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The Steelers Let It Not-Slide Away

12:14 PM EST on January 16, 2024

Damontae Kazee fails to tackle Josh Allen
Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

Maybe if the grounds crew hadn't bothered to clear out the snow, the repressed Pittsburgh Steelers offense might have had a shot at competing with their Bills counterparts. But with the flakes confined to the stands, where spectators used them as makeshift confetti, the underdog visitors lost to the big-play abilities of Buffalo, who shot out of a cannon at the start, let Pittsburgh creep back in after half, and then sealed it with a spectacular late score to make the final 31-17.

With the open field looking green and not white, the Bills were able to keep control of their feet and avoid any turnovers. Most critically, it was Josh Allen who showed the meaning of traction when he took it to the house for the game's longest play—a 52-yard run on third-and-8 that put his boys up 21. When the Steelers' six-man rush got to his flanks, Allen stepped up, saw a weakness, and hustled across the down line. He was just getting started. He created an opening by slowing to a near-stop and disorienting Damontae Kazee, then re-accelerated off the broken tackle and, following the lane his blockers and the stunned Steelers gave him, finished off the touchdown run. In an up-and-down, mistake-prone season for the Bills' QB, this was a reminder of why he carries such high expectations.

What about that slowdown? Was it a fake slide meant to fool defenders into backing off? A lot of people thought so; Kazee certainly did. "Didn't wanna lunge, was just trying to make sure," he said. "I didn't know if he was gonna slide or not. It's hard to explain. Just pissed off, dog."

Later in the game, Allen sold hard for a personal foul on a real slide, and he immediately got up to lobby for a flag.

These images would seem to present a catch-22 for any player who can't read minds, but ultimately they emphasize how impossible it is to consistently enforce "player safety" in a way that fits the inherent violence of football. Sometimes, players risk a 15-yard penalty to prevent a gain of much more. Others times—like, perhaps, Dak Prescott's pump fake on a long TD to CeeDee Lamb against the Lions a few weeks ago—they let up like they're told to and live to regret it. Either way they must rely on the mysterious interpretation of the zebra to divine fair from foul. As long as calls like these are unknowable in advance, quarterbacks like Allen would be fools not to take advantage of the uncertainty.

At least in this game, the Steelers' tacklers had bigger problems than Josh Allen mind games. That spectacular late score to seal the win? That happened when Khalil Shakir caught a pass, shed a would-be tackler like a snake's skin, then zigged and zagged his way through a sea of defenders to the end zone. The Steelers wanted very badly to hit him, no confusion about that, but they just couldn't keep up.

With the win, we get the privilege of enjoying another Chiefs-Bills showdown, in Buffalo on Sunday evening. If the Kansas City defense hasn't yet eaten tape on these two contrasting Allen runs, they will soon. But good luck telling one from the other in the moment. The best they can do is just not let go once they get a handful of Bill.

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