ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- On the other sideline was the ideal of what an NFL quarterback can be. Josh Allen was not always that -- he was a big, raw prospect when he first started in Buffalo, with a huge arm, surprisingly good feet for a person his size, a subpar completion percentage and plenty of questions about whether accuracy can be coached.
It can be, it turned out, and now Allen is the kind of player who can throw for 424 yards and 4 touchdowns on just 20 completions to set the Buffalo Bills record for a regulation game. And the Bills are Super Bowl contenders because of him.
So, in some ways, this was the perfect environment for Kenny Pickett to debut as the Pittsburgh Steelers' starting quarterback. He could see up close what the Steelers badly need from him -- the talent, of course, although it will be hard for anyone to match Allen's stunning arm, but also the command of the offense and the fearlessness, a good bit of which Pickett already seems to possess.
The Bills were once as overmatched as the Steelers looked on Sunday, in a 38-3 shellacking, before a rebuild that was constructed around Allen. That might eventually be what it is in the cards for the Steelers, whose formula for victory -- stellar defense, a powerful running game and some timely passing plays -- has collapsed. It was the worst loss of Mike Tomlin's career and the fewest points the Steelers have scored since the 2019 season opener against New England, and as much as anything, the Steelers looked stunned. It was the kind of game that highlighted roster and performance deficiencies that go well beyond starting a rookie quarterback against a Super Bowl contender.
Without reigning Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt, the defense was a sieve, allowing receiver Gabe Davis to get behind it for a 98-yard touchdown that opened the game -- a "kick in the face", Cam Heyward called it. Later, it gave up an untouched touchdown run and, during a devastating second quarter sequence, yielded three touchdowns in the space of 11 Bills offensive snaps. The offensive line needs improvement so the running game can contribute, although it was also the victim of the early hole the Steelers were in against Buffalo. Pittsburgh ran just 17 times for 54 yards. And Pickett, thrown into the teeth of a buzzsaw, simply needs more snaps and more coaching, which the Steelers can only hope eventually vaults him somewhere close to Allen's stratosphere.
Tomlin left open every possible remedy to fix the Steelers, including making changes to the lineup and to the coaching staff. He was, not surprisingly, in no mood to try to look on the bright side, which is where Pickett's play had carved out an area. About Pickett, Tomlin offered little, except conceding that it was a very difficult position for a rookie quarterback to be in such a big hole so quickly.
"I thought he was highly competitive, but I'm not dissecting it in this way," Tomlin said. "We got smashed and that's the only perspective I have. ... Football is the ultimate team game and we got smashed as a collective today so I don't have a lot of individual analysis."
While the points were scarce, the offense did seem to move the ball better with Pickett than it had in the team's first four somnolent games with Mitch Trubisky starting, even though the Bills entered Week 5 with the top overall defense and the top passing defense in the league. Pickett was 34 of 52 for 327 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. But the Steelers were 0 of 4 in the red zone and it was plain that the Steelers' one-dimensional offense did Pickett no favors. The Bills knew what was coming and were prepared to stop it. Incredibly, the Steelers dominated the time of possession by more than 12 minutes, with nothing but frustration to show for it.
The first drive of the second half summed up the day for the Steelers and Pickett. They were already trailing 31-3, but at halftime, they talked about wanting to score a touchdown to start the third quarter. The Steelers put together a long drive, beginning with a 23-yard pass from Pickett to Diontae Johnson on the right sideline and moving all the way to the Bills' 17-yard line. And then Pickett was sacked and he threw two incompletions, including one on fourth down and the Steelers were left with no points. It was, Pickett said later, the MO all day.
"We didn't put points up, that's the number one thing," Pickett said. "I felt we moved the ball, but we couldn't finish. We have to get that fixed quickly."
Pickett said he had dreamed of his first start since he first picked up a football and he was excited to play. If the Steelers are looking for a sign of hope, it is that as overwhelming as the loss was, Pickett did not seem overwhelmed by the moment or the daunting assignment he had.
"I felt comfortable," he said. "I knew where to go with the football. The game wasn't moving too fast for me. We just weren't consistent throughout. There was a lot of points left out there."
That is small comfort for the Steelers, who are 1-4 and in the middle of a schedule gauntlet that surely was nobody's idea of an ideal time to insert a rookie. But this transition was never going to be easy, and Trubisky's hesitant performance forced the Steelers to rip the Band-Aid off on a season that might be the first in the Tomlin era that ends with a losing record. In other seasons, Tomlin has steered his team to wins despite drama and injuries and a fading Ben Roethlisberger. Now, he faces what might be a long season and many difficult decisions to position the team for the future around a young quarterback. The Bills were in that spot not that many years ago.
"We've got to know there's going to be better days," Tomlin said. "... Born out of our commitment to make sure there are better days. Where we are today, not good."