TNF Preview: Steelers’ nonexistent deep passing game needs to show up

·8 min read

Through the first two weeks of the 2022 NFL season, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mitch Trubisky has attempted 10 passes of 20 or more air yards. That ties him with Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa for fourth-most in the league. But while Tagovailoa has completed six of those 10 deep passes for 204 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception, scalding the Baltimore Ravens’ to an historic degree last Sunday, Trubisjy has very little to show for it when he airs it out. Pittsburgh’s current starting quarterback has completed just three of his deep passes for 74 yards, no touchdowns, and no interceptions.

It has been a concern for all involved.

“I like to throw the ball down the field,” Trubisky said on Tuesday, as he prepared to face the Cleveland Browns on Thursday night. “Why I haven’t, given the certain looks especially early in the game, I couldn’t tell you exactly why. But we’re looking for that and I’m looking for that. I like to throw the ball down the field. I think every quarterback deep down in their heart likes to throw the ball as far as they can down the football field and watch their playmakers go up and get it. So, we’re looking for that and we’ve got to look for the right opportunity and right timing. It’s just having that aggressive mindset and coming down with those plays. We want to throw the ball down the yard, but we’ve got to be smart about it and it’s all about completing it.”

The day before, head coach Mike Tomlin was asked whether Trubisky should take more shots downfield.

“I think he could, and we could.”

Offensive coordinator Matt Canada, the source of a lot of recent fan frustration, responded on Tuesday to Tomlin’s brief assessment.

“Obviously, there’s opportunities down the field that we’ve got to make,” Canada said. “I think Coach said the same thing, but I’m not going to stand up here and go through play-by-play what happened and all those things. ’We’ is me and us as a staff, and we’ll take it all and we’re going to keep getting Mitch in a position to make plays. We have to do that. We’ll continue to do that until we win.”

Not much will happen otherwise, and there are several reasons why the Steelers should be airing it out with more frequency and efficiency when they take the field tonight.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

Jul 27, 2022; Latrobe, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan (left) and quarterbacks Mitch Trubisky (10) and Kenny Pickett (8) and offensive coordinator Matt Canada (in white) and head coach Mike Tomlin (right) participate in training camp at Chuck Noll Field. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Before the 2022 season started, I hypothesized that with quarterback Kenny Pickett, and receivers George Pickens and Calvin Austin acquired in the draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers would have the opportunity to throw the ball deep as they really hadn’t in the last few years of the Ben Roethlisberger era.

In Big Ben’s final season, per Pro Football Focus, he completed 21 of 71 passes of 20 or more air yards for 686 yards, six touchdowns, three interceptions, and a passer rating of 77.9. It was obvious that the Steelers, led by offensive coordinator Matt Canada, wanted to push the ball downfield, but Roethlisberger just didn’t have the juice to get that done any longer.

Pickett, for all his Kirk Cousins/Matt Hasselbeck pre-draft comparisons, was pretty good with the deep ball at Pitt, and as Cousins was the NFL’s most prolific deep passer in 2021 (believe it or not), that particular comparison does jibe with Pickett’s sneaky-good arm. Austin was an underrated deep outside receiver at Memphis, and Pickens was an obvious downfield force multiplier at Georgia when he was healthy.

Right now, Pickett is on the bench in favor of Trubisky, whose passing chart in last Sunday’s 17-14 loss to the Patriots was… instructive.

(Next Gen Stats)

Austin is on injured reserve with a foot malady he suffered in the preseason opener, and he won’t be available until at least Week 5 of the season. As for Pickens, he’s the Steelers’ highest-targeted deep receiver, but he’s caught just one pass of 20 or more air yards on four targets for 23 yards. Pickens, Diontae Johnson, and tight end Pat Freiermuth each have one deep receptions this season for the Steelers, and that’s the end of it. To put that in perspective, there were four receivers in Week 2 (Tyreek Hill, D.J. Moore, Mike Williams, Courtland Sutton) who had two deep catches on their own.

This needs to change against the Browns on Thursday night, because Cleveland’s defense is ripe for the picking.

#FreeGeorgePickens

(Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports)

The Steelers stole Pickens with the 52nd overall pick in the second round of the 2022 draft; had he been healthy for the entire 2021 season, and played to his explosive potential, Pickens may well have been the first receiver selected in the draft.

The rookie showed more than enough in the preseason to be a focal point of this passing game. And he has been a focal point, but not in the most productive fashion.

Mark Kaboly of The Athletic recently pointed this out in his own study of Pittsburgh’s passing game:

Pickens has run 62 routes with vertical releases, most of them go routes (or fades in the red zone), according to data collected by The Athletic. For all but a handful of those routes, Pickens faced single coverage with no safety help. His role has been more about running off his cornerback with his 4.4 speed than being part of the offense.

There are instances in which Pickens is used as a decoy to create openings underneath, and that’s common. But there are also instances in which Pickett is able to beat his defender in those one-on-one matchups, and Trubisky just isn’t seeing it.

With 1:15 elapsed in the first quarter of last Sunday’s loss to the Patriots, Pickens (No. 14) ran a go route up the right boundary against cornerback Jonathan Jones (No. 30). Quick motion gives Trubisky the indicator that it’s Cover-1 — man coverage with a single-high safety. Jones on Pickens is a physical mismatch in Pittsburgh’s favor. But Trubisky instead throws (sort of) to tight end Pat Freiermuth (No. 88). This despite the fact that in rolling to his right, Trubisky gives himself more time to be comfortable with the deep read.

Cleveland's defense is an exploitable enemy.

(Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports)

Teams haven’t run a lot of deep stuff in a relative sense against the Browns this season, but based on the numbers, that should change with a quickness. Per Sports Info Solutions, Cleveland’s pass defense has allowed three completions of 20 or more air yards on six attempts for 172 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 135.4.

Last Sunday, in the New York Jets’ improbable comeback over the Browns, Joe Flacco completed two of five deep passes for 97 yards and a touchdown. The Jets’ most explosive passing play was the touchdown — a 67-yard play from Flacco to receiver Corey Davis in which Davis (No. 84) sauntered through Cleveland’s miscommunicating secondary as if he was strolling the aisles of his local supermarket. Meanwhile, the Browns were bury turning Cover-3 into Cover-0 in a literal sense.

Davis is a good receiver, but he is not in Pickens’ class when it comes to sheer acceleration.

Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski, performing recon in a short week, addressed his defense’s issues on Tuesday.

“You do have to fix issues that can be big plays and can go against you. That has been something that we have addressed, will continue to address, will continue to work at practice and those type of things and really make sure that they do not happen again because when they do, as we have talked about ad nauseum, it can hurt you.

“Bottom line, when you are playing defense – we have played really good defense at moments this year and at a lot of moments last season with a lot of the players that we are talking about – it is just about being about your business, doing our job and our coaches putting our players in position. It is really a collective effort.”

Does this sound like a team ready to deal with their opponent’s biggest threat as a receiver?

This may be the breaking point for the Steelers.

(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

The Steelers went with experience over potential at the game’s most important position when they chose to ride with Trubisky as opposed to Pickett. But it was clear in their draft strategy that this team was going all out to accentuate its vertical passing game, and if that’s something Trubisky can’t handle, it might be time to make Pickett the starter, and walk through whatever issues his inexperience will create.

As he showed in Ween 3 of the preseason against the Lions, Pickett is just fine with the concept of hitting his receivers downfield in tight windows. Miles Boykin (No. 13) would certainly agree.

Trubisky is at a career crossroad here. He’s got the receivers to throw deep, and he’s facing a defense reeling from unfortunate performances against the deep ball. It would seem to be now or never, as they say.

Story originally appeared on Touchdown Wire