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5 overreactions from the Steelers’ 21-18 loss to the New England Patriots

It was another brutal loss for the Steelers on Thursday night.

Quarterback Mitch Trubisky (10) of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks to pass in the first half against the New England Patriots at Acrisure Stadium on December 07, 2023 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.      Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The Steelers lost to the Patriots 21-18 on Thursday Night Football. It was an ugly and painful game, as expected, meaning there are still some takeaways to be had:

1. The Steelers are done

Fire Canada! That’s been the blanket statement for the past few seasons following losses like this. But now Canada is gone and the issues he took the fall for still remain. And there isn’t much left Pittsburgh can change this year.

They can’t exactly fire two offensive coordinators in one season. Bench Kenny Pickett? We saw what that looks like last night. Bench Mitch Trubisky? I can’t say with certainty that Mason Rudolph would be worse, but don’t let Trubisky’s awful performance against the Patriots over-inflate what Rudolph brings to the table. He’s still a third-stringer who wasn’t signed by one of the other 31 NFL teams when he was available. He might do some things better than Trubisky but he isn’t going to save the Steelers’ season.

The trade deadline is long gone. There aren’t any free agents available this late in the season who could help fill the Steelers’ many roster holes. And as for the elephant in the room, what about firing Mike Tomlin? I’m inching closer to that sentiment myself, but it would be pure insanity to do so midseason. The Steelers certainly won’t, and they shouldn’t. End of story.

The Steelers need change desperately. On offense, defense, special teams, and organizational philosophy. Everywhere. But there’s nothing left that can be changed this season. Pittsburgh is a short-handed, deeply flawed team and that can’t be fixed until 2024. The 2023 Steelers are done.

2. Nothing changed

Last week’s loss to the Cardinals was incredibly rough, but it wasn’t necessarily the end of the world. The Steelers still sat in the exact same playoff spot as before and one painful loss to a vastly inferior opponent has essentially become a yearly expectation during Mike Tomlin’s tenure in Pittsburgh. The sky was temporarily falling, but the Steelers would rebound the next week, right? They always do.

But shockingly, that wasn’t the case. Last night marked the second straight week the Steelers have lost to a 2-10 team at home. And those games weren’t just losses — the Steelers were completely dominated at times in both matchups.

Pittsburgh’s performance against the 2-10 Cardinals was inexcusable. I wrote about it extensively last week. But doing the exact same thing the second week in a row is even worse.

The Steelers should’ve been extra motivated and prepared to not make the mistakes they did last week. But instead, in a must-win game at home, the Steelers came out flat once again with yet another loss to a 2-10 team. If you’re wondering why this overreactions column is the shortest one this season, it’s because there’s only so much I can say without repeating everything I wrote last week. It’s the exact same result caused by the exact same issues. And if you haven’t caught on yet, this Groundhog Day mess of incompetence and unpreparedness falls directly on the coaching staff. Absolutely nothing changed this week for the Steelers.

3. C’mon man

I think everyone knew. Steelers vs. Patriots was set to be a comedy of errors long before the game even kicked off. And it sure delivered. Just on the Steelers’ side of things, there were enough bewildering plays and decisions to fill an entire ESPN C’mon Man segment. Because they won’t run one specifically on this game, allow me to do the honors:

  • The Steelers went for it on fourth down in the red zone when trailing by 11. Take the easy field goal there and make it a one score game. Of course, the Steelers didn’t get the conversion, and they lose by three.
  • Also, why is Mitch Trubisky trying to hit a low-percentage deep ball on a must-get fourth-and-two later in the game? Do the Steelers just not have situational plays for moments like this?
  • Whatever this is:
  • Trubisky only threw one interception on Sunday, but he should’ve had three. One was mercifully nullified by a penalty while the other was flat-out dropped.
  • The false start called on Steelers’ long snapper Christian Kuntz was laughably terrible. It’s no excuse for losing the game but it was still a horrendously bad call.
  • The Steelers threw to the middle of the field with seven seconds left in the fourth quarter, no timeouts, and a 20-ish-yard completion away from game-tying field goal range. Bill Belichick’s defense was certainly guarding the sidelines like they were Tom Brady’s deflategate phone, but the chances of completing a corner route and getting out of bounds were still higher than whatever the Steelers ended up trying.

4. Kenny Pickett is the most important player on the Steelers’ offense

I’ve been very critical of Kenny Pickett this season. But Mitch Trubisky’s performance against the Patriots proved once and for all that Pickett is still the best quarterback the Steelers have on their current roster. Did Thursday’s game move the needle much in the is-Pickett-a-franchise quarterback debate? For me, no. But it did make one thing overwhelmingly clear: the Steelers win this game with Pickett starting. Pittsburgh’s winning formula this year is dependent on everything Pickett does well and Trubisky does not. Namely, protecting the football.

I’m not changing my tune on Pickett at all — keep in mind that Bailey Zappe’s first half in a historically bad Patriots offense was better than any full NFL game Pickett has ever played — the Steelers still need to explore outside options at quarterback next year. But there’s no denying that as the team’s best quarterback right now, Pickett is the most important player on the Steelers’ offense. The unit was still bad when Pickett was healthy, but without him, it somehow got even worse. Those who called for Trubisky to replace Pickett are realizing the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.

5. Odds and ends

  • The Steelers’ offense is getting a lot of criticism, and deservedly so, but the defense should shoulder some blame for this loss as well. The Patriots offense had scored 13 points combined in their last three games entering Thursday Night Football. They scored 21 in the first half against Pittsburgh. Sure, the Steelers are another inside linebacker injury away from giving Steely McBeam the green dot, but there are massive issues here beyond just bad injury luck.
  • Elandon Roberts deserves a lot of credit for toughing it through injury against the Patriots and even making some splash plays on defense.
  • Mykal Walker is not a starting-caliber NFL linebacker.
  • On a similar note, Mason Cole cannot be the Steelers’ starting center next year. His blocking has had issues and now he’s failing at the most basic requirement for being an NFL center: snapping the ball.
  • It was nice to see Miles Killebrew record a blocked punt after an awful game on special teams last week.
  • The Steelers’ issues dealing with opposing tight ends are not going away anytime soon.
  • James Conner and now JuJu Smith-Schuster. For the second straight week, the Steelers get hit with a revenge game from a former offensive starter of theirs.
  • I’m curious to see what the reasoning was behind Markus Golden being a healthy scratch against the Cardinals. The Steelers couldn’t predict TJ Watt getting banged up and Alex Highsmith leaving the game due to injury, but the lack of an extra rotational outside linebacker certainly hurt the Steelers’ pass rush.

Having played on a Thursday, the Steelers now get a mini bye week as they prepare for their next opponent, the Colts. The big question is if Pittsburgh can rebound from their current skid, or if they’ll take the field flat and uninspired in a must-win game yet again.