PITTSBURGH (WGR 550) -- For the first time in over a month, the Buffalo Bills will have their first-round quarterback back on the field -- and just in time. The Bills are entering a stretch of games where their next five opponents have a combined record of 9-32, and if they have any hope of sneaking into the playoffs in 2013, the 3-6 Buffalo squad must win the majority.
First on the docket is a road game against a team that is aging and has shown some key deficiencies throughout the majority of their season. The 2-6 Pittsburgh Steelers are uncharacteristically flawed and are entering a game that could flush away the rest of their season with a loss.
With upward mobility on the line, the Bills and Steelers square off Sunday at Heinz Field.
1) The return of EJ
- Compiling a 1-3 record in full games without him, the Bills finally get their best quarterback on the roster back into the starting lineup. Manuel has done a very good job of getting himself ready quickly enough to have the chance to lead the Bills through their easiest stretch of the season. All parties -- coaches, front office and fans -- are hoping he's learned his lesson about getting out of bounds and not taking an unnecessary hit to jeopardize a portion of his season. The magnifying glass will once again be on him because now there are expectations. Outside of Alex Carrington and perhaps Manny Lawson this week, the defense will be fully staffed and have been playing very well as of late. In a very winnable portion of the schedule, Manuel will now be expected to come away victorious. It's a tough position for a rookie quarterback to be in, but all eyes are on him.
2) Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller will be featured prominently
- Luckily for Manuel, his first game will be one that he likely doesn't have to do the heavy-lifting in. Through eight games this season, the Pittsburgh Steelers have the second-worst run defense in all the National Football League. That simply means Manuel will likely defer to Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller to carry the load. Last week against New England, the Steelers faced a duo of running backs that had similar skill-sets to Jackson and Spiller, but the Bills duo are far more accomplished at this point. Pittsburgh struggled in equal parts against both the more powerful Stevan Ridley and the change-of-direction back Brandon Bolden. The Steelers will eventually try to stack the box against the runners with a rookie quarterback on the field, but as long as Manuel can hit some short-to-intermediate throws to back them off the running game should be humming on Sunday.
3) Pass rushing prowess
- It's been a year-long struggle for Pittsburgh in protecting Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers have allowed four sacks per game and have had a carousel of offensive linemen starting throughout the year due to both injuries and poor play. The front-four of the Bills should be in line for a very big day. The left tackle position has been a mess for the Steelers, so both Jerry Hughes and Mario Williams can have some success. If right tackle Marcus Gilbert (questionable) does not play, expect to see Williams in the backfield constantly against the embattled second-year player Mike Adams. On the interior, the Steelers will get a boost with David DeCastro returning to the lineup from injury, but the way both Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus have been playing should lead to some pressure from the interior as well.
4) Vertical shakedown
- Even when his offensive line breaks down, Roethlisberger is notorious for being able to maneuver in the pocket and fire a pass down the field that can break the spirits of a defense. And don't sleep on the top two receivers on the Pittsburgh roster, either. With how aggressive the Bills will likely be, there will be some one-on-one opportunities for both Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown against the duo of Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin. Although he's been playing better this season, expect the Steelers to try and go vertical against McKelvin. It will be interesting to see how the Bills elect to divvy up their cornerback responsibilities, and whether or not they'll go with the right-left look or the matchup-based coverage responsibilities. Either way, expect Roethlisberger to test them deep.
5) Turnover opportunities
- That could also create some solid opportunities for the ballhawks on the Bills defense to make their presence felt throughout the game. Jairus Byrd has been quiet in his first few games back from an injury, but this could be the exact type of opponent he can start to look like his old self against. Roethlisberger likes to take some chances and it burns him from time-to-time. Byrd's eyes will be in the backfield constantly and his instincts are good enough to take over if the Steelers get desperate enough. Pittsburgh is minus-11 in turnover ratio this season, and the Bills have been forcing plays with their defense all season long.
DOUBTFUL: WR Robert Woods (ankle)
QUESTIONABLE: LB Manny Lawson (not injury related)
PROBABLE: QB EJ Manuel (knee), WR Marquise Goodwin (hamstring), QB Thad Lewis (ribs), DL Kyle Williams (Achilles)
QUESTIONABLE: T Mike Adams (ribs), T Marcus Gilbert (ankle)
PROBABLE: DE Cameron Hayward (knee), CB Ivan Taylor (concussion), T Kelvin Beachum (knee), LB Vince Williams (concussion), C Fernand Velasco (thigh), G David DeCastro (ankle), WR Markus Wheaton (finger), TE Heath Miller (not injury related)
Prediction: Bills over Steelers
- It's always tough to predict a road victory for a team with a rookie quarterback at the helm, but EJ Manuel and company should be able to come away with a win and put themselves back in the mix. The two most glaring weaknesses for Pittsburgh, their offensive line and their run defense, are countered by Buffalo's two biggest strengths as a team, their defensive line and running game. Expect Roethlisberger to still make some plays and a tight game, but in the end the Bills just have the more talented roster and should come away victorious.