ORCHARD Park, N.Y. – Rock meet bottom.
At least that had better be the case for the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers after Sunday's 38-3 loss here to the Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium.
The Steelers didn't do much, if anything, right in this game.
Not only did they fail to sack the quarterback, they hit Buffalo's Josh Allen just one time.
They failed to score on four red zone trips.
They gave up seven passing plays of 20 or more yards and two more on the ground. The Bills had four touchdown drives in this game that were three plays or less.
"We had the time of possession, but it didn't mean anything because we didn't get off the field," said defensive captain Cam Heyward. "When we got off the field, it was because of a big play. We talk about those weighty downs and critical downs, we didn't win any of them. Either they scored, or they lined up and did it again and scored."
Heyward is correct. The Steelers won the time of possession battle, 36:08 to 23:52.
But when you allow an opponent to average 10.2 yards per play, that's not going to matter.
Buffalo has a great offense to be sure. If there's a quarterback playing better this season than the Bills' Josh Allen, it's a short list.
The Steelers, however, made things too easy on the All-Pro quarterback.
"He's one of the best quarterbacks in the game today and we just didn't apply the pressure we needed to get to him," said outside linebacker Alex Highsmith.
The Steelers need to dig deep after this loss, the worst by a Pittsburgh team in the Mike Tomlin era and the worst loss by the team since a 51-0 defeat at the hands of the Browns in the regular season opener in 1989.
That team, which then lost, 41-10, the next week to the Bengals, rebounded to go 9-7 and make the playoffs.
The 2013 Steelers lost their first four games by a combined score of 110-69 but overcame that start to finish 8-8 and just miss the playoffs.
Things are salvageable. But this team is going to have to dig deep, draw a line in the sand and say enough is enough.
"This is a terrible feeling losing this bad," Highsmith said. "This is going to be something we have to bounce back from. It's going to show the character of our team by the way we bounce back. This is an opportunity to rise up and play better. We know we're better than we played today, but it didn't translate to the field."
At 1-4, things aren't good. The Steelers know and understand that. But they also know that no other teams are going to take pity on them. If they're to pull out of this, it will be up to them.
"We've got to absorb this and know that there are better days ahead," Tomlin said. "That's not to provide or seek comfort, but knowing there are better days is born out of our commitment to make sure there are better days."
• Rookie Kenny Pickett was fine in his first career start, throwing for 327 yards. But the path to victory with the rookie can't be him being forced to throw the ball 52 times as he did in this game.
The Steelers posted a season-high 364 yards, with Pickett accounting for 317 of that through the air and another 20 on the ground, but four failed trips into the red zone weren't good enough.
"We moved the ball, but we didn't put up points," Pickett said.
The offense was much more diverse, as 10 different players caught passes. But the Steelers fell behind so quickly early that they couldn't cobble together any kind of running game.
"It was a one-dimensional game," Tomlin said. "We got behind significantly early."
That put the entire game on Pickett's shoulders. The outcome of this one certainly isn't what he or the Steelers would like, but getting in those kind of reps in that kind of situation will pay dividends for the young quarterback down the road.
"I felt comfortable," Pickett said. "I knew where to go with the football. We just weren't consistent throughout."
Still, Pickett at least gives the hope that there are, indeed, better days ahead for this offense.
• The Steelers were more than a little upset over a couple of hits the young quarterback took. The first came on a slide by Pickett in the second half on which safety Damar Hamlin hit Pickett high as he went to the ground.
Guard James Daniels came in and slammed Hamlin to the ground.
"I didn't appreciate it," said Daniels.
No penalty was given to Hamlin, Pickett's former teammate at Pitt, but Daniels was penalized.
"I did," Tomlin said when asked if he had an issue with the play. "I had a problem that the officials didn't have a problem with it."
Both Tomlin and Pickett said the issue wasn't with Hamlin, but the fact the quarterback wasn't provided protection.
Pickett did take issue with defensive end Shaq Lawson, who dove at his leg after a pass on a rollout. Pickett got up and shoved Lawson after the play, drawing an unnecessary roughness penalty.
"From my opinion, I felt he went after my knee," Pickett said. "That's it. Tempers flare."
You have to like the fact that not only did his teammates come to Pickett's defense on the first play, but the quarterback stood up for himself on the other – even if you don't want your quarterback getting into fights.
Pickett is fiery. And that's not a bad thing.
• The bigger issue for the Steelers coming out of this game is injuries. They're beginning to mount in a massive way.
Defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi left in the first half with a back injury and did not return. Cornerback Cam Sutton's hamstring injury that sidelined him for practice much of the week flared up and he also didn't return. Tight end Pat Freiermuth and cornerback Levi Wallace both suffered concussions.
The injuries were especially troublesome in the secondary, where safety Terrell Edmunds (concussion) and cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon (hamstring) were already missing.
At points during this game, the secondary looked more like one that would be on the field during the second half of a preseason game.
But that's no an excuse. The damage had largely been done at that point.
"It's football. There's a 100 percent injury rate," said safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. "No matter who is out there, we have to go out and play at a high level.
"They made the big plays and we didn't. We don't usually do that as a secondary. It was a very unusual day for us. We take responsibility for it."
• Lost in this game was the fact the offensive line did a good job giving Pickett time to throw the ball against a very good front that knew Pickett had to pass.
He was sacked three times on 52 passes, but came when Pickett was rolling out and ran out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage.
The running game could have been better, but we didn't get much of an opportunity to see it since the Steelers fell behind so much so early.
• The special teams did block another kick, so there's that, as well. It appeared Sutton got a hand on a field goal attempt, deflecting it into Cam Heyward.
The Steelers have been pretty consistently good when it comes to blocking kicks.
• Even usually reliable Chris Boswell didn't have a good game, missing a pair of field goals.
Wind was certainly a factor, but Boswell hadn't missed two field goals in the same game since Dec. 9, 2018 in Oakland.
There will be better days ahead for sure for Boswell, but those don't help the cause.
One of those misses included a 33-yarder with 3:43 remaining in the first half and the Steelers trailing 24-3.
The other was a 45-yard attempt with the Steelers trailing 31-3.
Some might question why the Steelers even attempted a field goal down 31-3, but Tomlin said it came down to the situation. The offense had stayed on the field, but Dan Moore was penalized for a false start that made it fourth-and-13.
Tomlin opted to kick in that situation on the final play of the third quarter because he didn't want to put Pickett in an even tougher situation.
"I want to be thoughtfully aggressive," said Tomlin. "But I don't want to be stupid. We were kicking our own butts with penalties. I'm not going to do that to him or us."
• It happened early, but the 98-yard pass from Josh Allen to Gabe Davis on third-and-10 from the 2 was a portend of things to come.
The Steelers got little pressure on Allen – a recurring theme throughout the game – and the secondary just let Davis run past it.
"That was a kick in the gut," Heyward said.
To be sure.
Davis hadn't been much of a factor for the Bills in recent weeks. But he most certainly was in this game. The Steelers also have played Allen enough in recent seasons to understand he's got a big arm – though they didn't seem to understand that on that particular play.
On Davis' second long touchdown, a 62-yard pass, Fitzpatrick was in position. Davis made a one-handed catch, then wrestled the ball away from Fitzpatrick to turn that into a touchdown.
It was a great individual play.
But the first touchdown? He simply ran past everyone in the secondary. And that can't happen.
• Part of the issue with defending Allen is his mobility. The Steelers were obviously aware that the 240-pound quarterback is a dangerous runner and wanted to keep him in the pocket.
But to get no pressure on him at all? That's not the way to approach a quarterback of his talents, especially with a depleted secondary.
"Not being able to put pressure on the quarterback was really the difference," said defensive lineman Chris Wormley. "And we didn't make the plays on contested balls down the field.
"We have to make those plays, especially in the environment we were in and the team we were playing. We have to make those one-on-one contested plays. For the most part, they were able to make those plays."
Game action photos from the Steelers' Week 5 game against the Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium
• So, where will the Steelers go from here?
They won't quit. They won't simply give up and not play the rest of their games.
It's a bad start. Things have not been good.
In their other games, at least, they were within one score in all of them. This one? Not so much.
Does that mean changes are coming? Perhaps.
But the best changes would be getting some of the injured starters back. That would go a long way toward settling things down.
Tomlin said following this game he would consider making changes, but the reality has been because of injuries, the team is already using a lot of different players.
"Everybody has got injuries," said Heyward. "We're in the National Football League. This is a chance for guys to step up. I've seen plenty of guys step up before. There have been countless guys that a lot of people didn't know before a game. They came out and were heroes and went on to have prosperous careers. It shouldn't matter who is in the game."
We'll see what Tomlin has in store next week in what will be another tough game against Tampa Bay at Acrisure Stadium.
But needless to say, he's not happy.
"Everyone understands where we are and what transpired. "It's not cool."
If there are any players who don't understand that, that's where the changes could be made.