ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The Steelers were dealt a blow that ended their season against the Buffalo Bills as they lost in the Wild Card round 31-17. But that leaves the franchise in a tenuous spot moving forward. Where can they go from here with some of the moves that must be made?
Offensive Coaching Comes up Short
The Steelers’ offensive coaching staff leaves a lot to be desired. This isn’t news, and the team knows it. They fired Matt Canada for a reason, and as they move forward, all of the staff will have to be evaluated, and that’s before Mike Tomlin’s future comes into view.
Something that came out of the locker room stood out to me in this vein. Buffalo was a team that played mostly two-high shells with some two-man, quarters and cover six before this game. But Pittsburgh noticed to start the game they were living in one-high and never came out of it, rolling the extra defender down to slow down Pittsburgh’s run game and force Mason Rudolph to complete the ball and beat them.
“They’re typically, and we thought they would be more 22-man and more two-high, but first play, they came out in one-high, and them throughout the game, even when they were up.,” running back Najee Harris said. “They were still playing one-high. I was going to Coach T asking if they were still in it. I came into half and they were still in one-high. But you can see that, they’re agenda to stop the run. That’s what I’ve been saying all year. That’s what they did.”
Rudolph acknowledged they could have backed off the Bills more by completing some passes outside the numbers. But Harris acknowledges the team’s mentality was to keep pounding the ball into the front anyways. That’s what they had to do with their identity and game plan, but nothing worked until they started hitting play-action passes and backing them off. There was no counter punch to the one-high stuff.
“Eh, run it anyway? That’s Mike T says and we walk around saying run it anyway because we know that what’s coming down in that box,” Harris said. “You know, this isn’t the first time teams have done that. Sometimes we do good, but sometimes we have to build off those plays.”
Harris then abruptly ended the answer and gave a mystified look that told me he was over it. I don’t blame him. The team’s in-game adjustments took a while, and play that point, they were already down in the hole. The coaches have to anticipate that, but Sean McDermott caught the Steelers in a bind. And they didn’t have the punch needed. The idea to ‘just run it’ is not good enough. They are not a high-enough level running team to have that arrogance against a team like the Bills. But that’s knowing your personnel, and the new offensive coordinator has to make that change — badly.
Pressley Harvin Struggles Again
The Steelers have a punter problem, and have had one for a while. But this game cemented the fact that it seems even harder to imagine them not making a change here. Pittsburgh gave Pressley Harvin III three legitimate seasons to prove what he could do on the football field, but time and time again, he has fallen short. A mere 38.5 punt average led Harvin to one of his most lackluster career showings. For a team that plays the field position game so strongly, having a subpar punter is a big deal, especially when they invested a draft pick in Harvin.
Harvin’s flat punts leave the team out to dry. He is consistently outdueled each week against opponents, putting an already struggling offense in even tougher spots when the field position battle gets so lopsided and opposing offenses start on short fields. It seems like it is time to move on. This isn’t working.
Pittsburgh will likely move on at this point, and they have to do so. Harvin, at any rate, is not cutting it as the team’s punter with his inconsistencies over the past three seasons. It seems like many things, and this is one of those coming to an end after the 2023 season for plenty of solid reasons.
Alex Highsmith Steps up Without Watt
One of the positives I come out of this game with is that Alex Highsmith has taken his game to the next level. Last year, Highsmith had some sack production with Watt out, but in this game, he was all over Josh Allen and largely won his individual matchup against Dion Dawkins. He is better than he was last year in the pass rush department, and he has leveled up his game to become a true force for teams to worry about.
Pittsburgh moved Highsmith around and even got him to win against chips. That’s a testament to where Highsmith has taken his game from this point on. The bag is deeper, and tackles can no longer overset to the outside and just expect a spin move. Highsmith has multiple moves to win at any point in the rush, and his bend has always been magnificent when getting around the arc.
Highsmith’s speed-to-power evolution over the last two years is complete. Coming into this game, I was most interested to see if Highsmith could become that Batman when he was no longer asked to be T.J. Watt’s Robin. I think he did so on Monday. It’s a good sign for the Steelers, who have a top-tier edge-rushing duo. And in 2024, Highsmith should see a lot of positive sack regression coming his way after an impressive 2023 that showed clear improvement on tape.
The Tight End Struggles Persist
I’ve tried asking around the locker room. The Steelers have used more guys and schematic changes than I can count. They still can’t stop tight ends. When that happens, there’s one logical answer — the answer is personnel-related, and the fix is not on the team. Maybe the fix could be Minkah Fitzpatrick, but the team needs his skills in the box and deep to cover ground with the lack of speed on the backend. Then, injuries at the linebacker and a true lack of a run-down slot cornerback forced them to peck him up into the box and become a SAM linebacker at times.
So, maybe the answer to this is to get a true run-down slot cornerback to free up Fitzpatrick. But he was injured for most of this stretch when they faced tight ends who burned them. From Trey McBride onwards, tight ends torched the Steelers up and down the football field on different routes. I asked Elandon Roberts about the problem, and he did not answer well. From others, it was the canned ‘keep working’ answer.
But these players are not stupid. Sometimes, it’s simple. That guy isn’t there. He’s not in the room. And if the guy is there (Fitzpatrick) they do not have someone to fill an equally as important role in their scheme (run down slot cornerback). So, they have a choice to decide here. Either go get another tight-end eraser at safety or get that run-down nickel cornerback to free up Fitzpatrick.
I’ve long said I think the team needs to overhaul the secondary. They lack speed and the guys who are fast are not great tacklers. it’s a bad combination. When you lack speed, you force the talented and speedy guys, like Fitzpatrick, to overcompensate in other roles. That’s what happened to this team. The answer will only be found in the offseason, likely in free agency.
Locker Room Temperature Feels Different
This was my first time covering a playoff game, so the atmosphere here is a little different. You will be disappointed. It’s natural, and because the season is over and the ultimate goal has not been achieved all of those players, the locker room feels as somber as it has all season. But that’s not what I picked up in this Steelers locker room. It felt like the winds of change were moving. As I said earlier, these players are not stupid. They know what plagued much of their season.
Harris called out a lack of in-house discipline and commitment from the team.
“In-house rules. Not no changes or coaches or anything like that. Just the rules that are in the building,” Harris said. “We’ve got to be more disciplined. We’ve got to be more committed. I’m not saying that we’re not, but coming from a place that has structure and coming and just seeing, we could probably get help in these areas; make a change. I think that’s something that could help. I’m not saying anything about coaches or anything like that; I’m saying in-house rules.”
This is the type of frustration that requires change. I don’t think it’s the type of change calling for the coach to be changed. That’s now what this feels like, but it does feel like one where the group is not on the same page and views the problems as very fixable. Haris seemed frustrated because he had also talked to the rest of his teammates about those very issues this year.
The temperature needs self-reflection, and the Steelers franchise as a whole needs that reflection moving forward. If you don’t win a playoff game in seven years, something has to change within the organization.