Labriola on the loss to the Bills

Over the course of the three-game winning streak at the end of the regular season that propelled them into the playoffs, it had become their identity. Or if you prefer, it had become their formula for winning, a recipe that if followed would result in the desired outcome. On Monday night in Buffalo, the Steelers learned what would happen when they didn’t, or couldn’t, follow the recipe.

That recipe started with a healthy dose of a physical running game combined with a timely and aggressive downfield passing attack plus no turnovers on offense that created points and a significant edge in time of possession to allow for a margin of error for a defense that had soft spots up the middle after a series of injuries at both inside linebacker and safety.

The Bills ended the Steelers’ stay in the playoffs with a victory in a Wild Card Round game delayed some 27 hours from 1 p.m. on Sunday to 4: 30 p.m. on Monday by weather severe enough for New York Governor Kathy Hochul to declare a state of emergency and issue a full travel ban for Erie County starting on Saturday night.

Three-plus hours after the festivities commenced with Buffalo winning the coin toss and electing to defer, the Steelers’ first half of football showed them with 58 yards rushing, a 5-minute deficit in time of possession after a 1-for-5 conversion rate on third downs, and two turnovers, all of which added up to a 21-7 deficit that became a 34-17 final. The offense had done none of the things that created their three-game winning streak, and Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen was free to work on a defense weakened by the absence of NFL sack leader and should-be-Defensive-Player-of-the-Year T.J. Watt.

The Steelers’ first six offensive series ended: punt, punt, fumble, punt, interception, punt. Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren were being bottled up by a Bills defensive alignment that had committed an eighth player in the box to prevent the Steelers running game from creating any downhill momentum. When other teams had come to that same conclusion, the Steelers had taken advantage with Mason Rudolph throwing down-the-field to George Pickens, Diontae Johnson, and Pat Freiermuth.

During the first halves of those regular season wins over Cincinnati, Seattle, and Baltimore, the offense had chunk passing plays of 86, 44, 37, 25, 23, 23, and 23 yards, and 48 points; in the first half in Buffalo there was only one chunk – a 33-yard completion to Freiermuth – and it came on the possession that ended with Bills cornerback Kaiir Elam intercepting a Rudolph pass for Johnson in the end zone.

Rudolph did complete a 10-yard touchdown pass to Johnson with 1:39 left in the second quarter, but by then Allen had done significant damage.

On Buffalo’s opening possession, Allen muscled for a first down to convert a third-and-1 from the Bills 29-yard line to keep the punter on the sideline and then completed 5-of-5 for 56 yards and a 9-yard touchdown. The Bills had 4 plays of 10-plus yards and ate 5:33 off the game clock. 7-0.

After an exchange of punts, the offense committed turnover No. 1 when Pickens lost a fumble at the end of an 8-yard catch. Linebacker Terrel Bernard recovered at the Steelers 29-yard line. On the next play, Allen put the ball in the end zone with a perfect 29-yard throw to tight end Dalton Kincaid on a play that screamed miscommunication because there’s no way inside linebacker Myles Jack would have been in single coverage vs. a 73-catch tight end that far down the middle of the field. 14-0.

Desperately in need of a contribution from the offense, the Steelers instead got a three-and-out, and on their next possession was a tease of a 9-play drive that moved the ball from the Pittsburgh 8-yard line to the Buffalo 4-yard line before it ended with turnover No. 2 – Elam’s interception on what appeared to be a back-shoulder throw to Johnson along the sideline just beyond the pylon.

Yes, Rudolph could’ve made a better throw, and yes, even with that Elam still had to make a great play on the ball, but maybe none of that would’ve been necessary if the running game had done better than a 1-yard gain by Warren and a 1-yard loss by Harris on two attempts inside the 13-yard line. Don’t forget, Harris (4) and Warren (1) had combined for 5 rushing touchdowns during the winning streak.

Then Allen supplied what felt like a dagger. After the Bills nickel-and-dimed the Steelers for a couple of first downs it was third-and-7 from the 48-yard line. After a brief survey of his eligible receivers, Allen saw a crease and took off down the middle of the field. Damontae Kazee, in his first game back after a three-game suspension, whiffed on an open-field tackle and when Allen crossed the goal line 52 yards later it was the second-longest touchdown run by a quarterback in NFL playoff history. 21-0.

Again the Steelers offense answered with a three-and-out, and before they knew it the Bills were lining up for a 49-yard field goal attempt that CBS analyst Tony Romo suggested was a bit greedy considering the elements, the already sizeable lead, and the proximity of halftime. Trying to drive the ball into the wind, Tyler Bass’ attempt looked low and ended with a block credited to Montravius Adams.

Five plays after Nick Herbig’s recovery, Rudolph hooked up with Johnson for the 10-yard touchdown that resuscitated the patient. 21-7.

The Steelers showed their trademark fight, and with 10:32 left in the fourth quarter they had cut it to a one-score deficit after a 7-yard touchdown pass to Calvin Austin III capped a 12-play, 75-yard drive and made it 24-17. But then came a couple of unnecessary roughness penalties at the most inopportune time.

On the extra point following Austin’s touchdown, Dan Moore Jr. was flagged for what looked to be retaliation for having his own facemask grabbed, and Chris Boswell found himself kicking off from the 20-yard line. Then on a second-and-5 from the Steelers 35-yard line, Myles Jack was flagged for a hit on Allen after a 2-yard gain to make it first-and-10 from the 18-yard line. Two plays later, Allen completed a seemingly innocuous pass to Khalil Shakir, who made chicken salad by maintaining his balance through Minkah Fitzpatrick’s attempted tackle and getting past Mychal Walker to complete a 17-yard catch-and-run. 31-17. Ballgame.

“I appreciate the efforts of our guys,” said Coach Mike Tomlin. “I just told them that, but efforts don’t get it done. So, let’s talk tangibly about why we weren’t successful. We spotted them early in the football game via turnovers. Can’t come into an environment like this vs. a playoff-caliber team and turn the ball over like that and expect to be competitive. We fought back over the course of the game. We cut it to (24-17) and was excited about that. Then we gave up a touchdown drive. When you get a major penalty within a drive on defense that’s usually going to produce points. And that was the case and it put them back up by 14, and then the rest is academic. I’m appreciative of the efforts, but it’s not mystical. We didn’t do what was required to win tonight.”

Because they deviated from the recipe.

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