Overreactions from Steelers Nation: Quarterback, Coordinator, or Offensive Line?
Welcome to my weekly edition of “Overreactions from Steelers Nation” a weekly column where I poke fun at fans, reporters, and so-called experts while trying to figure out if some of these hot takes are real – or just for attention.
Through four weeks of the 2022 NFL season, the Pittsburgh Steelers currently stand at 1-3, one spot from the bottom of the entire AFC.
The season kicked off with two AFC North division games within an eleven-game span, and this “quarter” concluded with a heartbreaking home loss to the New York Jets.
During the slow spell, the Steelers offense has been abysmal, ranking 30th in total yards (23rd rushing, 28th passing), 25th in first downs per-game, 31st in time of possession, and is averaging 18.5 points-per-game – skewed by a defensive touchdown in Week 1.
It was painfully obvious to anyone watching the games, that a change had to be made. However, most casual observers blamed one of three areas: the quarterback, the coordinator, or the offensive line. But which one would be the wise fix for Pittsburgh?
Let’s start from the bottom of the list and work our way to the top.
The Offensive Line
Quite a few fans are still clinging to a nationally televised preseason fiasco where the Steelers offensive line looked sloppy at best. However, that’s simply not the case through four games, as even Pro Football Focus has bumped their previously 30th ranked until (preseason) up to 13th in their rankings.
As noted in the article:
The Steelers are up to No. 13 in these Week 4 rankings, having allowed the fewest pressures of any team this season.
For weeks I was trying to convince fans that the offensive line is nowhere near as bad as last year’s unit. There are still some penalties which need resolved (shockingly more illegal man downfield and not holding calls) but that’s here nor there with September football across the NFL. It should also be noted that Kendrick Green, who has yet to be active in a game this season, was trialed as a starting left guard in the aforementioned preseason game, and other similar substitutions were made too. (It’s not the same unit.)
Furthermore, the “weaker” players on the unit, namely Dan Moore Jr., have played exceptionally well: limiting the Browns Myles Garrett to only two quarterback pressures (per Pro Football Reference) and statistically, only one QB hit.
In fact, the majority of the eight sacks taken my Mitchell Trubisky were either attributed to him moving in the pocket, or even Najee Harris. In fact, several of their linemen are ranking fairly high individually while the majority aren’t giving up pressures.
The biggest issue now? Run blocking. But that might be corrected with our other areas of concern…
The Offensive Coordinator
A large portion of the Steelers woes on offense have been attributed to play-calling… but is it?
Fans saw this year’s short passes, i.e. “dink and dunk” to running backs and tight ends, instantly assuming that last year’s offense had returned. However, that hasn’t been the case.
As noted above with the offensive line, this year has changed, but it was difficult to separate it from last season. For starters, many weren’t recognizing that the quarterback has had far longer to hold onto the ball to make decisions than Ben Roethlisberger‘s league-leading release time of 2021.
In the case of this season, it’s the same offensive coordinator, Matt Canada, but the offense has deep routes and other wrinkles that simply weren’t being exploited. The blame for poor offense wasn’t properly being attributed to the quarterback’s decision-making…
In this case, the decision maker is Mitchell Trubisky. Many fans who attend live games or watch coaches film started to notice Trubisky wasn’t finding players downfield, in the middle of the field, etc. He would settle for close, “safe” passes, often shorter routes, giving the illusion that Canada’s offense “sucks”.
While play-calling is an artform – and never perfect – Canada shouldn’t have been the scapegoat through four weeks when you compare NexGen stats. Trubisky has had 2.75 seconds to throw, up from Big Ben’s league-worst 2.38 in 2021.
Therefore he’s had time to make decisions, often playing either more safe than Roethlisberger – or more aggressive, but with neither paying off since his completion percentage is sub-60%. (The “bar” for an NFL quarterback.) Yet, he took eight sacks largely of his own doing, often making one read and then moving into pressure.
It was so bad, that TE Pat Freiermuth wasn’t targeted in Week 3’s loss to the Cleveland Browns until two minutes remaining in the game.
Some defended the starting quarterback, blaming the line or coaching. Yet, Trubisky had actually regressed from his days as a starter with the Chicago Bears.
Furthermore, the Steelers offense, through the first two quarters against the Jets, had punted in half of their 42 possessions, with only two touchdown drives. His completion percentages and yards-per-attempt were below board, with the latter trending toward a historical NFL worst.
Yards-Per-Attempt 2022 Season:
Week 1: 5.1
Week 2: 5.1
Week 3: 6.5
Week 4: 6.5
Kenny Pickett: 9.2
— Joe Kuzma (SCU) (@Joe_Kuzma) October 3, 2022
As you can see above, the Steelers fortunes changed rapidly when Kenny Pickett was inserted into the game.
Despite running the same offense (Matt Canada’s) and having the same offensive line, Pickett was able to lead the Steelers to two touchdown drives within the same half. (Two of five series.)
The team’s first down percentages took an uptick and Pickett was completing more passes downfield. While its a small sample size, the overreactions through the first 3-4 games likely finds the true culprit in what was a stalling Pittsburgh offense: it was Trubisky all along.
However, there’s a lot of football to be played still, so we shall see if Pickett can continue to provide the “spark” that Mike Tomlin so desperately seeks.