PITTSBURGH — Talk about a giant step backward.
If anything, the Bills’ 23-10 loss to the Steelers on Sunday afternoon at windy Heinz Field was worse than the score.
Buffalo actually trailed by three scores until a meaningless touchdown with seconds to play.
They were outpossessed by over 10 1/2 minutes — second-worst this season — outgained 300 yards to 227, but the latter figure includes 80 yards on the final drive when Pittsburgh was playing soft and the game was long-since in hand.
Before that possession, Buffalo had gained a mere 147 yards for an underwhelming three per play.
The Bills made Pittsburgh look like the Super Bowl Steelers’ defense ... except this version came into the game 2-6 with a ‘D’ that ranked 12th in the NFL in yards surrendered and 19th in points given up.
At one time Buffalo had 10 straight possessions that ended either with a punt (nine times) or interception (once). And one reason was Buffalo’s performance on third down, an area of concern cited by coach Doug Marrone midweek. But it only got worse. The Bills were at 35.5 percent on the money down, 25th in the league, coming in. Against Pittsburgh that number was 21 percent (3-of-14).
IN SHORT, this one was ugly game ... but a lot prettier to the Steelers, who made it clear which 3-7 team has the greater upside.
Buffalo quarterback EJ Manuel, back after missing four weeks with a sprained knee, looked terrible — 22-of-39 passing for a mere 155 yards, or 3.7 per dropback, with a TD, a pick and a puny 63.5 passer rating — but this was a team effort.
As Marrone lamented, “We didn’t play well today, I think that’s obvious.
“Offensively, I thought we could have run the ball better at times (95 yards on 22 carries) ... that’s what we needed to do. We had a (pass) drop here or there. Our quarterback just came back and he had some misreads.”
But the first-year coach wasn’t about to blame his rookie QB.
“I thought EJ was good enough to play (health-wise) ... but I wanted him to play better,” Marrone said. “But you can’t put it all on him ... he’s just coming back. We can run the ball, we can block, we can protect, we can do a lot of those things better. We can make plays and support him. Overall, everyone has to do a better job including us (the coaching staff).”
He added, “We have to find ways to win. We have to score when we get into the red zone. We have to do better on third down.
Then Marrone offered a thinly-veiled indictment: “We have to become more excited as a team for each other. We have to not get discouraged ... that’s in the back of people’s minds. You can’t compete like that and really win. These are the things that we’re going through (and) I promise you I’ll do a good job with this team to get them over that stuff.”
MARRONE seemed to be saying a lot of the Bills problems are between the ears and that there are players who assume another loss is coming the minute Buffalo faces some adversity during a game.
It’s also hard not to conclude that there are players on the roster who are performing for themselves now that the team has lost three straight and five of six.
To be sure, this was the Bills’ most uninspired effort of the season and its worst loss, the 35-17 defeat in New Orleans notwithstanding.
From the moment the Steelers took the lead with under two minutes left in the first half, Buffalo played like a beaten squad.
As wide receiver Stevie Johnson concluded, “My frustration level is a 10 ... (but) I’m not discouraged by anybody on the team. It’s a loss and very frustrating. When you’re losing games, nobody should be happy.”
And he also wasn’t blaming Manuel.
“It doesn’t matter who’s at the helm” he said. “We’ve got to be able to come together as a team. It’s not one person or a couple of players. This is a team game and we need to figure it out.
“This is a step back because we got the loss and we’re another week behind.”
To which Marrone agreed.
“We have to come back and get hungry and get after those challenges,” he said. “Those things are frustrating, but in order to be the team we want to be, it’s a challenge of how do we react to that?”
And, in recent weeks, for the most part, the reaction hasn’t been good.
(Chuck Pollock, the Times Herald sports editor, can be reached at email@example.com)