Newcomers essential as Steelers visit Bills

Field Level Media

September 09, 2021 at 1:27 am.

The road is no place for rookies to earn their keep in the NFL, but the Pittsburgh Steelers saddle up for the first game of the regular season at Buffalo on Sunday knowing it’s a live test for up to five untested pros.

While the Bills return the majority of their two-deep depth chart from an AFC Championship Game appearance, keep the program handy for this initial look at the fresh-faced Steelers. Five rookies enter the game expected to start for Pittsburgh.

“Those guys have earned their positioning through their play,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “I’m excited about what they’re going to provide us this weekend, but at the same time I think it’s reasonable to expect those guys to find their footing and improve continually and rapidly over the course of this journey.”

First-round pick Najee Harris and two offensive linemen (left tackle Dan Moore Jr. and center Kendrick Green, a guard in college at Illinois) plus second-round pick Pat Freiermuth could break the huddle with 39-year-old quarterback Ben Roethlisberger when the Steelers unveil a new-look offense on Sunday. Green was limited in Wednesday’s practice due to a thumb injury but expects to play.

Roethlisberger said it’s going to be “something to see” when Harris picks up the nuances of the pro system after a highly successful run at Alabama.

Opposing quarterback Josh Allen and the Bills likely will not protest if Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt plays a lesser role this week following a contract-related holdout during preseason. Watt debuted at practice on Wednesday, but he didn’t participate in team drills for the entire offseason or training camp. He was in on team meetings through the spring and summer, Tomlin said.

Watt continues looking for a big payday from the Steelers after leading the NFL with 15 sacks in 2020.

Tomlin said Tuesday he was confident Watt would take the field and be chasing Allen this weekend. Watt, who turns 27 in October, is currently slated to play 2021 on the fifth-year option ($10.09 million) of his rookie contract, which he received for being a first-round pick (No. 30 overall) of the Steelers in 2017.

Watt was a non-factor when the teams met last season.

“Last couple of years, obviously, they’ve been kind of boxing matches, taking a couple hits here and there, giving them out,” Allen said. “They’re extremely well coached, they’re a very talented group on defense, they got a Hall of Fame quarterback over there so we got to be on top of our game and go out there and try to execute to the best of our abilities.”

Allen, who also beat the Steelers in 2019, had two TD passes and the Bills scored on a pick-six to take down Pittsburgh, 26-15, last December. Buffalo led 23-7 late in the third quarter.

The matchup nightmare for the Steelers last season was wide receiver Stefon Diggs. With uncertainty entering Week 1 around who will play the slot, Diggs and Cole Beasley could be tuning up for another big outing. Diggs had a 19-yard TD as part of a 10-catch, 130-yard effort.

Allen disclosed one of his primary keys Sunday will be locating defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick and preventing him from wrecking the game plan. Fitzpatrick has 13 takeaways since 2019.

“We gotta figure it out and figure it out early come game-time. It’s always fun playing against guys with that type of caliber and putting yourself against that test,” Allen said.

Diggs was bothered by a knee injury during the preseason but is not on the injury report. Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei (calf) did not practice Wednesday.