ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- With his uniform still on, Najee Harris sat in his locker in the visitors dressing room at Highmark Stadium more than 30 minutes after the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 38-3 loss to the Buffalo Bills.
Beside him, coach Mike Tomlin sat in an empty locker, talking in a hushed tone to his second-year running back as Harris’ head hung low.
Earlier, cornerback Arthur Maulet roamed the locker room, loudly challenging his teammates, asking aloud to no one in particular if they truly loved the game.
Across the hall, defensive captain Cameron Heyward stood in front of a podium and called the loss a “dark day.”
After the Steelers dropped their fourth straight game -- they’re a blocked point-after away from being winless -- the locker room was unmoored and unglued in the aftermath of the worst loss in franchise history since a 51-0 opening-week defeat to the Cleveland Browns in 1989.
“You can't kick your own ass,” Heyward said. “And that's what we're doing right now.”
Sunday was supposed to be about Kenny Pickett making his first career start, but instead it was overshadowed as a showcase of all the flaws that had simmered just beneath the surface in the first four weeks of the season.
Josh Allen and his offensive weapons exploited the cracks, twisting a knife in the seam to fracture it even more.
For all the promise Pickett represents for the future, even his spark can’t fix all that ails this team. He’s someone with an attitude and a swagger to rally around, but even that might not be enough to save this season.
The frustration the Steelers felt in the locker room at Highmark Stadium on Sunday followed them to the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on Monday.
In answering a question about shutting out the noise, wide receiver Diontae Johnson wryly laughed as he suggested fans could come out and play if they could help the team. And he took issue with former Steeler and ESPN analyst Ryan Clark calling out the Steelers’ effort in Sunday's loss.
“Y'all got so much to say,” Johnson said. “Y’all can say what y'all want, but y'all don't know what it's like to go to work with us every day. Put your blood, sweat and tears and none of that stuff we do. So y'all can say what all y'all want, but the real fans that really know what we do, and I appreciate them.”
Ryan Clark calls out Steelers: They gave up
Ryan Clark expresses his disappointment in the Steelers after their big loss to the Bills.
Cornerback Cam Sutton, normally upbeat and insightfully expansive in his answers, was quiet and brief when he was approached for an interview at his locker.
“It’s not about what we say,” Sutton said. “I know it's not about me. You guys are asking me a lot of questions, and what I think we should do. It's about us playing f---ing football. Excuse my language. But that's just what it comes down to.”
Perhaps without realizing it, Johnson diagnosed the origin of the Steelers’ problems in the aftermath of the Week 4 loss to the New York Jets.
“Obviously, it’s a rebuilding year,” Johnson told reporters in the locker room after the loss. “We can’t use that as an excuse. It doesn’t matter who is at quarterback or any position. It’s our job to get it done and win games. That’s what we have to do -- win.”
But the Steelers aren’t in the business of rebuilding. They simply don’t do it.
For nearly two decades with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger at the helm, the Steelers were the picture of consistency, always in the postseason conversation. To a fan base that lived through or heard stories of the dominance of the 1970s and the early Roethlisberger years, anything less than a Super Bowl was a failure.
The Steelers aren’t supposed to rebuild. They’re supposed to reload and keep winning. But dominoes from the last several years changed that.
For as many solid moves as the Steelers made -- like drafting T.J. Watt and Pat Freiermuth and trading a first-round pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick -- there were more moves, both intentional and unexpected, that undermined the once-solid franchise.
Roethlisberger kept the organization in limbo with a drawn-out retirement that he flirted with for years, and the Steelers waited until he was done to draft their next quarterback. Tomlin promoted -- and stuck with -- Matt Canada after a short stint as the Steelers’ quarterbacks coach and an underwhelming first season as an NFL coordinator. Inside linebacker Devin Bush, whom the Steelers traded up to draft in 2019, has yet to reach his potential as a Ryan Shazier replacement after tearing an ACL in 2020. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt retired suddenly after missing an entire season in the aftermath of his brother’s tragic death. Versatile defensive back Mike Hilton walked in free agency. The old guard of offensive linemen retired or moved on in the span of two years, and the Steelers’ drafted and signed replacements haven’t found the same success as the stalwart units that protected Roethlisberger for most of his career.
As a result, the Steelers are here, 1-4 to start the season for the second time in four seasons and just a year after they started out 1-3. There are pieces of a good team: a reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year in Watt, a stalwart defensive lineman in Heyward, a promising young quarterback in Pickett. But there’s also numerous holes and a severe lack of depth across the defense, a talent depletion on the offensive line and an offensive coordinator that isn’t putting the Steelers’ offensive skill players -- their deepest and best assets -- in the best position to make explosive plays.
“We’ve got to know that there’s going to be better days, not to provide or to seek comfort, but knowing that there’s better days is going to be borne out of our commitment to making sure that there’s better days,” Tomlin said Sunday. “That’s what I talked to the team about. But where we are today, not good. We understand it as professionals. We own it. It is what it is, man.”
Whether they want to admit it or not, the Steelers are rebuilding, and it could get even worse before it gets better, with Tampa Bay, Miami and Philadelphia on the schedule before the Week 9 bye.
“It’s obviously adversity,” Sutton said. “Just a situation that we have control of having a better outcome out of it. It’s not a scenario that we [saw] ourselves being in or want to be in. But we’re not just gonna sit here and dwell in it, either. Just one week at a time. Plenty of ball left ahead of us, but we’ve just gotta buckle down and get things done.”
Tomlin has famously never had a losing season as a head coach since taking over the franchise in 2007, but that streak is seriously in danger, and it may be too late to make the changes this team needs.
“You play like we played today, you’ve got to be open to doing whatever is required to change the outcome of these games,” Tomlin said Sunday. “That’s a given. I don’t think anybody is going to be surprised by our willingness to turn over whatever stone to change the outcomes of games like what transpired today. That’s just appropriate.”