Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) runs with the ball against the Buffalo Bills during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Bill Wippert)
Mike Tomlin earned his 100th victory as Steelers coach in a way his predecessors could appreciate.
The Steelers ran the ball in record-setting fashion, as Le'Veon Bell rushed for a team-record 236 yards in beating the Buffalo Bills, 27-20, Sunday at New Era Field.
It was a ground-and-pound style in the snow, a throwback to the days of Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher, when the black-and-gold left opponents black and blue.
This was expected to be a game determined by whichever team dominated the run, and the Bills boasted one of the NFL's best in former Pitt star LeSean McCoy.
With Ben Roethlisberger struggling on the road again, throwing three interceptions on his way to the fifth-worst passer rating (37.8) of his career, the Steelers showed their hand by inserting 295-pounder Chris Hubbard at tight end and Roosevelt Nix at fullback.
“It was amazing, man, because you know you can run the ball even when they know that you're running the ball,” Hubbard said. “They're yelling, ‘The ball is coming this way.' They know that we're running the ball. And I love that they know that. It's always fun that they know and we still run it.”
Nine times out of 10 plays on their first drive of the second half, the Steelers handed it to Bell. He accounted for 67 yards, including a 24-yarder and a 5-yard touchdown run. On the Steelers' next possession, Bell ran seven times to the Buffalo 8 before Roethlisberger threw a pick in the end zone.
“We knew what we had to do: We had to feed him the ball, bleed that time and score points,” Steelers right guard David DeCastro said of Bell. “Those are the games you want to play in as an offensive line. You never want to be sitting back. You always want to be running the ball the whole game. It was awesome out there.”
The Bills knew what was coming, yet could do nothing to stop it.
“Obviously, it's disappointing when you get the ball run at you like that, there's no question about it,” said Bills coach Rex Ryan, whose job could be in jeopardy. “But you're sitting back and that's a tough offense. I mean, they got a lot of weapons and they did a really nice job, obviously.”
Bell had the kind of game that makes him a fantasy football favorite. He averaged 6.2 yards on 38 carries, caught four passes for 62 yards and scored three touchdowns. McCoy had no such luck. He entered the game averaging 5.4 yards per carry but finished with 27 yards on 12 carries.
Then again, the Bills didn't completely sell out for the run the way the Steelers did, despite B.J. Finney starting at left guard for the injured Ramon Foster. Hubbard has helped as an extra blocker, lining up at tight end next to tackles Alejandro Villanueva and Marcus Gilbert. Nix has played sparingly since returning from a back injury, but brings energy every time he enters the huddle. Bills middle linebacker Brandon Spikes called Nix out before the game, so he was pointing at No. 51 and talking trash every time he came onto the field.
“When you have momentum, it makes it fun. What we try to do is keep the momentum all game,” Nix said. “Being able to run the ball is a critical thing, especially in December. That's what Steelers do: We play hard-nosed football and we're physical. We play every game like that.”
The Steelers have responded to a four-game losing streak by playing every game like it's a must-win, which is a credit to Tomlin. And they've won four consecutive to improve to 8-5, with games next Sunday at Cincinnati and against Baltimore and Cleveland at Heinz Field, respectively, on Christmas Day and New Year's Day.
Bell appears to be getting better each week, too, though he's yet to play in the postseason. Each of the past two years, Bell's season ended with a knee injury suffered against the Bengals. The Steelers were forced to start the likes of Ben Tate and Fitzgerald Touissant in playoff games, and their running game didn't fare well.
But, on this day, the Steelers showed that they can win by relying on the run, by playing hard-nosed, physical football.