By all accounts, a deafening silence pervaded the Steelers' locker room on Sunday afternoon.
Depressing for sure, but entirely appropriate.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette noted that it had the feel of a team in the wake of a playoff loss, knowing their season is over. One interpretation is the Steelers team is utterly demoralized and what have you. The other is that they were just fully absorbing the gravity of the loss. By that I mean they understand that they came out onto the Heinz Field gridiron before their home fans and proceeded to lose a game they should simply have won with no excuses.
When there's no one to blame but yourself, quiet reflection often is the best course of action in the short term.
Neal Coolong, managing editor of Behind the Steel Curtain, opined many times earlier in the year that this Steelers team will experience some serious growing pains during the course of the 2014 season. Yes, there's some serious talent on this team and it's going to show through, but there also will be some serious letdowns along the way (looking at you, defense).
This was a theory I subscribed to and obviously still do, in large part because, heading into the season, the defense was relatively young and inexperienced, sprinkled with some new faces. Of course it's going to struggle but, when you add the loss of three key starters, then you have a recipe for disaster.
Did I think the letdown was going to come against an 0-3 team at home? No I didn't.
Does this in any way excuse the performance against the Buccaneers? No, of course it doesn't.
But we all knew the letdown was coming; it just happened to take the form of some terrible coverages and sloppy discipline. At the quarter mark of the season, the Pittsburgh Steelers are exactly where we should have expected them to be, 2-2, flashing some serious potential while displaying a maddening inconsistency.
What happens from here on out is what will define the 2014 Steelers.
Mike Tomlin and his coaching staff now have their ideal teachable moment, an utter capitulation in a game they had absolutely no business losing and with no one to blame but themselves. I think the fans, the coaching staff and, perhaps most importantly, the players all understand that.
Tomlin can walk into the film room this week and hold every single player accountable for the penalties, the lack of discipline and the individual or team failures on the field, because they're all responsible and there's no hiding from it.
But it needs to be more than just a simple tongue-lashing, he has to use this moment to get through to his players and teach.
Cameron Hewyard, we know you were upset but you simply must keep a cool head or you'll hurt us, and the evidence is clear.
Antonio Brown and Le'veon Bell, it's an exciting thing making a play and scoring a touchdown, but you have to cut out the nonsense because those penalties hurt your team.
Cortez, you need to stop getting handsy and, frankly, just step up your coverage son.
Sean Spence, you need to stop getting blatantly held and make a play.
On a team level, they need to stress, yet again, fundamental tackling and keeping your hands low to avoid the facemask, because those flags just kill the team's chances. Dick LeBeau needs to take a look at his unit and decide, with three starters out, whether he can continue to do what he's been doing. If so, he needs to be sure the 11 players on the field can execute it.
At this time last year, the Steelers were 0-4 with, frankly, a far-worse team. But even then, Mike Tomlin never lost his players and he never lost the locker room. He stuck to his guns and coached the team to a remarkable second-half turnaround.
I'm a firm believer in sports crossroads, and the Steelers have reached theirs now. There's no treading a middle ground after the Tampa Bay game. They're either going to improve incrementally or they'll sink to the lowest ebb of their performances so far this season and make that the standard.
These situations are what makes or breaks a coaching staff. If the Steelers come out against the Jaguars next week and play with a few less penalties and a little more discipline, we'll know the head coach is doing his job. If they come out against the Cleveland Browns with slightly better execution and displaying sounder fundamentals, we'll know the team is listening.
I'm not talking night-and-day changes. What ails the Steelers will not vanish with one week's training, but if we can see small improvements week to week, we'll know that Mike Tomlin and his boys are still teaching, and perhaps the Steelers have taken the right turn at their crossroads.