A few last thoughts on the Steelers campaign.
The Packers’ season came to an end as they fell to the Buffalo Bills by a score of 14 points during the NFL’s Super Wild Card Weekend. The fact that it was a playoff game was the one thing that helped to make the dismal loss more bearable.
As always, there are a lot of lessons to be learned.
1. The postseason collapse of Pittsburgh was expected.
Of course, it was disappointing to watch Pittsburgh fall behind Buffalo by 21 points in the first half, but to be quite honest, I wasn’t shocked or devastated. My aspirations were never lofty enough to be dashed for the following reasons: The injury to T.J. Watt and the Steelers’ overall lackluster play this season also had a significant impact. Were they ever really a threat to a team like Buffalo?
You would have expected that Steeler supporters would have been more upbeat going into the game, coming off a three-game winning run and going into the playoffs with legitimately above-the-line quarterback play for the first time this season. However, the fact remains that Pittsburgh has struggled in the postseason for a while now, having lost five in a row since 2016. Worst of all, not a single one of those games was especially close.
I wanted to open my piece on a positive one, emphasizing how the Steelers overcame numerous obstacles this season, whether they were self-inflicted or not, but I wasn’t feeling very optimistic about this squad. For the Steelers, losing in the playoffs—no, getting blown out—has now become the norm. Additionally, saying that isn’t dramatic. It’s easy to say that the Steelers are still better off than the majority of NFL clubs, so quit whining!Only the regular season is affected by this, as more than 70% other teams in the league have won postseason games more recently than Pittsburgh.
Those who anticipate a Super Bowl trophy annually are making unreasonable demands. It’s not the fans who have been hoping for some postseason success since 2016. The Steelers are having issues.
2. The Steelers should talk to Mike Tomlin.
In the point above, I alluded to a difficulty. What then is the shared denominator? Of course, the entire Steelers organization is noteworthy, but head coach Mike Tomlin stands out above the others. To his credit, he is aware of it. To read his opinions, scroll to the end of this Q&A he had with Bob Labriola of Steelers.com.
A few weeks back, I wrote about how Tomlin’s current losing run in the playoffs shouldn’t matter more than his undefeated season streak. That’s still what I believe. From fan arguments to the Steelers organization as they begin to make major decisions for the upcoming season, the conversation around Tomlin needs to accurately balance the positives and negatives. Even with his teams’ recent playoff struggles, Tomlin’s 173-100-2 regular season record and Super Bowl triumph cannot be completely discounted due to a recent losing run in the postseason. Nevertheless, the opposite is also true.
It’s because I am avoiding giving a true “keep Tomlin” or “fire Tomlin” assessment. Despite the venom I’ve seen hurled around in these internet arguments, there’s a legitimate argument on both sides regarding how the Steelers should approach the future. Remember that the majority of us outside of the Steelers organization just lack the knowledge necessary to make a firm decision in either direction. However, the Tomlin conversation is also necessary for the Steelers’ higher-ups who possess that knowledge, as blind allegiance will not advance this team. It may be as easy as delaying the decision to extend Tomlin until after the 2024–2025 season rather than doing so this summer.
The Steelers’ story would be significantly altered if they made the playoffs the following season. Pittsburgh would likely go nearly ten years without experiencing postseason success if they go another season without one.
3. In 2024, the Steelers will require a new quarterback.
I think the Kenny Pickett/Mason Rudolph discussion is the most contentious Steelers-related issue, even more so than the Tomlin one. After recuperating from his late-season injury, Pickett has been benched, but the Steelers and some of the fan base continue to believe he is the team’s quarterback in 2024. Since taking over for Pickett, Rudolph has performed admirably, winning his first three starts with a tenacious victory over Baltimore in addition to two outstanding performances. He struggled early against Buffalo but eventually found his flow. In the end, the Steelers benefited more from his 22/39, 229-yard, two-touchdown, and one-interception performance than from it.
The findings at the end of the season still appear to raise more questions than they do answers. While some believe Pickett is already a bust, others view him as a future franchise quarterback. Rudolph might be the next Geno Smith or merely a great QB2. In my opinion? The Steelers should make their decisions based on the likelihood that neither will become their starting quarterback in the future.
But it makes sense if the Steelers don’t want to forfeit ten years of future draft capital in order to choose between Caleb Williams and Drake Maye in the upcoming draft, overpay for a 35-year-old Kirk Cousins, or, should they manage to acquire Justin Herbert through trade, surpass the United States of America in debt. It is not cheap to find a new quarterback for the franchise. The Steelers very likely won’t view Pickett or Rudolph as “the guy” in the future, but they also probably won’t pursue a new franchise quarterback right away. That’s alright, too. Teams in dire need of quarterbacks don’t always make rational decisions; just take a look at what happened to Russell Wilson in Denver and Deshaun Watson in Cleveland.
I’ll be a little let down, but I’ll understand if the Steelers don’t sign a high-profile quarterback in the summer. However, a contest between Pickett and Rudolph alone cannot determine the starting quarterback position for the Steelers in 2024. Whether it’s selecting a player like Michael Penix, who might fall to the second round, or going for a free agency contract with a low-cost but high-potential signing like Baker Mayfield with the Buccaneers last summer, the team needs a fresh face to battle for the position in the following season. In 2024, the Steelers must work to strengthen their quarterback position. Similar to Mike Tomlin, they won’t succeed with unquestioning allegiance.
4. Ends and odds
The NFL has to make changes to the rules regarding defenders being punished for sliding quarterbacks. Football as a game is suffering from the current state of affairs.
Nevertheless, despite their occasionally irrational behavior on Monday, the referees should not be blamed for the Steelers’ defeat.
Sam Martin, who only has one decent leg, was nonetheless the best punter on the field on Monday, demonstrating the urgency with which the Steelers will need to address the issue in 2024.Although Pressley Harvin is an excellent holder and seems like a kind man, he is currently giving up considerably more shanks than effective punt returns.
With a recently injured punter, Pittsburgh’s decision to not force Buffalo to punt at the end of the first half was unacceptable. It appeared from their last-second timeout that nobody on the sidelines understood they ought to take one until it was too late.
I was particularly worried by the Steelers’ lack of intensity in the final two minutes of the game, as they were trailing by 14 points. Although the chances of winning were slim, it’s the playoffs! There’s nothing to lose, so at least try to win.
Calvin Austin proved to be a worthy addition to the FOX Sports playoff graphic with his touchdown reception.
On Monday, the Steelers’ run game fell short of expectations. Although we have been praising it for the better part of this season, and rightfully so, there is still much room for development.
In their game against the Bills, Pittsburgh’s tackling was exceptionally brutal all around.
In the first half, Rudolph’s end zone interception resulted in a 14-point swing. Though it’s unlikely that Pittsburgh would have won if the Steelers had scored a touchdown there, the game might have been much closer.
It’s unbelievable to think that this may be Cam Heyward’s final appearance in black and gold. He is the perfect Pittsburgh Steeler and ought to be inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame. Pittsburgh needs to make more offseason investments in young, talented defensive lineman regardless of whether he plays on this season.