Steelers question play calling as frustration mounts on offense: 10 observations

Steelers question play calling as frustration mounts on offense: 10 observations

PITTSBURGH — “Call concepts to get receivers there.” — Mitch Trubisky

“We have to call the right plays to get down the field in the right ways.” — Chase Claypool

“We can only do what they tell us to do and execute it.” — Diontae Johnson


Only eight quarters into the new season, and the frustration has already set in for a Steelers’ offense that has put up only two touchdowns in two games and has absolutely no hope in sight if you consider what they have put on the field so far.

Even the most pessimistic person in the world never would have thought it would go south this quickly, even when you take into account Mitch Trubisky as the starting quarterback, Matt Canada returning for another year as offensive coordinator and an offensive line that surely gave many nightmares during the preseason.

But here they are after a painful-to-watch, 17-14 loss to a very average Patriots team at Acrisure Stadium on Sunday. Everything concerning the offense feels like it’s on the verge of imploding, with subtle darts across the bow from key offensive playmakers about the early season game plan, the lack of success and even more of a lack of creativity and trust.

 

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Kaboly: Steelers want Mitch Trubisky simply not to lose, but how long will that be enough?

Despite facing single-high safety looks for a large portion of the first half Sunday, the Steelers stuck to their recurring theme of safe throws, nothing over the middle, nothing that can even be remotely linked to a combat catch. And it resulted in very little offense.

A week after throwing seven passes over 20 air yards and nine at or behind the line of scrimmage, Trubisky did much of the same against the Patriots, with three passes over 20 air yards and six at or behind the line of scrimmage, much to the chagrin of the playmakers.

At one point late in the game, Johnson came off the field unhappy and flailing his arms at the bench in apparent disgust.

“I was playing with emotion because I felt like I was open,” Johnson said when asked about the moment. “The quarterback has a lot to think about as well, so I can’t fault him on that. We are all out there trying to make plays. The ball didn’t come my way, and I showed a little emotion. I will do a better job of that.”

In defense of the scheme, the Patriots did use more two-high safety looks later in the game, which made the deep ball a little trickier. But before that, there were options that were not taken by Trubisky, whether he chose not to or he was told not to.

“They showed that a lot, we just have to do better and whatnot,” Johnson said of the Cover 3 defense the Patriots played often. “That’s for the coaches and whatnot.”

There were chances, especially when safety Kyle Dugger went out with an injury. With one deep safety on one occasion, Trubisky sought out Johnson on a deep comeback for a first down. It was an opportunity for Trubisky to let one fly, like the way the coaching staff said they were going to do back in the spring to open up the running game.

There was some bickering, apparently and according to Trubisky, in the huddle about the play calling and who should be targeted. Trubisky played it off as a usual occurrence.

“Everybody wants the ball in their hands,” Trubisky said. “I want the ball in my hands. We’ve got a bunch of talent, and we’ve just got to figure out what works best for us going forward. I think today you look more at the missed opportunities than what we didn’t do, I guess. So, we had enough opportunities out there. We just didn’t make the plays on a few, especially in the second half.”

With the quality of this Steelers defense, the plan is based a lot on what happened in 2019, when Mason Rudolph (who had yet to attempt an NFL pass before that season) and Division I-AA tryout Duck Hodges had the Steelers at 8-5 and within a win at oft-beaten N.Y. Jets of making the playoffs.

Play defense, don’t turn the ball over, get an early lead and grind out wins. That’s the way the Steelers are going to win in 2022. That happened in Week 1 against the defending division and conference champion Bengals (23-20 in overtime).

It didn’t happen on Sunday.

Now, it is up to Trubisky to take over and sell that this offense will work. It is the way he won the job in the first place, so it is best for him to make it work.

“You have to stick to the plan,” Trubisky said. “Everybody’s got an idea of what the offense should or could be, but we’ve got to come together as a collective unit. Everyone’s got to keep buying in. There’s going to be good plays, there’s going to be bad plays, but we’re a young offense, and we’re still growing in this thing together. The best thing you can do at this time is continue to buy into the plan. Whatever it is, do your job to the best of your ability.

“I think that’s how you grow as an offense, but when everybody is saying, ‘Call this play, call that play,’ it makes it tough just for everybody to do their jobs. I think everybody just needs to worry about their job.”

Sounds like frustration to me. Frustration with a quarterback who is being told not to lose the game rather than to go and win it.

“There’s definitely freedom based on what the defense does and where I want to go with the football,” Trubisky said.

Sounds like not many are happy with the offense and aren’t afraid to say it. That’s not ideal.

Here are 10 observations from the Steelers’ 17-14 loss to the Patriots:

1. Minkah magic: That’s now two interceptions in two games for Minkah Fitzpatrick. Even though his latest one wasn’t a pick six, it may have been more impressive just by his disguise … or the disguise called up by the group of Mike Tomlin/Teryl Austin/Brian Flores. Fitzpatrick baited Mac Jones into the pick like, well, a crafty veteran. Fitzpatrick lined up to the left side of the formation sort of a traditional free safety spot knowing darn well that Robert Spillane was covering DeVante Parker down the seam all alone. Jones immediately saw it and raced to the middle of the field and picked it off. It was an elite play … again. It reminded me of a play Bill Belichick described Ed Reed making against Peyton Manning many years ago.

(*10*)

PICKED BY @minkfitz_21‼️

📺 #NEvsPIT on CBS pic.twitter.com/C4temzVUyw

— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) September 18, 2022

2.  Special teams not so special: Take punter Pressley Harvin III out of the mix immediately. Harvin punted four times and averaged 51.8 yards per kick with a long of 69. His net was only 41.3 because of some suspect coverage. Harvin boomed a perfect coffin corner kick that is not only extremely difficult to pull off but almost always assures the kicking team good field position. But that didn’t happen. Somehow Myles Bryant was able to make a move and gained 16 yards to get the Patriots out of a bad spot. Harvin’s 69-yarder was dropped inside the 1, but the Steelers weren’t able to corral before the end zone.

The biggest play came when Gunner Olszewski let the ball hit him in the facemask after calling for a fair catch. The Patriots recovered, and Connor Heyward was called for unnecessary roughness, putting the ball at the Steelers 10. Three plays later, the Patriots scored the game-deciding touchdown. “I gotta catch it,” Olszewski said. When your offense is limited as the Steelers is, yes, you have to catch it.

3. Sack master: Trubisky has been sacked four times while attempting 71 passes through two games, which is a very good ratio. He was sacked three times against the Patriots on Sunday, yet two were his responsibility. In fact, his lone sack last week was his fault. He needs to know when to throw the ball away, and that will come. But the plus side of it all is that the offensive line has protected better than we all could’ve imagined.

4. Run defense folded: The Steelers’ run defense was an issue last year. Everybody knows that, but it seemed to be fixed with some offseason acquisitions and a pretty solid Week 1 performance against Cincinnati other than one long short-yardage pop by Joe Mixon. So what happened to close out the game Sunday was discouraging. Up only three, the Patriots ran the ball six straight times and on eight of 10 plays (including a holding penalty but not including three kneeldowns to end the game) on the final drive when everybody knew what the Patriots wanted to do.

That might have been more discouraging than Cameron Sutton’s dropped interception and the touchdown Ahkello Witherspoon gave up to Nelson Agholor. A lot of the successful runs were outside-zone stretch runs.

“We knew they were a stretch team, a toss team,” Cameron Heyward said. “They tend to go for those long edges, C and D gaps, and we have to set the edge. When it gets out there, everyone just has to be accounted for their gaps, and in the end, they went to the open side and pulling guys. If you don’t have enough guys in the box and get guys over top, it’s going to work.

5. OROY? George Pickens has two catches in two games. No way anybody saw that coming, especially after the preseason and training camp the rookie had. Many are pointing to the lack of deep throws to Pickens, but it has been more than that. The Steelers need to get Pickens involved in the game more than an occasional deep throw. He showed through camp he can run different routes well. He isn’t a “one trick pony,” like Tomlin once called Mike Wallace. Through two games, Pickens has six targets, two catches and 26 yards.

“I don’t know that I had expectations about what that would look like,” Tomlin said. “I think in the early portions of the year, you’re establishing roles, and what happens in the stadium is more important than maybe what your intentions are. Intentions are just that. The reality of how we perform, how we divide the labor up, and how we distribute the ball and who makes the plays is what’s important in the stadium.”

6. Ahkello’s mistake: Sometimes you scratch your head and say “What is (Player X) doing? You can’t say that about Ahkello Witherspoon on the touchdown he allowed. Even though Witherspoon is a couple of inches bigger (6-foot-2 to 6-foot-0) and was in great position to make a play on the deep ball from Jones, Agholor was able to wrestle it away from him for the score. It is a play that Witherspoon should make, but if there is one play you can circle and just say that receiver just made one hell of a play it would be that one.

(*10*)

Quite the way to end the half.

📺: #NEvsPIT on @NFLonCBS pic.twitter.com/5WIu9sUQnw

— New England Patriots (@Patriots) September 18, 2022

“I wasn’t really worried about him elevating because he was a smaller receiver, but he did so and he came down with the ball,” Witherspoon said.

If there is one criticism, it’s {that a} guy with Witherspoon’s size can’t get overpowered like he did more than once on Sunday.

7. Big front … again: With T.J. Watt out with a torn pectoral muscle, the Steelers had to find a way to replace not necessarily the player but his production. Well, that didn’t happen in the terms of sacks, as they didn’t bring down Jones once the entire game. It was only the second time in 92 games the Steelers didn’t have a sack in the game.

One of the reasons was that they went to a big front more than they usually do. They often played three defensive linemen with one outside linebacker in Alex Highsmith. It is something that the Steelers have done before against the Patriots especially when they were a heavy-run team.

“We were down an outside linebacker or two so we just get that was the approach to take for multiple reasons,” Tomlin said.

It just shows how much Watt or lack thereof, can affect the scheme of defense.

8. Up-and-down Najee: Najee Harris had a much better Week 2 than Week 1, as he put up 49 yards on 15 carries and added 40 yards on five receptions. His longest run was only 8 yards, though. Still, what was noticeable, and I don’t know if this was because of a lack of playing time with the current offensive line or one of his two foot injuries, but there was a noticeable difference in the way Harris ran when he had a crack to run through compared to no openings whatsoever.

There was some banter last week about Harris hitting the holes slowly and whether something was physically wrong with him. That happened from time to time against the Patriots but only when there was no space to run immediately. When there was a hole, he hit it hard and with vigor, or he would bounce it outside as he did on a third-and-short play in the first half. He probably should’ve stuck his 240-pound frame up inside, but he bounced it and ended up getting a yard anyway.

9. Locker-room blues: It was a Week 2 game, and it really came down to the last minute. Still, it was one of the more disappointing locker rooms I remember being in over my 20 years other than maybe the divisional playoff game in Denver a few years back and the AFC title game loss in New England. Never have I felt the angst of the players after the second game. Maybe that’s a good thing or maybe that’s not a good thing, but there was tension in there.

10. Odds and ends: With no threat of going deep, the Patriots’ cornerbacks never felt like they had to get out of their backpedal to run with a receiver. That’s a problem. … As expected, there weren’t many jet sweeps or motions or trick plays out of Canada’s offense, mostly because that was put on tape last week in Cincinnati. … Myles Jack keeps getting better and better.

About the Author: Mofazzal Hossen

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