It was a hard fought game. Much harder than the final score indicates. But the end result saw the Steelers lose to the Bills 31-17 in the AFC wildcard ending their 2023 season at Highmark Stadium, in Orchard Park, New York.
Mike Tomlin was right on the money when opened his press conference declaring, “I appreciate the efforts of our guys in there and I just told the guys that, but efforts don’t get it done.”
He is right. The Steelers effort showed. As did their desire.
But in their season ended in Buffalo for two simple reasons: The Bills have more talent, and the Steelers failed to execute a formula that had served them so well for so much of the season.
Steelers Earn “A” for Effort, for What It Is Worth…
Give the Steelers and “A” for effort.
Mason Rudolph, starting his first playoff game got off to a shaky start, but rebounded to bring the team to within 7 points in the 4th quarter.
His confidence could have wavered. It did not.
Mason Rudolph spread the ball around. Pat Freiermuth, George Pickens and Diontae Johnson combined for 14 passes. Pickens run once for 15 yards. Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris both had pass receptions for 10 plus yards. Calvin Austin even got a touchdown.
If someone had told you the stat sheet would look like that going into the game, you’d may have very well thought the Steelers were going to win.
- But they didn’t. None of the three top pass catchers sniffed 100 yards receiving.
On the ground both Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris ran hard, moved bodies and seemed to fall forward. At least that’s the way it felt watching the game – after the offense got moving. But numbers don’t lie. Both backs might have ripped off carries for double digits, but together they didn’t even break the 80 yard number.
The Steelers had effort was enough to deliver quantity on offense; the Bills had enough talent to prevent the Steelers from transforming quantity into enough quality.
On defense the stat sheet isn’t quite as generous, but if I’d told you that Markus Golden and Alex Highsmith both sacked Josh Allen, you’d have taken that as a good sign.
- Special Teams tells a similar tale.
Chris Boswell was perfect. When the Steelers had to kickoff at a 15 yard disadvantage Danny Smith’s coverage unit stopped Buffalo at the 30-yard line. And if I told you that Montravius Adams blocked a field goal with Nick Herbig flipping the field to recover at the Bills 33-yard line you’d have also thought that was a good sign.
Yet Pressley Harvin averaged just 38.5 yards punting, consistently giving the Bills strong field position.
The Steelers never lacked for effort in this game. They “proverbially ‘left it all on the field.’” But in the end effort proved to be an insufficient substitute for talent.
Talent Trumps Effort
The Buffalo Bills are a good football team. They may have faltered a bit earlier in the season, but at Highmark Stadium you could see they are legitimate be Super Bowl contenders.
James Cook didn’t dominate the Steelers, but he was far more effective than either of Pittsburgh’s running backs. The Steelers have struggled against tight ends all season long. Dalton Kincaid “only” had 3 catches, but he averaged 19.9 on those grabs and one of them was for a touchdown.
Mike Tomlin and Teryl Austin made adjustments to limit him later in the game, but the damage had been done. Talent trumps coaching.
The Buffalo Bills demonstrated their superior talent at several moments during the game, but three stick out to this scribe:
1. Early in the game Patrick Peterson had Josh Allen dead to rights for a sack. Allen wiggled out and ran for 8 yards.
2. Late in the game Allen hit Khalil Shakir for what looked like a short gain. Minkah Fitzpatrick was on him, but couldn’t quite bring him down. Here’s what happened next.
— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) January 16, 2024
At least four other Steelers had a shot at him in close quarters. Only Cam Heyward got a hand on him and it wasn’t enough.
3. Midway through the second quarter on third and 8 the Steelers were about to collapse the pocket around Josh Allen. You can see what happens next.
Both Levi Wallace and Damontae Kazee tried and missed on tackles and he flat out outran Patrick Peterson.
A fourth, bonus example would be Alex Highsmith wrapping Ty Johnson in the backfield late in the game, only to have him evade his grasp and, if memory serves, earn a first down if not make his 11 yard gain.
Be crystal clear on one thing: In many of the above examples the Steelers had very talented players involved on the wrong side of those plays; Buffalo’s players were simply more talented.
Steelers Forget the Lesson that Got Them There in the First Place
Superior talent doesn’t always triumph in the NFL. The formula for beating a more talented team is hides in plain sight:
Capitalize those turnovers
Avoid costly mistakes
With the Steelers already down by 7 on their second possession, George Pickens coughed up the ball. It took one pass to Dalton Kincaid to make put Pittsburgh down 14 to zero with four minutes left in the first quarter.
Two possessions later, Mason Rudolph had led the team on an 88 yard drive before throwing a bad ball to Diontae Johnson that Kaiir Elam picked off in the end zone. That took at least 3 points off the board – and those extra 3 points would have made a comeback much more manageable – and set up Allen’s touchdown run.
- The Steelers of course got a turnover of their own and capitalized on that.
But when they were in comeback mode trying to get the ball back only down 17 to 24, Myles Jack committed not one, but two defensive penalties gifting the Bills 20 yards and two first downs. Shakir scored his touchdown two plays after Jack’s unnecessary roughness call. Those costly mistakes came when the Steelers could ill afford them.
- It says here that the 2023 Buffalo Bills are a better team than the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers.
But it also says that the Steelers could have found a way to win, but didn’t. And that’s a reality filled with irony, because for the better part of the season’s first 12 weeks, the Steelers put on a clinic for rest of the NFL in executing the formula for beating more talented teams.
Alas, so ends the Steelers 2023 season.