There’s no shame in being 1-1 right now; more than half the teams in the NFL are one up and one down. But, the Steelers’ brand of early-season .500 football has raised a few eyebrows since they are scoring so few points.
Through the first two weeks, Pittsburgh’s offense has produced only 2 touchdowns while gaining the fewest yards in the AFC. While there’s no reason to panic, there is reason to wonder: Is the offense underwhelming because of Mitch Trubisky? Or offensive coordinator Matt Canada?
The whole conversation reminds me of questions I had while watching Trubisky quarterback the Bears from 2017-2020. Why do they have 1,000 formations, motions and packages just to dial up a 4-yard completion? Why aren’t they more aggressive? Is it Matt Nagy’s offense? Or Trubisky’s way?
I was happy to see Trubisky get the starting nod this year over first-round draft pick Kenny Pickett, so I could see what he looked like in a different offense. His athleticism always intrigued me in Chicago, and now his experience was significant, with a 29-21 record as a starter.
I also gave intrinsic value to his one season in Buffalo, where he watched Josh Allen develop into the NFL’s best quarterback. Any backup would benefit from that front-row seat, but especially one with 50 games of starting experience.
For the same reason graduate school classes resonate more after four years of undergrad studies, an experienced quarterback is more equipped to gain from that sort of apprenticeship than a rookie.
Evaluating Week 1 vs. Bengals
I watched the Steelers’ first game against Cincinnati and had no idea their first possession of the season would be so representative of where they are through two games.
Trubisky moves to his left and throws complete. He rolls to his right and throws complete. He drops back in the pocket — say it with me — throws complete.
Punt. Three harmless completions led to a three-and-out. Keep that in mind.
I have two major takeaways from that game. First, there are subtle things to like about Trubisky’s play and the way Canada highlights his qualities. His ball-handling and footwork in the run game are excellent, making every type of misdirection and play-action possible, in and out of the pocket.
He moves well with the ball and throws accurately moving in both directions. Plus, he consistently delivers on intermediate-range throws to his left, the ones requiring him to drive the ball with velocity to the sidelines.
Canada’s play sheet on first and second downs must be full of options. But, I also noticed the Steelers’ two best plays in the first half were manufactured, well-designed concepts to the tight end. A reverse flea-flicker that freed up Pat Freiermuth wide open downfield, and a timely tight end screen that Trubisky set up with misdirection play-action.
The Steelers took a 17-3 lead thanks to those two plays and defensive turnovers. Trubisky never had to fit one into Diontae Johnson on a 15-yard in-route, with Mike Hilton just half a step behind him. He didn’t fire a third-down laser to Chase Claypool, who was streaking down the seam while wearing Chidobe Awuzie in his hip pocket. Never even tried.
He did provide the most important offensive play of the game late in overtime when he spun out of a sack, rolled left and rifled a strike to Freiermuth, setting up the game-winning field goal.
It’s important to note it was athletic improvisation, not crisp pocket execution.
Evaluating Week 2 vs. Patriots
Enter Sunday’s game against New England. It did have its own flow; a different personality with a different outcome to go along with similarities in the way the Canada/Trubisky offense was executed, as well as the way it didn’t.
In a close game throughout, Trubisky was solid more often than not, and really good in some situations. Three times in the second quarter he converted third-down situations, including a third-and-10 and a third-and-17. He threw with velocity and accuracy to the left sideline, both on the move and from the pocket. They were really well done.
In the first quarter, more examples of the subtle ways he impresses popped up on the game tape. On a first-and-10, one of the rare occasions he dropped back and scanned the field with five pass catchers released into the pattern, he wisely threw the ball underneath for 7 yards. What offensive coordinator doesn’t love second-and-3?
Then, on a play designed for Trubisky to roll to his left and hit a shovel pass at the line of scrimmage, his target was covered. His immediate reaction was perfect, tucking the ball, darting around the left side, and picking up 7 more yards.
While his good plays make you say, “nice,” his questionable plays make you say, in a louder voice, “WHAT!?” The only pass he attempted beyond 10 yards over the middle the entire game was intercepted. It was a ball forced into coverage on an in-breaking route that was tipped and picked. Think about that.
One pass, in four quarters, thrown to the intermediate range between the hashes. That’s hard to imagine and makes it hard for the team to succeed.
The signature example came early in the fourth quarter, on a third-and-8 deep in Steelers’ territory. With Claypool coming open down the right seam, Trubisky checked the ball down to Harris on the left, who had no chance for a catch-and-run first down.
It’s one thing to go the safe route on third down while out front in the first half. It’s another to do so while trailing late in a one-score game.
I’ve seen this before. A Trubisky-led offense that does fine, but doesn’t compare to the ones doing really well. Conservative game plans and safe decisions equal pedestrian results.
Some stats mislead, but some tell the story exactly the way it is.
Mac Jones completed 21 passes for 252 yards. Trubisky completed 21 passes for 168 yards. That’s 12 yards per completion vs. 8 yards. That’s a big deal.
In a 17-14 final, you look for where one team could gain a winning edge. When one quarterback gets 50 percent less out of his completions than his colleague, look no further. Trubisky’s yards per attempt through two games is 5.1, the lowest among all starting quarterbacks. That represents the feeling you get while watching the Steelers’ offense.
So, Who Is the Problem?
As for those questions about who’s more to blame, Trubisky or Canada? Canada sees Trubisky every day, and calls the game with his quarterback’s strengths — and weaknesses — in mind. It’s no accident the Steelers’ pass offense is about misdirection, movement and safe throws.
But it’s now two offenses with Trubisky at the helm that raise the same concerns. He either hasn’t earned the trust of his play-callers, or he’s unwilling to cut it loose down the field when the scheme and the game require it.
Bottom line: If he and Canada can’t commit to a bolder game plan, and find at least the occasional risk-taking success down the field, the Steelers will be taking their shots with Kenny Pickett sooner rather than later.