PITTSBURGH — EJ Manuel. Thad Lewis. Jeff Tuel. To be honest, Pittsburgh Steelers nose tackle Steve McLendon doesn’t really care who the Buffalo Bills start at quarterback today.
A week after the worst defensive performance in the franchise’s 81-year history in a 55-31 loss to New England, McLendon just wants to get back on the field and find a way to restore some sense of normalcy to a team getting pushed around in the midst of a 2-6 start.
“I’m not really thinking about the throwing,” McLendon said. “We gave up 55 points. People was running the ball on us. That’s what we’ve got to worry about, worry about stopping the run. Don’t worry about no quarterback, worry about who’s running the ball.”
That’s been one of the few constants for the Bills (3-6), who have one of the league’s better 1-2 punches in Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. They’ve helped keep Buffalo competitive even as a knee injury to Manuel forced Lewis and Tuel — an undrafted rookie free agent — onto the field.
“If someone told me it was going to happen I’d want it to happen now,” first-year coach Doug Marrone said. “I think that you can see the adversity that’s hit this team early on and the players are working hard and fighting through it.”
Here are five things to look for as two teams trying to either rebuild or reclaim their identities meet.
EJ DOES IT: Though Manuel returned to practice on Wednesday and took the majority of the snaps with the first team, Marrone declined to name him the starter, perhaps out of caution. Manuel, however, believes he’s good to go. That’s good news for Buffalo’s offense, which wasn’t nearly as dynamic with Manuel standing on the sideline. Though Lewis and Tuel weren’t terrible, they were sloppy. They combined for eight turnovers in four games. Manuel had just four turnovers over the same period before getting hurt.
“Yeah, we’re excited to get EJ back,” center Eric Wood said. “Hopefully, it gives us a boost, offensively.”
EMBATTLED LeBEAU: Pittsburgh’s late meltdown against the Patriots, when New England finished the game with a 31-7 burst, did more than raise concerns about an aging secondary. It also brought heat on Hall of Fame defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.
Coach Mike Tomlin defended LeBeau earlier this week. When pressed on why, he simply answered “because he’s Dick LeBeau.”
The Steelers haven’t finished outside the top 10 in total defense since LeBeau took over in 2004. While they rank 12th overall, they’re also an uncharacteristic 31st against the run. The players insist the problem isn’t the game plan but the execution.
“We’re in the right positions,” safety Troy Polamalu said. “We’ve got to make the plays.”
JOHNSON’S HEALTH: The Bills nearly beat the Steelers in the last meeting, missing a chance to win when an easy touchdown pass in overtime fell through the hands of wide receiver Stevie Johnson. The mercurial Johnson blamed God after the game on his Twitter account, an act that has overshadowed what is turning into a solid NFL career. Johnson is one of five active players to have three straight 1,000-yard seasons and has become one of the most dependable players in the game. He doesn’t think Pittsburgh’s defense has lost a step, but he welcomes a second chance to right a wrong.
“If you’re aggressive (like the Steelers), you got a 50/50 chance of making a big play or a big play being made on you,” he said. “You know, so hopefully it will be our big play.”
STAYING POSITIVE: Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger never gave a second thought to calling it a day when the Patriots built an overwhelming lead in the fourth quarter. Though any shot at the postseason is all but shot, he plans to keep that mindset heading into the season’s second half and believes his teammates will follow suit.
“We can’t look at the big picture, such as everyone’s record, are we in the playoffs?” Roethlisberger said. “We’re just trying to get one win this week.”
FINISHING STRONG: The Bills and Steelers have both struggled with getting it done in the late going. Buffalo has been in the lead or within a score of the lead in eight of its nine games. The Steelers rallied to tie the Patriots at 24 last week before things got out of hand.
“We just kept playing,” Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark said. “That’s all you can do, try to go out each week and win that game. This week, we have to be good enough to beat the Buffalo Bills. We don’t have to be good enough to beat the New England Patriots.”