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Panic isn’t a word that is generally associated with the Pittsburgh
Steelers. They are quite possibly the most stable franchise in sports. They have had three head coaches in over half a century. They have won six Super Bowls. And their current head coach has never
experienced a losing season.
But the anxiety level on the banks of the Monongahela River
is ratcheting up because Mike Tomlin’s stretch of non-losing seasons is in very
serious jeopardy. After losing 29-17 to the Jacoby Brissett-led Cleveland
Browns on Thursday night, talk radio in the Steel City will no doubt center on the
notion of removing quarterback Mitch Trubisky and replacing him with
first-round rookie Kenny Pickett.
But the reality is that Trubisky’s
limitations aren’t the Steelers’ only problem. Or their biggest problem.
This team has real issues on both sides of the ball—and a change under
center isn’t going to fix them.
Earlier this week, while appearing on The Mike Tomlin
Show on the team’s YouTube channel, Pittsburgh’s head coach indicated that
he wasn’t considering major changes to the starting lineup—including at
“I’m not even in the neighborhood of having discussions like
that, man,” Tomlin said, via
Bob Quinn of Steelers Nation. “I’m more concerned about our collective
growth and development and what we’re putting together in terms of what we
desire to do to engineer victory. [Trubisky is] just a component of it.”
Tomlin’s patience was put to the test Thursday night by a
game that was in many respects a carbon copy of Pittsburgh’s Week 2 loss to the
New England Patriots.
The good news for the Steelers offense is that the team set
a season high in yardage. The bad news is that season high was 308 yards.
Pittsburgh entered Thursday’s action dead last in the AFC in total offense, and
this week’s total isn’t going to help that ranking much.
Does Trubisky bear his share of responsibility for another
lackluster offensive effort? Sure. His numbers Thursday were a testament to
mediocrity—20 completions in 32 attempts for 207 yards and a passer rating of
81.1. Yet again, Trubisky flatly refused to attack
the middle of the field.
This is not new. It’s been a theme all season.
Marcus Mosher @Marcus_Mosher
Here is Steelers QB Mitchell Trubisky’s passing charts through Week 2 via the NFL’s Next Gen Stats: pic.twitter.com/Q63PmTOf0L
But solely blaming Trubisky for this offense’s inability to average
300 yards of offense three weeks into the season is unfair. There is plenty of
blame to go around.
Pittsburgh entered Week 3 with the seventh-worst ground game
in the NFL, averaging 83 yards per game. That number will bump a little after
the Steelers amassed 104 yards on 22 carries, but their ground game looked
pathetic compared to Cleveland’s.
Lead back Najee Harris has yet to get into any kind of
groove this season, and Week 3 was no exception. He gained just 3.7 yards per
carry on his 15 totes—and that was actually his best average of the season.
Heading into the week, he was averaging less than three yards a pop.
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
That ain’t good, folks.
Of course, Trubisky’s and Harris’ struggles can be traced to
yet another of the problems. The Steelers have
one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL. In his most recent offensive
line rankings, Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus ranked Pittsburgh’s front 28th in
Yes, that line only allowed one sack against the Browns. But
said sack came on a critical third down in the second half, and the Pittsburgh front
was yet again unable to open holes for the run game.
Lest you think he will be spared, offensive coordinator Matt
Canada deserves blame, too. Amid reports
that some in the organization are growing frustrated with the second-year OC,
Canada’s play-calling fell flat once again. When Canada found something that
actually did work (using tempo in the first half), it completely
disappeared after halftime—and Pittsburgh’s momentum vanished with it.
But wait! There’s more!
For decades, the Steelers have been a team associated with fearsome
and formidable defenses. But just like the their ability to move the ball consistently,
that’s gone now, too.
AP Photo/David Richard
Last year, the Steelers fielded the worst run defense in the NFL, allowing 146.1 yards per game. This year, that number “improved”
through two games—to 22nd in the league at 128.5 yards per contest.
After facing the Browns, that number is headed in the wrong
direction. Nick Chub, Kareem Hunt and the Browns gashed the Steelers for 171 yards
on the ground. Granted, the Browns have a tendency to do that, but
Week 3 was a repeat of Week 2 against the Pats—a worn-down Steelers defense
being run on successfully again and again in the second half.
The pass defense is springing leaks, too. Last week it was Nelson
Agholor posting a 6/110/1 stat line. Thursday, both wide receiver Amari Cooper (7/101/1)
and tight end David Njoku (9/89/1) had big games.
No one is going to confuse Mac Jones and Jacoby Brissett
with Joe Montana and Tom Brady. But both had success against the Steelers. With
edge-rusher T.J. Watt sidelined by a torn pectoral muscle, Pittsburgh is
generating next to no pass rush.
Next Gen Stats @NextGenStats
Jacoby Brissett was pressured on just 4 of 33 dropbacks in the Browns 29-17 victory over the Steelers, his lowest pressure rate faced (12.1%) in a game in his career.
That lack of pressure is exposing an average group of
cornerbacks. And Pittsburgh is being slowly, methodically dismantled.
The Steelers are losing the third-down battle, converting at
a significantly lower percentage than their opponent the past two weeks. They
are also losing the time-of-possession battle to the tune of almost 20 minutes
the last two games.
They aren’t being outplayed in one facet of the game.
Losing at one position. It’s all over the place. On both sides of the ball.
It didn’t take long for Tomlin to make it clear no big
changes were coming for Week 4.
That won’t make fans happy, but it’s hardly unexpected.
Tomlin isn’t the kind of coach that makes knee-jerk changes. The Steelers
aren’t that kind of team.
Or maybe he realizes that pulling Trubisky or firing Canada,
on some level, would just be re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Maybe he
knows that Pittsburgh’s problems go beyond Trubisky. And Canada. And the
Maybe he knows that these Steelers are a flawed team, and
those flaws are being exposed.
And maybe he knows that streak of non-losing seasons is probably