The Pittsburgh Steelers have lost their identity, and it's time for them to rediscover who they are. As the NFL continues to evolve, the legendary organization has as well. But that evolution has taken the Steelers further and further away from being a consistent franchise.
Ironically, the Steelers looked soft and allowed another franchise that mirrored their old ways to punch them in the mouth during the divisional round. The Jacksonville Jaguars left Heinz Field with a 45-42 victory on their way to an AFC Championship Game showdown with the New England Patriots.
The Jaguars made sure to play physically throughout the game, and it started during the opening drive when running back Leonard Fournette had 13 tough yards, including a fourth-down touchdown leap from one yard out.
With its early success, Jacksonville showed a blueprint the Steelers should have followed.
But they didn't.
Pittsburgh made poor play-call choices, didn't run the ball with authority, struggled to slow a limited Jaguars offense and relied on hero ball for most of the contest to even stay close.
It's now a quarterback-driven league, but the Steelers forgot what it takes to consistently win in the playoffs. And there were warning signs during their 13-3 regular season that they could be vulnerable to an early exit.
Pittsburgh often played to its competition and needed to squeak by with victories against some average-to-poor teams. The common denominator in those games was not leaning on the running game enough.
Mike Tomlin's squad often overcame adversity because its overall depth and talent superseded most opponents'.
Massive changes should be expected this offseason, and those same advantages will start to fade as quickly as the team's Super Bowl window. Pittsburgh's issues stemmed from a lack of commitment found in the locker room.
The Jaguars weren't that good, right? Bortles couldn't possibly beat a Steelers squad if quarterback Ben Roethlisberger played turnover-free football in their second meeting. After all, Pittsburgh was destined to meet the Patriots for a chance to go to the Super Bowl.
Steelers safety Mike Mitchell spoke for the team with his preference to play New England.
"We're going to play [the Patriots] again," Mitchell told SI.com's Greg Bishop in early December. "We can play them in hell, we can play them in Haiti, we can play them in New England. ... We're gonna win."
See, what had happened was...uh, yeah. The veteran defensive back made a fool of himself, and the Jaguars let him know about it after the contest. Cornerback Jalen Ramsey is already one of the game's best, and he summed up Jacksonville's feelings.
"I was wondering why they were so confident. We stung their ass last time," the All-Pro cornerback said, per ESPN.com's Jeff Darlington. Nor did the young man care much about the Steelers' disrespect. "We don't give a f--k. We really don't care."
A franchise needs to pull in the right direction at every level to achieve Super Bowl success. The Steelers fell well short.
Instead, Mitchell ran his mouth, and it backfired. Roethlisberger had to answer questions about his retirement after the game. Le'Veon Bell is a free agent. The defense needs to be repaired. Plus, Pittsburgh must consider coaching changes.
The 35-year-old two-time Super Bowl champion didn't leave anything open to interpretation after becoming the first quarterback in NFL playoff history to throw for 400 or more yards and five touchdowns, per NFL Research.
"I definitely gave a desire to play football," Roethlisberger said, per NFL Network's Aditi Kinkhabwala. "I love this game; I love these guys."
With the franchise quarterback coming back for his 15th season, his relationship with the coaching staff needs to be scrutinized, especially since upcoming changes appear to be obvious.
First, Roethlisberger has never had the best relationship with offensive coordinator Todd Haley. At times, they've been contentious. Other times, the two have made peace.
Yet the quarterback didn't have a problem throwing the coaching staff under the bus when asked why it didn't ask the 6'5" quarterback to sneak the ball and gain crucial inches during two vital 4th-and-short situations.
"That's over my head," he said, per Kinkhabwala.
Tomlin isn't going anywhere. The Steelers preach long-term stability, and the Rooney family rarely makes a rash move. Coordinator changes should be strongly considered, though.
Haley's approach has been called into question numerous times during his six-year tenure. When it mattered most against a great defense, the system fell apart, and Pittsburgh needed Roethlisberger to make a few unscripted, spectacular throws to even remain in the contest. The quarterback never established a rhythm.
Play-calling isn't simply calling the right play at the right time. It's a succession of calls that set up a team throughout the contest. Despite 545 total yards, the Steelers never looked in sync.
Part of that is not relying enough on the scheme's workhorse. Bell ran the ball 16 times against the NFL's 21st-ranked rush defense.
No reason can be given why Pittsburgh didn't run Bell into the ground. He entered the contest with 406 total touches, and he's about to enter free agency. Instead, the workhorse carried the ball six times in the first half when the game remained well within reach.
Like Mitchell's ranting about the Patriots, Bell didn't have his mind on the Jaguars. A lucrative payday is coming, and it's been at the forefront of the conversation.
"Just get the numbers straight, exactly where we want them," the franchise running back said Thursday, per ESPN.com's Jeremy Fowler. "I'm not going to settle for anything. I know what I do and what I bring to the table. I'm not going out here getting the ball 400 times if I'm not getting what I feel I'm valued at."
Building a strong running game next season is important to take pressure off Roethlisberger. But how much is the organization willing to pay Bell? The front office already offered a five-year contract that Bell turned down, per Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
"I don't know who's coming back, but I know the guys up front are, and that makes it good for me," Roethlisberger said, per Kinkhabwala. "So I look forward to next year with these guys."
Possibly rebuilding the offense will be difficult, but the quarterback and Antonio Brown's returns will cover up a lot of issues. Running back James Conner is already in place after being selected in the third round of April's draft. JuJu Smith-Schuster developed into a fine young receiver during his rookie year. An experienced offensive line helps, too.
However, Roethlisberger is not the quarterback he once was. The offense lacks a presence at tight end. Conner's ability to replace Bell could be the offseason's biggest question.
Is this group still good enough to go punch for punch with the NFL's best offenses? On the surface, no.
Defensively, Keith Butler's unit finished fifth overall during the regular season. Yet, it never appeared to be a dominant group. There's talent, to be sure, especially on the defensive front with Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt.
But the team lacks continuity along the back end. The once-vaunted outside linebackers are no longer pass-rushing terrors, either. And Ryan Shazier's injury cost the Steelers their most dynamic defender.
Adding to all of this, Butler's group has never established itself. Dick LeBeau's departure was supposed to lead toward an updated scheme. Instead, the group has been stuck in neutral without any clear indication if it wants to be zone-heavy or man-heavy. The group is a giant mishmash of a few talented players.
Not being fully prepared for the Jaguars offense is a travesty and fireable offense by itself. It's not a complicated approach. Jacksonville leans heavily on its power running game and builds off it with zone-reads, a short passing attack and a few play-action shots downfield.
The Steelers didn't feature a single difference-maker who counteracted the Jags' approach. Instead, Bortles and Co. marched all over the field and scored 38 offensive points.
Sunday's effort is a wake-up call. The NFL is passing the Steelers by, and they must adjust by becoming better in the areas where they once excelled while maintaining a few modern-day sensibilities. Roethlisberger won't be around forever, and the window to win another championship during his time at the helm is nearly closed.