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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 quarterback.
“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 from him 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.
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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.
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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 the league.
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 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 TJ 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 offense.
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 toast.