August 31, 2015
Bills wide receiver Marcus Thigpen (11) runs from Steelers defender L.J. Fort (54) during the first half of a preseason game on Saturday in Orchard Park, N.Y. (Bill Wippert/AP)
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Rex Ryan has never staked his reputation as one of the NFL's great offensive minds and the quartet of quarterbacks the Buffalo Bills' bombastic coach employed weren't named Jim Kelly, Jack Kemp, Joe Ferguson or Doug Flutie.
Could have fooled the Steelers on Saturday.
Ryan's Bills, with E.J. Manuel, Matt Cassel, Tyrod Taylor and Matt Simms under center, were able to shred the Steelers' porous defense, at will, in a 43-19 win at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
If the penultimate preseason game served as the final dress rehearsal for the regular season, as it traditionally does, the Steelers didn't look ready for primetime on Sept. 10 when they'll face defending Super Bowl champion New England at Foxoboro, no matter who the Patriots quarterback might be.
Buffalo's four signal callers, none of which had yet been named the starter, completed an alarming 30 of 33 passes (91 percent) for 386 yards and three touchdowns, to say nothing of the Bills' 156 rushing yards on 35 carries.
It wasn't just the second and third team defense that bowed. It was the starters and, perhaps even more worrisome, players that were supposed to be making cases for roster spots.
"Some of those guys looked like they were just walking dead," said coach Mike Tomlin, who will pare the roster from 90 down to 75 by 4 p.m. on Tuesday. "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."
Needless to say, it was a disappointing effort after showing some promise a week earlier against Green Bay, the NFL's top-ranked offense in 2014. The Steelers registered six sacks against the Packers but managed just one (Arthur Moats in coverage) against the Bills, a unit that ranked just 18th last season.
"It was unacceptable," said defensive end Cam Heyward. "We understand there's going to be mistakes but we have to be better. Hopefully we can grow from this."
Certainly there were some mitigating factors working against the Steelers, most notably the absences of starting defensive end Stephon Tuitt, inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons and safety Mike Mitchell.
"Even if people were playing just not get cut we're still out there playing football and you got to go out there and be a competitor," said safety Shamarko Thomas.
Still, there's little reason to believe that one or any of the aforementioned injured players might be ready to go in 11 days time when the Steelers take on Tom Brady or Jimmy Garoppolo and the Patriots. Surely, Rob Gronkowski is drooling, more than usual, at the prospect of going against the Steelers secondary.
The Steelers ranked 27th against the pass last season and are trying to implement a Cover-2 scheme into their defense. The hope is that, while it might yield some short yards underneath, it will prevent the types of big plays on the outside that dogged them in 2014, when they gave up 50 plays of 20 or more yards.
Against the Bills, the Steelers surrendered nine plays of 19 or more yards, six of them in the air, including a Manuel to Charles Clay strike for a 67-yard touchdown in the first quarter.
It also marked the second straight week that the Steelers had given up a touchdown on their opponents' opening drive. The Bills required just three plays, 43 yards and 1:05 to go up early on Saturday. Green Bay scored in the first 5:06 a week ago.
Whether the result of an already too long training camp enters its sixth week or omen of things to come, the Steelers will have scant time to right the ship. The Steelers' final preseason game -- vs. Carolina on Thursday -- is just four days away. Obviously, the Steelers (1-3) would like to get the bad taste out of their mouths.
"In a couple Thursdays from now, we'll be on the clock so we're going to get better and get solid before that," Tomlin said.