- Current Line: Bills (-6.5 -110)
- Breakeven ATS % Bills (52.4%) and Steelers (52.4%)
- Last meeting: The home Bills beat the Steelers 26-15 in 2020
The Steelers have become somewhat of a “football analytics twitter meme” this offseason, with diehard fans bickering back-and-forth with “twitter analytics” over how good the team (both was and) is. Although both teams are coming off 2020 seasons rife with narrative, it’s coming from completely opposite sides of the spectrum. The Steelers started the Covid 2020 campaign hot, winning their first 11 games, before finishing the year 1-5. Before the slide, many saw through the “shaky and unstable” first 11 games to call out the team to be highly underrated. On the flip side, Buffalo came into the season apparently “one QB away from being a playoff team”, and came out as a Super Bowl contender with a top 5 QB (whose improvement was an absolute anomaly, and left those in the analytics crowd dumbfounded to this minute). Both teams made the playoffs, with the Steelers getting upset in the first round by the Browns and the Bills making a run before coming up short vs. the Chiefs.
Nonetheless, that was last year and we are focused on who will win this game. As many will note, week 1 NFL games prove to be a bit of a catch-22. Given the lack of data, sportsbooks/the market typically ends up pricing this week farther from the eventual outcome, relative to every other week. However, given the market opportunities, the same situation leaves the individual bettor with the same problem: limited info. Hence, the best case of action for any Week 1 bet, is to
- Shore up your priors (where did each team rank last season by TRUE performance indicators, such as SIS EPA/Play Rank
- Adjust prior based on clear changes to the team (OC/DC changes, key personnel like QBs coming/going etc)
- Incorporate regression analytics where necessary (which teams were most/least lucky/performed well with “non-sticky” Year over Year variables)
With that info, we then look at the individual matchups, make our decision, and check the math to ensure we are making a positive EV bet.
What can we expect from the Steelers in 2021
The Steelers’ “11-game winning streak” included: the Broncos with a backup QB (Jeff Driskel), Carson Wentz, the lowest rated passer in the NFL, a win because of a missed FG by Stephen Gostkowski, the Ravens with Lamar Jackson coming up just short and Dak Prescott after a 4Q rally. Overall, they won 7/9 one-score games. That’s NOT sustainable, the Steelers are very likely to see some negative regression. However, the one element that can neutralize the effects of regression (like ranking 9th passing the ball on 3rd/4th down, yet 22nd on early downs): a change in OC or DC, which the Steelers have. In comes Matt Canada, an internal hire, but hopefully one that makes some small tweaks to an offense ranked 22nd last year by DVOA and Football Outsiders (FO). Regardless if the offense still focuses on getting the ball out of Roethlisberger’s hands in an eye wink, or not. Canada may finally be the OC that convinces Big Ben to run more play action (which empirically has proven to be more efficient than dropback passes). The hope is that his tactics/strategy offset not only the regression coming, but an O Line that took a big hit in the offseason losing starters Alejandro Villanueva (Ravens) and David DeCastro (retired?).
In addition to Canada, the Steelers stacked defense is getting ILB Devin Bush back from injury, The 2021 Steel Curtain boast potentially the best side in the league (#1 in DVOA last year), but heavily rely on the front 7, and their ability to pressure the QB to make up for a lack of DB talent. Interestingly, sacks typically don’t predict “future sacks” (pressures are a far better indicator), yet the Steelers have consistently bucked that trend, ranking #1 in adjusted sack rate for an insane fourth straight year.
What can we expect from the Bills in 2021
As noted, Josh Allen all but “broke analytics” last season. Allen set a record for biggest Year 3 Improvement in Passing by DYAR (Defense Adjusted Yards above Replacement, another FO flagship stat), surpassing the 2005 Carson Palmer and 1985 Ken O’Brien. When diving into the reasons this happened, they seem to come in two distinct categories: “Josh Allen Micro” and “Josh Allen Macro”. On the Macro side, OC Brian Daboll has proven to not only be a heck of an OC in terms of building a scheme around his talent (NOT the other way around), but being VERY “Analytically Inclined”: the Bills had the highest rate of passes as play-action, refuse to run into heavy boxes, pass on first down at a high rate (great way to help a young QB, although it’s counter-intuitive) among many other “indicators” of smart OCs. On the “Josh Allen Macro” front, he supposedly worked hard on his throwing mechanics, mapping his throwing motion and making changes to read progression. Combine all that with the addition of Steffon Diggs, who saw an extra yard of cushion/separation than the WR he replaced, John Brown in 2019 (according to NFL Next Gen Stats), and you can start to see where the drastic improvement came from.
Yes, the Bills too have some negative regression (especially on offense) coming their way, a al the “Plexiglass Principle” (they were the ONLY team in modern history to jump 20 % points in DVOA year-over-year on offense WITHOUT a OC change), yet given how strong their coaching is, you can build a narrative that Bills efficiency doesn’t come down far enough to take them out of playoff contention.
On the other side of the ball, the Bills were expected to be propelled by stellar defense in 2020. They did NOT underperform (12th in Defensive DVOA) as badly as the optics make them seem, but simply overshadowed by the offense (5th in DVOA). Instead of boosting their defense via free agency, they took the long view, and brought in two mid-round draft picks to shore up their pass rush (painfully dependent on Jerry Hughes for pressure). Between that, Matt Milano’s excellent pass coverage (top 3 coverage success rates the last 3 years for LB) and a very strong defensive backfield, the Bills Nickel (91% last year, #1 in league) Defense compliments their up-and-coming offense very well.
- Buffalo is 7-0 SU in its last 7 Home Games
- Steelers are 10-3 ATS in last 13 games vs Bills
The Steelers have proven to buck some trends (Top 8 in benefiting from penalty yardage EVERY year since 2014, a stat that SHOULDN’T”T “stick” year-over-year), yet one that may haunt them in this game is how bad their offense has played on the road. Their road splits in the past 6 years on offense have ranked on average more than 6 spots lower than their home splits. Given that both teams have a robust amount of negative regression coming their way, I’d lean on this metric to help determine the outcome. It is important to note how well (oddly) the Steelers fare vs. Play-Action passes (likely because of their ILBs pass coverage/play recognition ability) relative to the league/how often the Bills will likely deploy that tactic. Yet, it’s hard to ignore what Hughes (86.5 Pass Rush Grade in 2020 according to PFF) will likely do to new RT Chukwuma Okorafor (62.4 Pass Pro). That, along with a HC and OC you can trust on Buffalo, this should be an opening day win for the Bills. Based on the Implied Values, we believe the Bills have a greater than 52.4% chance of covering the -6.5 points, and therefore is the smart bet.
The Pick: Bills -6.5