A Look into the Future: What's next for the Pittsburgh Steelers?

AFC Wildcard Playoffs - Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills
AFC Wildcard Playoffs - Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills / Kathryn Riley/GettyImages

In typical Steelers fashion, they faced an early exit from the playoffs once again. The recurring cycle of being outplayed in the postseason persisted as Pittsburgh found themselves trailing 21-0 early on, forcing them to mount a comeback to narrow the margin to a one-score game. However, their efforts fell short, resulting in a 31-17 loss. This unfortunate outcome marks the seventh consecutive year without a playoff win for the Steelers.

In this game, it was a disaster from the start. Following a quick offensive possession, the Bills gained possession and efficiently marched down the field. A few possessions later, George Pickens fumbled, and the Bills capitalized immediately, scoring on the very next play with a short field.

The Steelers managed to enter the red zone, but Mason Rudolph's interception in the end zone allowed Buffalo to score once again off the turnover. Despite gradually getting back into the game, the Steelers ultimately fell apart in the critical moments.

Offense falls back down to earth

Once again, the team appeared outcoached and unprepared in yet another playoff game. On the offensive side, it was evident that, after falling behind early, the Steelers were determined to run the ball at all costs.

However, as the game progressed, sticking to the ground game became increasingly challenging, disrupting the pace and tempo they were accustomed to and causing them to fall out of rhythm. The coaching staff seemed hesitant to throw the ball and avoid attempting explosive plays that had proven successful in previous games.

Despite facing a Buffalo defense depleted with injuries, the Steelers failed to capitalize on this opportunity. Instead, they persisted with a game plan that clearly wasn't working. After the game, Najee Harris revealed in this tweet that the Bills adjusted their tendencies, anticipating the Steelers' commitment to the run and bringing a safety down to counter it.

Unfortunately, the Steelers failed to adapt, maintaining the status quo and persisting with an ineffective game plan. In situations with single high safety looks, the adjustment should have been to attack through the passing game, but the Steelers stuck to their original plans, resulting in an abysmal offensive performance due to a lack of adaptability.

Defense is non-existent without TJ Watt

Defensively, it was a mess on all fronts. Early in the game, Buffalo's tight ends found themselves wide open on touchdown passes, and the defense struggled to contain James Cook and Josh Allen in the running game. The Steelers gave up a staggering 179 yards rushing and faced continuous challenges in generating any form of pass rush. To compound the issues, the Steelers defense had difficulties with tackling and executing fundamental aspects of the game.

Notably, the absence of TJ Watt was evident, and the Steelers defense appeared completely lost without his presence. This recurring pattern became apparent once again when Watt is not on the field. Clearly, stopping Josh Allen is a tall task, and it doesn't help when your offense can't get anything going and turns the ball over.

However, the backbone of this team is on the defensive side of the ball. It's been a continuous trend that when it comes to January football, Pittsburgh's defense, especially, seems to magically fall apart after playing well during a stretch of the season.

It's clear that significant changes are necessary for this Pittsburgh team to break free from the same embarrassing cycle and address the whole team's shortcomings. What we've learned once again is how far this team is from truly competing with actual good teams.

It has taken years, and hopefully, Mike Tomlin and the front office recognize how deep the issues truly are. An identity change, along with other wholesale changes, is needed. I'll dive into this more and discuss the areas that need improvement in the 2024 season.

First step to improvement: Adopt a new modern day philosophy

The Pittsburgh Steelers going into 2024 need an entire change of philosophy and approach to how football is played in this day and age. We're in a league where innovation and creativity prosper and win games. The Steelers, for years, have played a brand of Stone Age football where the philosophy is that you can simply win games solely by running the football and playing defense.

This way of playing worked over a decade ago, but the sport is an evolving door that changes constantly. It's always the best teams that adapt to the times and change their ways to keep up with the trends. The Steelers are nowhere close to being remarkably innovative or exciting in any way. For Mike Tomlin and an organization as stubborn as it is, there needs to be a realization that their philosophical process is now outdated in this league. It's time to get with the times.

Clean slate of the coaching staff

With much speculation over the past couple of weeks about Mike Tomlin possibly stepping away, the Steelers head coach put those rumors to rest and admitted that he expects a contract extension.

Tomlin expects to be back in 2024, but the final decision still rests in the hands of Art Rooney II. It's up to Rooney whether he wants to extend Tomlin's contract or cut ties altogether. Given the Steelers' operating style, especially how the Rooney family does business, and with a winless playoff streak (the longest in team history) and a team facing a cloudy future and direction similar to last year, it's anticipated that Rooney doesn't have the stones to make significant changes.

Instead, the Steelers might offer an extension to Mike Tomlin. Despite suggestions from many that parting ways might be the best course, similar to what other teams have done with successful coaches this offseason, the Steelers seem poised to run it back with a familiar face, expecting different results than what we've seen so far.

To avoid the same series of coaching changes that have been seen time and time again, a significant shift in coaching dynamics is necessary. If Mike Tomlin is set to stay for an extended period, it might be prudent to strip away his current coaching staff and limit his hiring powers. Tomlin bears a majority of the blame for the team's coaching issues over the years, with repeated failures in coordinator and assistant coaching hires.

No question, Mike Tomlin is an amazing leader of men and the type of coach that every player likes and admires. However, if the goal is to be an amazing player's coach, it's essential to build a staff around you to compensate for any shortcomings. Tomlin had such a staff early in his career. While he excels in connecting with players, he hasn't been known for having a keen eye on coaching talent, being innovative or creative, or being a tactician when it comes to game plans or schemes.

It's time for Tomlin to have less influence, and others, including Weidl and Khan, should play a more substantial role in determining additions to the coaching staff moving forward. The current staff is perceived to offer no upside, making a fresh start with an entirely new coaching team more appealing.

Qualities to look for in a potential new Offensive Coordinator

The Pittsburgh Steelers have lacked a good offensive coordinator for what seems like a really long time. With each passing of a new OC, another has been promoted from within, and it's time to break that cycle. The focus should now be on bringing in either a young play caller or a more experienced coordinator with a track record of success.

The crucial qualities for this hire include an offensive staff that has experience working with young quarterbacks, is known for developing young talent, and can create a system around the QB and other offensive players based on their strengths and skill sets. The new hire should be open to adjusting the system to better suit the personnel, considering factors like injuries.

Innovation and creativity are paramount, qualities that have been lacking. The Steelers need an offensive coordinator who is aggressive, keeps up with different trends around the league, and can incorporate successful plays from other teams.

The NFL is a copycat league, and some of the best play-callers are able to install plays that other teams have done successfully. The 2024 offensive coordinator hire needs to be an absolute home run. It's the most important offseason question mark that requires thorough consideration and a comprehensive process to secure the perfect candidate.

The Steelers shouldn't be afraid to hire a hot and successful name, even if there's a concern they may not stick around forever. Embracing change is necessary, and successful offenses often have staff members who become sought after. It's a positive challenge, and the Steelers need to adopt a mindset that emphasizes offense in this league. Now is the time to shift the team's identity more toward the offensive side of the ball.

Return of Blitzburgh

In addition to bringing in a new offensive coordinator, it's equally important to consider a revamp in the defensive coaching department. Despite having the distinction of the NFL's highest-paid defense, the Steelers' defensive performance has consistently fallen short of expectations.

There's untapped potential within the defensive unit, which boasts talent across all levels, suggesting that it should strive to be among the best consistently. Persistent rumors over the years have hinted at Mike Tomlin's involvement in calling the defense, and if true, this aspect needs reassessment and correction in 2024 and beyond.

The vision for the Steelers' defense should transcend mere competence, aiming to instill fear and unpredictability. A dynamic and ever-evolving scheme is crucial, one that consistently generates chaos to make life difficult for opposing teams. Revisiting the days of pressures coming from various areas and employing creative coverage looks is vital.

Given the likelihood of adding younger talent to the defense, a specific mindset is crucial. The Steelers need a defensive coordinator who not only embraces but encourages organized chaos, creating a system that disrupts and overwhelms opponents.

The cooperation between coaching staff members is crucial, especially between offensive and defensive coordinators. A united coaching unit with diverse talents, innovative ideas, and strategic schemes can elevate the team's overall performance. If the Steelers can assemble a coaching staff brimming with talent and creativity, this team has the potential to become not just strong but truly impactful in the league.