Labriola on the loss to the Bills

Everything about it was awful. As was everyone who had a role in it.

The Steelers had been installed as historic underdogs for Sunday’s game against the Bills in Buffalo, and even though there was some mid-week bravado about the perception of their chances at a victory, they then went out and promptly justified every bit of that pessimism. And in this specific instance promptly was defined as the third snap of the game.

Just about the only thing the Steelers won all afternoon was the opening coin toss, and after Bills returner Taiwan Jones bumbled around trying to secure Chis Boswell’s kickoff the Buffalo offense took the field looking at a first-and-10 from the 2-yard line . Two plays later, it was third-and-10 from that exact spot when Josh Allen connected with a wide-open Gabe Davis for a 98-yard touchdown.

On the play, it appeared as though Minkah Fitzpatrick was being deployed on the second level of the defense as a spy on Josh Allen to prevent him from escaping the rush and running for the first down, and so when Davis got inside the coverage of the cornerback Levi Wallace, safety Tre Norwood either misread Davis’ route or took a bad angle in an effort to help Wallace, which left the deep middle of the field wide open. From there, it was a simple pitch-and-catch, and then lined up for the extra point.

Bad scheme, bad defensive call, bad communication, bad execution, all of the above. Take your pick because the only thing for certain was that it was only the beginning.

“No need to sugarcoat it. Today we got handled by a very good football team,” said Coach Mike Tomlin in the immediate aftermath of 38-3. “There’s nothing mystical about it. They did some of the (same) things to Tennessee, so we know it’s capable of happening. I’m just disappointed that we didn’t coach well enough or play well enough to prevent it from happening today , and that’s just the reality of it.”

There were some statistical realities that added an ugly context to the afternoon. It was the Steelers’ most lopsided defeat since 1989 when they lost the season opener to the Browns at Three Rivers Stadium, 51-0. Allen became the first quarterback in 2022 to pass for 300 yards in the first half of a game. Allen also became the first Bills quarterback since Jim Kelly in 1994 to throw four touchdown passes in the first half.

The statistical disparity mirrored the margin on the scoreboard, too. The Bills had three scoring plays of 20-or-more yards in the first half – the 98-yard play to Davis, a 62-yard pass to Davis, and a 24-yard catch by Khalil Shakir – and they averaged 11.8 yards per offensive play. The Steelers averaged 4.6 yards per offensive play and three consecutive three-and-outs from the end of the first quarter and into the second quarter helped grow their deficit from 10-3 to 24-3. With 7:30 left in the second quarter, the Bills had already completed six plays of 20-or-more yards and by the end of the first half that number had grown to eight. The Steelers managed only one – a 29-yard completion to George Pickens.

CBS’ No. 1 analyst Tony Romo, the former Cowboys quarterback, spent a good bit of airtime trying to generate interest in a game that was becoming increasingly lopsided by focusing on the fact that it was Kenny Pickett’s first NFL start. But in doing so, Romo also pointed out deficiencies in the Steelers play-calling and the performance of their receivers not named George Pickens.

Romo pointed to the three straight three-and-outs and opined that running on first and second down and then having Pickett try to convert on third down was not a good strategy for a young quarterback. “Look at the success of the drives when (the Steelers) throw on early downs,” said Romo.

He also pointed out that Diontae Johnson, while a good route-runner and a receiver who’s difficult to cover, didn’t help his quarterback by failing to complete a couple of catches by not getting a second foot down inbounds – the first of which would ‘ve given the Steelers a first-and-goal at the 2-yard line and a chance to tie the game, 7-7, and the other would’ve sustained a drive by converting a third down.

Romo also labeled Chase Claypool a receiver who didn’t run “quarterback-friendly” routes, and he said of Pickens’ combination of height and speed, “Pickens is never covered.”

“We’ve got to absorb the position that we’re in and what transpired today,” said Tomlin. “We’ve got to know that there’s going to be better days, not to provide or to seek comfort. Knowing that there’s better days is going to be born out of our commitment to making sure that there are better days. That’s what I talked about to the team about. But where we are today, not good. We understand it as professionals. We own it. It is what it is, man. We congratulate the Buffalo Bills on a quality game that they played.”

The loss left the Steelers at 1-4 and mired in a four-game losing streak. Injuries are mounting and to date the team has not been able to find answers within its roster to compensate. At one point against the Bills, their two cornerbacks were James Pierre and Josh Jackson; Jamir Jones and Ryan Anderson both saw action as edge rushers; Levi Wallace and Pat Freiermuth both left the game with concussions; and Larry Ogunjobi played little because of a back injury.

Things are looking bleak, and the next three weekends will bring Tom Brady and the Buccaneers to Acrisure Stadium, before trips to visit the 3-2 Dolphins and the 5-0 Eagles. That makes this somewhat uncharted territory for a franchise that last experienced a sub-.500 season in 2003, and Tomlin is facing the challenge of holding the locker room together while looking for answers to both the ongoing impact of attrition and to the many issues plaguing the team’s performance.

“You play like we played today, you’ve got to be open to doing whatever is required to change the outcome of these games. That’s a given,” said Tomlin. “I don’t think anybody is going to be surprised by our willingness to turn over any stone to change the outcomes of games like what transpired today. That’s just appropriate.”

And when he was asked whether that might include coaching changes, Tomlin didn’t bat an eye. “Like I said, I think everyone understands where we are and what transpired today and that it is not cool. So, you can draw whatever conclusions you want to draw from it. That’s just the reality of our business at this level.”

Sunday, Oct. 9 was supposed to be a day filled with the promise that was the beginning of the Kenny Pickett era, but instead it turned into the Steelers’ most decisive defeat in 33 years. What was supposed to be memorable for a feel-good reason is now memorable for something that’s most definitely not.

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