Sunday Night Football Betting Preview: Will the Steelers' Defense Slow the Bills' Passing Game?
Sunday Night Football brings us one of our best matchups of the season, as the 11-1 Pittsburgh Steelers travel to face the 9-3 Buffalo Bills in a showdown that is full of playoff implications. The Steelers enter Sunday with just a two-game lead over the Cleveland Browns in the AFC North while also battling the 11-1 Kansas City Chiefs for the number-one seed in the AFC. The Bills hold a slim one-game divisional lead over the Miami Dolphins, a division that they are no doubt desperate to win after years of dominance by the New England Patriots.
On FanDuel Sportsbook the line opened with the Steelers as 1.5-point favorites, but that has swung to where it currently stands -- with the Bills as 1.5-point favorites. With 61% of the bets and 59% of the money backing Buffalo, per our oddsFire tool that line may have settled into place, but there are some books with the Bills favored by as much as 2.5. The moneyline currently sits at Buffalo -130, but the other side is drawing the public's attention. Steelers +110 has garnered 73% of the bets and 63% of the money. The total opened at 47.5 and has been bet up to 48.5. Money keeps pouring in on the over -- 77% of the bets and 78% of the money are currently taking the over.
Which team will lock up an important win and improve their potential playoff seeding? With two good teams set to battle in what should be a competitive game, let's turn to our projections to find some betting angles.
Passing Game Preview
When the Steelers have the ball, expect lots of passing. Pittsburgh's 1.67 pass-to-rush ratio is the seventh-highest in the league, especially noteworthy considering they have been playing with the lead so often. We grade their passing attack as the 13th-best in the league, producing 0.18 Adjusted Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back, so this is a passing game more dependent on volume than efficiency. Center Maurkice Pouncey returns from the reserve/COVID-19 list and is a nice boost to the offensive line.
Buffalo enters the game relatively healthy, but their pass defense has been up and down this year. The Bills rank 21st in the NFL defending the pass, allowing 0.18 Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per drop back. The Bills' defense has faced a fairly league-average pass-to-rush ratio of 1.40, so the Steelers should be able to attack them however they like.
Ben Roethlisberger leads this high-volume passing offense, but it looks a little different than in past years. With fewer big plays and more short, ball-control style passing, the offense has sputtered a bit lately. Tre'Davious White will likely take on Diontae Johnson, but while White is still an excellent cornerback, he hasn't been as elite this year as he has been in the past.
Johnson leads the team with 106 targets and has been a near-lock for double-digit opportunities in games in which he has stayed healthy, so look for plenty of Johnson-White battles. Johnson has been the least efficient of the Steelers' receivers, however, and drops have been a problem. His 0.49 Reception NEP per target is behind the team's other primary receivers.
JuJu Smith-Schuster has become a close-range option in this offense, and his 0.60 Reception NEP per target is better than Johnson's but still not flashy. Pittsburgh might benefit from getting the ball into the hands of Chase Claypool and James Washington more often, as they lead the team with 0.81 and 0.77 Reception NEP per target, respectively.
While Claypool's 78 targets are tied for third on the team, he's seen his snap rate drop lately. After peaking at 81% in Week 9, Claypool played around 60% of the snaps the next three weeks and bottomed out at 44% last week in the loss to the Washington Football Team. As a result, Washington saw his snaps jump up to 54% last week and turned his four targets into 80 yards and a touchdown. These two are the big-play options in the passing game, but they may be splitting up the work too much to attack with a bet.
In a change from years past, this Bills team is carried by its passing offense. Buffalo ranks fourth in the league with 0.29 Adjusted Passing NEP per drop back, and that doesn't factor in Josh Allen's contributions as a runner. John Brown remains on IR, but otherwise, the team enters this matchup healthy.
They will need all hands on deck against the Steelers' third-ranked passing defense, which allows 0.00 Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per drop back. Cornerback Joe Haden will miss the game for Pittsburgh, and coupled with losing linebackers Bud Dupree and Vince Williams, the injuries are beginning to add up for Pittsburgh. This is still an excellent unit, however, and will be a test for the Bills' passing offense.
Stefon Diggs is the high-volume option for the Bills, racking up 122 targets on the year, and while his 0.68 Reception NEP per target number is topped by several of his teammates, it looks good in comparison to the Steelers' high-volume wide receivers. Diggs hasn't been a big touchdown scorer this year with just four, but he's caught six or more passes in all but one game (Week 3 against the Los Angeles Rams) and is a safe bet for double-digit targets nearly every week.
Cole Beasley has shown himself capable of huge weeks when Brown is out of the lineup and has produced two games of 100-plus yards with a touchdown over the past three weeks. Gabriel Davis has impressed in limited opportunities and actually leads the Bills with 1.09 Reception NEP per target on 39 opportunities. With Brown out, he is on the field nearly every play, and he actually has more touchdowns (five) on the year than Diggs does. While we may not be able to count on Davis for more than a small amount of targets most weeks, he is a threat to produce a big play each game, and the Bills clearly like their rookie pass-catcher.
Rushing Game Preview
The Steelers' rushing attack has been fairly lackluster this season, ranking 22nd in the NFL with 0.01 Adjusted Rushing NEP per carry. James Conner is set to return from a two-game absence due to COVID-19, and it will be interesting to see his workload, as some players across the league have been eased back into action after contracting the virus. Pouncey's return at center will certainly help the running game, but I am wary to bet the over on any props related to Pittsburgh running backs due to workload concerns.
Benny Snell Jr. has been the backup to Conner, but his -0.16 Rushing NEP per carry doesn't inspire much confidence. Even against a Bills defense that ranks 22nd in run D, I'd stay away from the Steelers' running game this week.
For the Bills, they rank 21st in the NFL with 0.02 Adjusted Rushing NEP per carry and face the league's eighth-best run defense in Pittsburgh. Those numbers are boosted by Allen's rushing ability, as his 0.14 Rushing NEP per carry on 69 attempts leads the team.
After a multi-game stretch of getting out-snapped by rookie running back Zack Moss, Devin Singletary took over last week after a Moss fumble and received 85% of the running back snaps. Both running backs have produced negative Rushing NEP on the season, but Singletary has flashed a bit the past two weeks. Singeltary, however, has just one touchdown on the year and in his two years in the league has just five total touchdowns on 339 total touches, as Allen and Moss tend to get the rushing work near the goal line.
Of the 10 most comparable games to this matchup, the favorite has won 6 of 10 times while covering 6 of 10 times. The under has hit 6 of 10 times, so none of the trends are particularly strong here. If anything, this seems to confirm that we have a close game on our hands -- one that could be won by either team.
Game Projections and Props
Our algorithm gives the Bills a 62% chance of winning this game, so we see a 9% projected return on investment (ROI) in betting the Bills to win outright at -130. We also give the Bills the nod on the spread at -1.5, with a 12% projected ROI. Our strongest bet, however, is the over on 48.5, as we project a 15% ROI. If the injuries are beginning to catch up with this Steelers defense, the over could be a wise bet on Sunday night.
Let's check out the player props for the real fun, as there are plenty of options on the table in what could be a high-scoring, back-and-forth game.
On FanDuel Sportsbook, we've got a bunch of player props available, and I've been enjoying chasing some correlation plays in the same-game parlays. Cole Beasley feels underlooked here, as I like both his touchdown odds (+165) and his receiving yardage total (55.5). We project him for 65.0 yards and 0.39 receiving touchdowns, so both bets are in play. Parlaying him scoring a touchdown with the over on Beasley's receiving yards gives us a nice +293 payout.
A Gabriel Davis touchdown at +270 is also interesting, and we can pair that with an over on the point total (48.5) for a +481 payout. Stefon Diggs is valued as the most likely to score a touchdown by the sportsbooks, but as I mentioned above, he hasn't been the Bills' primary touchdown scorer this year. As a result, I see value in most of the Bills' touchdown props outside of Diggs and Devin Singletary.
On the Steelers side, James Washington at +450 to score a touchdown is interesting from a long shot perspective. If the change in snap rate sticks from last week, he is undervalued here. Combining that with the over gets us to +764 for a swing-for-the-fences parlay. For a safer bet, the over on Ben Roethlisberger's passing yardage (269.5) looks intriguing, as we project him for 288.3 passing yards. That would be an easy one to parlay with your favorite Steelers' pass-catcher scoring a touchdown.