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The story of the Week 14 Steelers vs. Bills game in eight quotes

What do we know about the Steelers from their Week 14 mess? Let’s let the participants tell us.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

You may have noticed this piece is going up late this week. It’s been finals week out here. That’s all I’ve had a mountain of portfolios to climb… On the plus side, that means I haven’t had much time to think about the ugly Monday night game. But let’s talk about it, and where the Steelers stand in the final stretch of the season:

“This team is special. The season is not over. I want everyone out there to just take a deep breath. I know it’s kind of crazy right now. I want everyone to take a deep breath. We’ve got time.”

— Ben Roethlisberger

Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

I wanted to start on the upswing for two reasons. First, there’s going to be a lot of criticism below (largely of the offense). Secondly, because Ben’s right. This team is 11-2. That didn’t happen by mistake. They’re probably not going to get the AFC’s bye, which is a shame. But there’s a huge gulf between “these guys are very good but flawed” (which is true) and “these guys are pretenders” (which is nonsense).

“[Ben] rarely throws anything intermediate. Only two quarterbacks this season have targeted receivers less in the range between 10-19 yards downfield (16%). In other words, when Roethlisberger throws, it’s usually either a glorified screen or it’s going long.”

— Chris Adamski, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

I’ve been grumbling about this for weeks. The Steelers pass too much, and with too little variance. There are a slew of reasons why this is a bad idea, but the worst is probably that it’s predictable, and therefore ineffective. A graphic during the Bills game indicated that the last five games featured the most passing attempts in any five game stretch of Ben’s career, but the 58th most yards for any five game stretch. That’s ridiculous.

Side note: this is not just a bad way to win ballgames; it’s also a bad way to extend the career of your 38 year old quarterback. Roethlisberger wears #7 in honor of his childhood hero, John Elway. It’s worth noting that Elway was a rock star early in his career, as his Broncos went to three Super Bowls in four years, but couldn’t win. It’s worth noticing that those teams sometimes had good defenses, but they rarely had other stars on the offense with Elway; he practically willed those offenses through the AFC playoffs, but simply couldn’t beat the Giants, Redskins, or 49ers by himself. When he famously retired, after his second consecutive title, he was quarterbacking a team in which he was NOT the focus. He was still the driver of that bus, but Terrell Davis was the engine. That is, Elway no longer had to do it all. And that’s the difference.

I understand putting the game into the hands of your best player (Big Ben in this case). But this seems like a bad way to get a title, or to maximize the old man’s career.

“As far as dropping the ball, it’s more people were just trying to make a play before it happens… [Trying] to run before catching the ball. Trying to get upfield.”

—JuJu Smith-Schuster

Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

This is a byproduct of the Steelers short passing game, and it’s not the last time that element is going to appear in this space.

With a one-yard passing game, the WRs have to do everything by YAC (that is, by yards after the catch), so their big concern isn’t making the grab, it’s what’s going to happen afterward. This makes some sense too – if you make the catch two yards down field, and don’t have a juke move already halfway in motion, you’re going to make a two yard catch and get tackled. When a WR is in traffic already, their attention is split between the ball and everyone else. If you throw 15 yards downfield, and a WR makes the catch, he might pick up big yards after the catch. But he might also go down right away with a 15 yard gain. And that’s pretty good too.

Asking these guys to do ALL of their work within three yards of the line of scrimmage is inviting this split attention. Especially with a bunch of young WRs. (This is similar to how the short passing game creates more batted balls at the line, because defensive linemen don’t have to beat their blockers to get a hand on the ball. They just have to take two steps forward and throw their arms in the air. Those short passes make the game harder on the WRs but easier on the pass rushers.)

This strategy has benefits – Ben is the least sacked QB in football, and the deep WR corps are good enough to make some things happen. But it comes with costs. And those costs are starting to add up to failed drives, blown third downs, wasted red zone trips, and interceptions. I’ve been beating this drum for a few weeks now: please incorporate more downfield passing into this offense.

“Back the other way… touchdown Bills!”

— Mike Tirico, at the Bills’ pick-6

Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

So here’s another problem with this 2-yard passing game: defensive players can jump routes because they have teammates behind them. And when it works, there’s no one is in front of them. This hasn’t happened to the Steelers much this year, but I suspect that’s a function of who they’ve played.

Tony Dungy noted at halftime that Bills DBs were drilled to sit down on the Steelers’ short routes. That’s what happens when you play a good team – they see your shortcomings and punish you for them. So you have to be able to do more than one thing. Speaking of which…

“I live by the coaching creed ‘If you can’t get a yard, you don’t deserve to win.’ That was the case for us in this game.”

— Mike Tomlin

Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

Here’s another thing that came up over and over: the Steelers’ inability to run the ball, especially on plays when they really need it. There are a million explanations for why this is happening. Jerome Bettis says, “the only solution is commitment… you can’t fix the running game with Xs and Os.” Gerry Dulac says it’s (at least partially) about blocking schemes, suggesting that the Vikings, Colts, and Browns’ offensive lines seem more mobile and effective because “those teams run outside zone blocking schemes, something the Steelers should try too.” Lorenzo Reyes of USA Today thinks “Randy Fichtner should consider calling a stronger does of misdirection plays.” I see a lot of people in the BTSC comments point to the reluctance to use Derrick Watt, or Ben’s insistence on the shotgun.

I don’t have a solution, but I will say that the Steelers didn’t used to be this bad. As this column pointed out last week, the Steelers never ran for less than 109 yards on any of the first six weekends. Now they struggle to hit 50. David Decastro was on the sidelines for several of those games as well, so it’s not because manpower is somehow worse now.

If you ask me, the Steelers inability/unwillingness to run the football is the most likely culprit to hold them back in the postseason.

“Talking about the late bye – [Cardinals’ linebacker] Hassan Reddick said it was important to get a mental break…”

— Mike Florio, NBC Sports

Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Bryan Bennett/Getty Images

This is an object lesson in the difference between the hands that, say, the Cardinals or Buccaneers were dealt, and the one that the Steelers got. That’s not to say that the Steelers are in any competition with those two teams, so much as a reminder that the Steelers are going to finish the year as the only team to get ZERO weeks off. Those bye weeks help to work out kinks, to recharge batteries, and to stave off injuries. If the Steelers looked exhausted against the Bills, we shouldn’t be surprised.

“I plan to keep on [dancing on the other team’s insignia pregame]. I’m just having fun, being myself… I’m going to be the JuJu I came into me. Authentic. TikTok is a new platform that I’ve used to touch my fans.”

— JuJu Smith-Schuster

This is what you call an “unforced error.” The Steelers are getting out-physical’d the last few weeks (please see above for why, re: no bye week). When you’re behind the 8-ball like this, the last thing you want to do is create a little extra fire in the opponent’s belly, so that they don’t just want to win, they want to push you around too.

It’s not the first time JuJu has fired up the wrong team this way. Against the Cowboys, he danced on the star pre-game, then tried to run to it after scoring a touchdown (like Terrell Owens). Cowboys D-Lineman Antwaun Woods stopped him, saying later, “we have zero-tolerance for that.” (I’m on the Cowboys’ side on this one.)

A few years back, Ryan Shazier started a tradition of doing pre-game warm-ups shirtless in the freezing cold, as a show of toughness and a way of firing up teammates and fans. It was a spectacle, but (like a leader) he made it all about the game. If JuJu’s pregame ritual is all about “having fun, being myself,” and happens to fire up the other guys, maybe he needs to be reminded about the actual goal of the season.

I want to give line up three voices that will add up to one conclusion:

“On defense the Steelers are pulling their hair out – come on, we’re playing one of the great halves of the season…”

— Chris Collinsworth, as the Steelers offense suffered another 3-and-out

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Buffalo Bills Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

“After opening this season by scoring 26 or more points in 10 consecutive games, the Steelers haven’t cracked 20 in any of the past three. The offense has just five touchdowns over the past three games.”

— Chris Adamski, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Buffalo Bills Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

“[The Buffalo] game looked a lot like last year when Devlin Hodges and Mason Rudolph were the quarterbacks. For that matter, the whole season is taking on that look.

A defense that is wearing thin and getting gassed by an offense that can’t sustain any momentum. If the defense allows more than two offensive touchdowns, the game is cooked.”

— Tim Benz, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

The Steelers defense is being gutted by injuries but still playing at a playoff level. What’s holding this team back, just like last season, is the offense. It’s seems a bit like overkill to claim, like Tim Benz did, that this season looks like last year — not if you look at the stats from the two Buffalo games.

The Steelers’ recent inability to sustain drives, control the clock, and put points on the board puts its first-rate defense in untenable situations over and over. This level of offensive futility would be asking a little much if Devin Bush, Bud Dupree, Robert Spillane, Vince Williams, Joe Haden, Stephon Tuitt, and Tyson Alualu were endlessly available. But with each of those guys missing time this year (and half of them on IR), the offense has to start pulling its weight.

“This team is special. The season is not over. I want everyone out there to just take a deep breath. I know it’s kind of crazy right now. I want everyone to take a deep breath. We’ve got time.”

— Ben Roethlisberger

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Buffalo Bills Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

And I’m ending where we started.

It’s useful to notice all of our complaints about the team. But it’s also imprtant to remember that this team is guaranteed a playoff spot, they’re the best defense in football (and are having one of the great seasons in league history, by rankings), they reeled off the best season opening stretch that any Steelers team has ever posted, they swept the Baltimore Ravens already (and made John Harbaugh cry twice), and if they complete the season sweep of Cincinnati they’ll clinch their first division title in three years.

This season is far from lost. Go Steelers.