There really isn't a rational way of putting a positive spin on this one. The Pittsburgh Steelers were demolished by the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. The worst loss in over three decades, and one of the most embarrassing performances by the franchise since the NFL/AFL merger.
The Steelers are a proud franchise, renowned for a winning culture and unmatched stability. Their incessant search for stability often leads to what can only be viewed as stubbornness, retarding their willingness to make necessary changes.
As Sunday's debacle so clearly illustrated, sweeping changes are warranted and desperately needed moving forward, because the status quo isn't cutting the mustard.
That's the biggest question moving forward: Where do you start when so many changes are needed and necessary? It has to start with honest evaluation and accountability as a franchise.
First and foremost, the Steelers need to acknowledge this is a rebuilding franchise. It's imperative the Steelers embrace this mindset, from the Rooneys down to the coaching staff. Failure to adhere to this mentality will be devastating. It already has negatively impacted this organization.
By failing to accept the reality of a much needed rebuilding situation, the Steelers have been putting fresh paint on an old barn for the past few seasons. You can put lipstick on a pig, but you're still kissing a pig.
The Steelers have put the cart before the horse in recent drafts by loading up on skill position talent, although they have lacked the foundation needed for those acquisitions to flourish.
Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth are two recent examples. Both selections are perfect examples of how the Steelers refusal to accept or acknowledge the rebuilding situation in anyway has negatively impacted the franchise. Both selections represent the mindset of a franchise who blindly believe they are only a player or two away from contending, but are actually only pretending.
Both Harris and Freiermuth have suffered the consequences of the Steelers inability to grasp reality. Harris is already showing the effects of an unsustainable workload, and Freiermuth continues to rack up concussions as he valiantly fights for extra yardage. Both young men's careers will be shortened, if they haven't already, unless some meaningful changes are made, starting with the aforementioned mindset.
One possible solution is to utilize the talent already at your disposal. That is directed towards the coaching staff, and leading man Mike Tomlin.
There is absolutely no rational reason not to give Jaylen Warren more opportunities. He looks healthier, stronger, and more decisive than Harris right now, and by a large margin. Warren finally got to play late in the blowout Sunday, and he ran like a man possessed, breaking multiple tackles in only a few carries, in addition to delivering another punishing blitz pick-up. Harris isn't close to 100%, or irreversible damage has already been done. Here's hoping for the best. Either way, it only makes sense to allow the healthier and more effective Warren to share the load.
This is obviously not my typical Stock Report article, but I believe it was necessary, because there were precious few ‘ups’, and an overabundance of ‘downs’.
Stock Up: Youthful Optimism
Any hopeful optimism from this game begins and ends with Kenny Pickett. Pickett gave a solid accounting of himself against the best pass defense in the NFL. The moment never appeared too big for the young man, and he went through his progressions quickly. He stood tall in the pocket, often waiting until the last split second before accurately delivering the football. He maintained that accuracy, even when he was forced outside the pocket. His far more experienced receivers let him down on multiple occasions. Pickett competed and fought until the very end. That's what leaders do.
George Pickens continues to make the spectacular seem routine. The Pickett to Pickens connection seems destined for greatness. Turns out a hand doesn't equal a foot on a miraculous sideline catch, but I believe it should. That was an incredible catch, even if it didn't count. Watching Pickens grow is going to be one of the highlights of a disappointing season.
Jaylen Warren once again looked like an undrafted free agent steal for the Steelers. He is outplaying first round selection Najee Harris by a large margin. The Steelers should consider a 50/50 split in the backfield moving forward, to allow Harris the time to heal, and give Warren the opportunity to flourish.
The offensive line is young, experienced, and inexpensive. They continue to improve by the week, and offer hope for the future. The pass blocking is solid, and the run blocking continues to grow. For what it's worth, I love the offensive line standing up for their potential quarterback of the future, with James Daniels leading the way.
Stock Down: Defense without T.J. Watt
This game is a perfect example of what I have been talking about when it comes to the Steelers overreliance on star power on defense.
Both teams were missing multiple starting personnel in this matchup, but it hardly seemed to matter to the Bills, while it once again paralyzed the Steelers.
The Bills defense is greater than the sum of it's parts. It is scheme dependent, unlike the Steelers, which is star dependent. The Bills have done an excellent job of implementing the scheme, and then drafting and developing talent that fits their scheme. That allows them to acquire an elite pass rush talent like Von Miller, the final component needed to put them over the top.
The Bills defense can plug and play guys at multiple positions, without a huge drop-off, because they are incredibly precise, disciplined, and well coached.
The same cannot be said about the Steelers defense. Even when almost completely healthy as a unit, they rely on the extraordinary performances of their elite level few.
The defense scheme is outdated and ineffective otherwise. The lack of aggression, coupled with soft zone concepts behind it, leaves it completely vulnerable against modern era offenses.
To make matters worse, the Steelers secondary is incredibly slow and lacks NFL caliber athleticism. The interior linebackers are neither physical or instinctual, often caught sitting flat-footed in zone coverage.
The most disturbing thing about the difference between the two defenses Sunday was this, in my opinion. The Bills were controlled chaos, quickly flowing towards the action, all the while maintaining discipline. Whereas the Steelers take the read and react approach, absorbing the action, getting caught far too often flat footed and in a pursuit position.
The Steelers have the highest paid defense in the league, thanks to the hefty salaries of their superstars, but without T.J. Watt's services, they end up being the most overpaid defense in the NFL.
The Steelers hierarchy has to accept reality, thereby acknowledging the problem. That will allow them to change their approach to how they build and develop their roster.