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4 overreactions from the Steelers’ 31-17 loss to the Buffalo Bills

A few closing thoughts on the Steelers’ season.

Mike Tomlin, head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers stands on the sidelines during the first half of the NFL wild-card playoff football game against the Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium on January 15, 2024 in Orchard Park, New York. Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

The Steelers fell to the Buffalo Bills by 14 points in the NFL’s Super Wild Card Weekend, ending their season. It was a disappointing loss that was only softened by the fact that it was a playoff game.

As always, there are plenty of takeaways to be had.

1. Pittsburgh’s playoff flop wasn’t surprising

Of course, it was frustrating to see Pittsburgh go down 21 points in the first half against Buffalo, but I’ll be honest — I wasn’t all that heartbroken or surprised. There are a few reasons why my expectations were never high enough to be shattered: T.J. Watt’s injury played a big role, as did the Steelers’ general mediocrity this season. Did they ever truly have a chance against a team like Buffalo?

Coming off a three-game winning streak entering the playoffs with genuinely above-the-line quarterback play for the first time this season, you would’ve thought there would have been more optimism from Steeler fans entering the game. But the truth is, Pittsburgh has been awful in the postseason for some time, now with five straight playoff losses dating back to 2016. And the worst part? None of those games were particularly close.

I wanted to start off this column with a rah-rah point about how the Steelers still made it as far as they did this season despite so many setbacks (self-inflicted or otherwise), but I just didn’t have the enthusiasm for this team to do so. Falling short — no, getting blown out — in the playoffs has now become the standard for the Steelers. And it’s not dramatic to say so, either. It’s tempting to recite how the Steelers still have it better than most other NFL teams, so stop complaining! But that’s only true for the regular season — over 70% of the league has won a playoff game more recently than Pittsburgh.

Fans who expect a Super Bowl trophy every year are asking too much. Fans who have wanted a modicum of playoff success since 2016 are not. The Steelers have a problem.

2. The Steelers need to have a Mike Tomlin discussion

I referenced a problem in the above point. And what’s the common denominator? It’s the entire Steelers’ organization, for sure, but no one individual stands out more than head coach Mike Tomlin. To his credit, he understands that. Scroll to the end of this Q&A he had with Bob Labriola of Steelers.com to read his thoughts.

I wrote a few weeks ago how Tomlin’s non-losing season streak still means something, and how it should matter just as much as his recent playoff losing streak. I still stand by that. The discourse around Tomlin needs to fairly weigh the good and the bad, from fan debates all the way up to the Steelers organization as they start to make big decisions for next year. As terrible as his teams have been in the playoffs lately, you can’t throw out Tomlin's 173-100-2 regular season record and Super Bowl victory in their entirety just because of a recent playoff losing streak. But it’s true the other way as well.

If it seems like I’m avoiding making an actual “keep Tomlin” or “fire Tomlin” take, that’s because I am. There’s a valid argument on both sides as to how the Steelers need to approach the future, and neither point is unreasonable despite the insults I’ve seen thrown around in such debates online. And keep in mind, most if not all of us outside of the Steelers organization just don’t have the information to make the definitive call either way. But the Steelers’ higher-ups who do have that knowledge need to have the Tomlin discussion as well — blind loyalty won’t get this team anywhere. It might be as simple as waiting until after the 2024-25 season to make a decision on extending Tomlin instead of doing so this offseason.

A playoff run next year would do a lot to change the narrative around the Steelers. Another season without one, and you’re looking at close to a decade without postseason success for Pittsburgh.

3. The Steelers need a new face at quarterback in 2024

If there’s one Steelers-centric debate that’s more controversial than the Tomlin one, it’s probably the Kenny Pickett/Mason Rudolph discourse. Pickett has been benched since recovering from his late-season injury, although the Steelers and a portion of the fanbase still seem to view him as 2024’s QB1. Rudolph has played well in replacement of Pickett, starting off with two excellent games as well as a gritty win over Baltimore in his first three starts. Against Buffalo, he struggled early but settled into a rhythm late. His 22/39, 229-yard, two-touchdown, and one-interception performance ultimately did more to help the Steelers than hurt them.

At the end of the season, the results still seem to have more questions than answers. Some see Pickett as a future franchise quarterback while some see him as a bust already. Rudolph could just be an excellent QB2 or the next Geno Smith. My take? Neither is likely to develop into the Steelers’ quarterback of the future, and the team should act accordingly.

However, it’s understandable if the Steelers don’t want to jettison a decade of future draft capital to select a Caleb Williams or Drake Maye in the upcoming draft, overpay for a 35-year-old Kirk Cousins, or rival the United States of America in terms of debt if they find a way to trade for Justin Herbert. Finding a new franchise quarterback is anything but affordable. There’s a very probable future in which the Steelers don’t see Pickett or Rudolph as ‘the guy’ but they still don't go after a new franchise quarterback immediately. And that’s okay. Teams desperate for quarterbacks don’t always think straight — just look at what happened in Denver with Russell Wilson or Cleveland with Deshaun Watson.

If the Steelers don’t land a big-name quarterback in the offseason, I’ll be a little disappointed, but I’ll certainly understand. But that being said, the Steelers can’t have their starting quarterback position in 2024 be decided by a battle exclusively between Pickett and Rudolph. The team needs a new face to compete for the job in the upcoming season, whether it’s drafting a talent like Michael Penix who could drop to the second round or pursuing a free agent deal with an affordable-but-has-upside signing similar to Baker Mayfield with the Buccaneers last offseason. The Steelers need to pursue improvement at the quarterback position in 2024. Much like with Mike Tomlin, blind loyalty won’t get them anywhere.

4. Odds and ends

  • The NFL needs to fix the rules around defenders getting penalized when quarterbacks are sliding. The way it is right now is bad for the game of football.
  • That being said, while the referees were infuriating at times on Monday, don’t be fooled into thinking they were the reason why the Steelers lost.
  • The fact that Sam Martin with one good leg was still the best punter on the field Monday shows that the Steelers really need to pursue an upgrade at the position in 2024. Pressley Harvin seems like a good guy and he’s a fantastic holder, but at this point, he’s providing far more shanks than good punts.
  • Pittsburgh not forcing Buffalo to punt at the end of the first half with a recently injured punter was inexcusable. Their last-second timeout seemingly proved that no one on the sideline realized they should do it until it was too late.
  • The Steelers’ lack of urgency down by 14 points in the last two minutes of the game really bothered me. Sure, the odds of winning were low, but it’s the playoffs! At least try to win — there’s nothing to lose.
  • With his touchdown catch, it turns out Calvin Austin did belong in the FOX Sports playoff graphic after all.
  • The Steelers’ run game didn’t do enough on Monday. We’ve been praising it for the latter half of this season and deservedly so, but there are still a lot of improvements that are needed.
  • Pittsburgh’s tackling across the board was incredibly rough against the Bills.
  • Rudolph’s end zone interception in the first half was a 14-point swing. Not saying a Steelers’ touchdown there would’ve resulted in a Pittsburgh win, but there's a chance this game could’ve been a lot closer.
  • I can’t believe that this might’ve been the last time we see Cam Heyward in black and gold. He’s the epitome of a Pittsburgh Steeler and should be a surefire candidate for the team’s Hall of Honor. Regardless of whether he moves on or not this season, however, this offseason Pittsburgh needs to invest more in young, talented defensive linemen for the future.
  • Injuries played a major factor, but it was a rough season for Minkah Fitzpatrick. Here’s hoping he rebounds in 2024.
  • The Steelers defense continues to look lost without T.J. Watt in the lineup.
  • Despite all the doom and gloom, at the end of the day, I’m just happy that Pittsburgh’s season was able to end in the playoffs instead of Week 18.

As a closing note, I’d like to thank everyone who read my overreactions column this year and followed the Steelers season here at BTSC. I’ve had a great time writing about this team over the past few months and I appreciate every click and comment. I wish you all a fantastic offseason and hope you stick around to disagree with my draft takes over the next few months.