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Pittsburgh Steelers’ patchwork roster unravels in Buffalo

The Bills fully exploit Pittsburgh’s glaring weaknesses on both sides of the ball.

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

During training camp and preseason, we heard plenty of “ifs” and “maybes” about how the Steelers might fix some of the more obvious issues with key elements of the team. On offense, both quarterback and offensive line were major question marks, while the entire defense was suspect due to its failures in 2021 either to stop the run or get off the field on third downs. On Sunday in Buffalo, our worst fears materialized as the Kenny Pickett-led offense generated a measly three points through four quarters, while Josh Allen and his receivers were shredding a patchwork Steelers secondary for 432 yards, including a 98-yard TD strike to Gabe Davis on the Bills’ very first possession.

In the wake of this 38-3 blowout, a couple of harsh realities became clear. First, the apparent upgrade of Pickett at QB is hampered by a staid, offensive scheme that fails to fully utilize the team’s available talent in running backs and receivers. Secondly, the Steelers’ various defensive woes cannot be cured by continuing to add a series of NFL castoffs to the roster. On both sides of the ball, the Black-and-gold currently find themselves more than a few bricks shy these days. Quite plainly, they lack the overall talent to compete with teams like the Buffalo Bills or Tampa Bay Buccaneers that possess the ability to score touchdowns and stifle the kind of plodding offense we’ve seen from the Steelers since Opening Day.

Everyone has their favorite culprit for this sorry state of affairs, but when a team lacks the personnel necessary to match up with its competitors as witnessed in Buffalo, narrowing the issue down to only one or two explanations hardly captures the full dimensions of the situation. If any doubt existed in August that this team is in the midst of a general rebuild, that notion was put to rest during the first five weeks of the regular season. So far, the Steelers have managed only a single win — one which they were lucky to snag by the skin of their teeth in Cincinnati in Week 1. As things currently stand, it’s difficult to think of any NFL team — let alone the incoming Tampa Bay Bucs — that these Steelers could beat. With their Swiss-cheese defense and difficulty finding the end zone, this 2022 edition of the Black-and-gold simply isn’t competitive.

Given the extended absence of T.J. Watt, it seems unlikely the defense will see more than marginal improvement during the remainder of this season. On the other hand, the offense appears to be an area that could improve significantly. But this improvement depends on utilizing the team’s offensive talent in ways best tailored to the capabilities of individual players.

For example, Najee Harris is a hugely talented running back, but the Steelers still do not have the offensive line necessary for No. 22 to be effective. So far, the Steelers have done little more than running Harris into brick-wall defenses every week. Opponents are keying mainly on Harris because they don’t respect Pittsburgh’s passing attack or their ability to convert third downs.

So either the Steelers continue running their 2021 first-round pick ragged or start using Najee more often as a short-to-mid-range receiver where his speed and power can be more effective. Once the Steelers fix their OL (hopefully next year), they can resume running Harris between the tackles, but this season it’s simply not working.

Jaylen Warren continues to show flashes of unique skills which also will become more effective with the advantages of better blocking and plays affording more space to work with in third-down situations. Warren has certainly earned more playing time but he also will give Harris a needed break from the constant pummeling he has endured.

As for the receiver corps, the Steelers currently suffer from a lack of coordination between their new QB and his wideouts. Diontae Johnson’s contract holdout and the fact that Mitch Trubisky was getting most of the preseason reps certainly didn’t help — nor did Chase Claypool’s early absence due to injury. Pickett’s first-ever NFL start was in Buffalo, so it’s going to take more time before we see anything like the kind of precision and timing that was a trademark for Ben Roethlisberger. It seems unrealistic to plug in a new QB and expect to see the offense adapt seamlessly overnight. Additionally, because each of the Steelers’ starting receivers has distinctive strengths, it’s essential for the OC to design plays that take advantage of these capabilities.

Claypool is a totally different kind of receiver than Diontae Johnson, but both have been effective in the past despite dropping their shares of catchable passes. Claypool is a power guy who can run reverses or outmuscle defenders. He’s more like a Tight End with wideout speed. Diontae is primarily a finesse receiver and skilled route runner. Based on what we’ve seen so far, rookie George Pickens is a hybrid receiver blessed with the holy grail of speed, finesse, power, body control and great hands. As Pickett and his receivers grow more accustomed to working together, Pickens might very well emerge as the No. 1 receiver. But in any case, it’s likely that game-day results will improve for this offense. There’s too much talent in the receiver group (including the Tight Ends) to hold them down for long.

What’s puzzling is that the Steelers continue to run essentially the same offensive plays which were put in to protect the aging and largely immobile Roethlisberger. This is especially curious now that Pittsburgh has youth and mobility at quarterback. It was obvious on Sunday that Buffalo is well-versed in the Steelers’ playbook because the Bills’ defense seemed to know what was coming throughout the game. As the game wore on, Pickett had more and more trouble finding open receivers.

In general, the Steelers must implement an offense better suited to the skills of the players currently on the field. But it’s unclear how effective any mid-season changes might be in reversing the team’s overall trend, mainly because of persistent questions about solidity of the OL. A 3-point total through four quarters won’t win anything in today’s NFL except perhaps a No. 1 overall draft choice next year.

As fans, we hope to at least see the needle beginning to point upwards during the remainder of this season. If we’re able to reach December football with the quarterback position firmly settled and a more competitive team on the field, it will bode well for 2023 and beyond. But as things currently stand, the Pittsburgh Steelers resemble a cobbled-together, patchwork group with many of the seams unraveling.