Dolphins team.

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Bills/NFL writer

Gaughan's insight is featured in the "PlayAction" video series, providing analysis to get Bills fans ready for the next game. He is past president of the Pro Football Writers of America and served as a Pro Football Hall of Fame selector for 12 years.

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