Labriola On

Labriola on loss to the Bills

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – They played poorly and looked disinterested. They lost another front-line player to injury. And maybe the worst part of it is that there's still another one of these to go.

The Steelers fell to 1-3 during this preseason that won't end, and based on the final numbers atop the scoreboard here, the 43-19 defeat by the Buffalo Bills was their worst showing since the 1998 Hall of Fame Game when they lost, 30-6, to the New Orleans Saints. But at least that one was over quicker.

There are a lot of different ways to explain how badly the Steelers – especially their defense – stunk out the joint, and so let's start with some of the pertinent numbers:

  • Buffalo used four quarterbacks in the game, none of whom were named Unitas or Baugh or Montana, and yet they completed 90.1 percent of their combined passes and finished with a rating of 146.8.
  • The Bills offense had 11 possessions, and was forced to punt just once. The unit finished with 27 first downs by converting 11-of-14 third downs on the way to 542 total net yards. Again, they punted once, and just so everyone's clear on this, Sammy Watkins, LeSean McCoy, Percy Harvin, and Robert Woods were not in uniform for Buffalo.
  • Buffalo's 11 offensive possessions ended this way: touchdown, touchdown, punt, missed field goal, touchdown, field goal, touchdown, touchdown, turned over on downs, touchdown, take a knee to end the game finally.

What faces Coach Mike Tomlin and his staff over the next 24 hours is to determine what percentage of Steelers ineptitude was responsible for this outcome, because what it feels like right now is the figure will come in at around the same number as the Bills' completion percentage.

The whole save-it-for-the-regular-season thing makes a lot of sense, and there is some level of understanding that such a strategy will require patience until the regular season actually arrives. But the Steelers defense against the Bills is indefensible. Missed tackles. Over-pursuit and/or bad angles too often prevented Steelers defenders even to be in position to miss a tackle. Nobody made any plays. And the Bills made several big ones that looked too easy.

A 20-yard run for a touchdown. A 43-yard run that set up an easy touchdown. A 67-yard touchdown pass. A 37-yard touchdown pass. Buffalo hit several big plays AND converted a ridiculous percentage on third down. The Bills called 34 pass plays – 33 attempts plus one scramble by Tyrod Taylor – and the Steelers were credited with a grand total of two passes defensed.

That those came on the same play – defensive end Ethan Hemer got a hand on a pass at the line of scrimmage and tipped it into the air where Brandon Boykin then dropped a made-to-order 35-yard pick-six – just seems to reinforce the futility. Outside of this single instance, it was pretty much uncontested pitch-and-catch by a Bills passing attack that – all due respect – isn't that good.

The Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to Orchard Park, NY to face the Buffalo Bills in Week 3 of the 2015 Preseason.

There are the typical preseason game explanations to cite, the ones about sitting the front-line players and keeping the scheme vanilla, but those only get you so far. Add in the absences of Stephon Tuitt and Lawrence Timmons and Mike Mitchell. Throw in the fact the Steelers offense managed only one first down in the whole second half, which did nothing to keep the defense off the field. But even considering all that doesn't explain what happened on the field.

This awful defensive performance came at the end of a week that started with a broken leg sustained by All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey and worsened by the report of Martavis Bryant currently appealing a four-game suspension for violation of the league's substance abuse policy. To make matters more difficult for the Steelers, Garrett Hartley, the guy signed to replace Shaun Suisham after he tore an ACL in the first game of the Preseason That Won't End and who was doing a very nice job of it, injured his right hamstring on a kickoff and figures to be out long enough for the team to have to hold another tryout for unemployed kickers.

Those events are disappointing on various levels for different reasons, but it was disheartening to watch the guys who should have been smart enough to know they are fighting for roster spots. Rookies Jesse James and Doran Grant committing back-to-back false start penalties with the Steelers in punt formation is especially inexplicable. And there undoubtedly will be more slappyness uncovered during the video review.

"Some of our young guys who pushed through this game, who are quite frankly fighting for jobs, did not execute with enough detail to be in consideration," said Tomlin. "And that's disappointing. As we push towards the end of this thing, I'd like to see guys with their arrows pointed up; fighting for jobs. Some of those guys looked like they were just walking dead. We've got to analyze that, and keep those committed to fighting. Some of that stuff was quite disturbing; not the type of performance we're looking for."

The Steelers played this fourth preseason game as they had the previous three. Saving schemes for the regular season. Saving players' bodies for the regular season. But what it really came down to here was the Steelers didn't play this fourth preseason game as much as they went through the motions.

Now that's disturbing.

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