Steelers storm back in second half to take down Bills

By Brian Batko

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Miles Killebrew, of all Steelers, blocked a punt midway through the fourth quarter and Ulysees Gilbert returned it 9 yards for a touchdown, and that put enough wind in their sails to float to a 23-16 win Sunday at Highmark Stadium.

Killebrew, a backup safety and special teams ace, burst through the line to block Matt Haack’s punt. Gilbert, a backup inside linebacker, scooped it and scored to give the Steelers a 20-10 lead with 9:45 left. That sapped the energy out of the Bills Mafia in Buffalo and gave the Steelers more cushion than they might’ve been able to muster via the offense. Killebrew, signed in free agency this offseason, slipped through the protection so fast that he nearly grabbed the ball right off Haack’s foot. It was a redemption moment for a special teams unit that allowed a 75-yard return on the game's opening kickoff.

It was over when: The offense finally came alive — just enough — to finish off the game with three more points following a Bills field goal that cut it to a one-possession lead. Ben Roethlisberger found JuJu Smith-Schuster and Chase Claypool for 23 yards and 14 yards, respectively — both inbounds — to set up Chris Boswell’s 45-yard field goal with 2:42 to go. It was his 15th consecutive made field goal in a fourth quarter or overtime. As it did most of the day, the Steelers defense took care of the rest.

Player of the game: Cam Heyward will accept this award on behalf of the entire defense. Captain Cam's conventional stats aren't prolific with four tackles and one sack, but he filled up the box score beyond that. Heyward had two passes deflected, a quarterback hit, a tackle for loss, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. That line is reflective of how consistently he was unblockable, collapsing the pocket and putting pressure on All-Pro quarterback Josh Allen to spearhead an impressive effort for the Steelers.

Trending up: Killebrew’s splash play provided the hammer, but Diontae Johnson’s 5-yard touchdown catch on the previous drive was the game-winner. And, boy, did Johnson make a special play with that one. It wasn’t a deft pass from Roethlisberger, who got it tipped by cornerback Levi Wallace, but Johnson adjusted to the deflection and found a way to haul it in while dragging both feet in the back left corner of the end zone. There was never a question whether he lost possession. Next time the Steelers had the ball, Johnson got open downfield and drew a defensive holding penalty. All told, he had just five catches for 36 yards, but he was a difference-maker.

Trending down: Terrell Edmunds might be the weak link on an otherwise nasty defense, and the strong safety played like it at times Sunday. There’s a reason why the Steelers didn’t exercise the fifth-year option for Edmunds on his rookie contract this offseason, and it showed on a couple missed tackles in the open field. There isn’t much competition to unseat him, though, unless Killebrew earns a longer look or veteran Karl Joseph is elevated from the practice squad. Either way, it’s a position to keep an eye on as this defense eyes another elite season.

Next up: The 2021 home opener Sunday at Heinz Field against Las Vegas to start 2-0 for the second year in a row. You can get an early look at the Raiders on Monday night against the Ravens.

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