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Saunders: Loss to Cardinals Reveals Hard Truth about Steelers Offense



Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Picket runs with the ball against the Arizona Cardinals on Dec. 3, 2023. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

PITTSBURGH — If there’s one thing that was made clear by the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 24-10 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, it’s that Matt Canada was not the one thing that was holding back the Pittsburgh offense.

Canada was fired before the Steelers’ Week 13 win over the Cincinnati Bengals and replaced by the combination of interim offensive coordinator Eddie Faulkner and quarterbacks coach and offensive play-caller Mike Sullivan.

There wasn’t really a lot of good reason for optimism that the team would be able to do a lot better with Faulkner and Sullivan than they had with Canada. The players remain the same. The plays remain the same, as it’s far too late in the season to attempt anything more than the most cursory of changes to the playbook. 

The one area that there might’ve been hope for was that the firing would serve as a wake-up call and Faulkner, noted by his running backs as an especially detail-oriented coach, might help clean up some mistakes from the offense even if he couldn’t completely fix it.

You can now solidly throw that optimism out the window, too. The Steelers offense played its worst game of the season on Sunday, scoring just 10 points against an opposite unit that entered 31st in EPA per play — and needing a down-three-scores garbage time drive to do that. Meanwhile, they made mental mistakes galore and were called “JV” by head coach Mike Tomlin in the aftermath.

Steelers OC Matt Canada

Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada at practice on Sept. 27, 2023 – Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

The running game continues to look solid, if not spectacular, and the score getting out of hand prevented the Steelers from really capitalizing on success in that area. They also dealt with some major third-down issues that kept the offense from having more opportunities throughout.

Third-down issues and red-zone problems — for the second week in a row — are probably to be expected when the person calling the plays didn’t design the offense and hasn’t called plays of any kind since 2017. Steelers right tackle Broderick Jones was in 10th grade then.

Sullivan’s two tenures as NFL offensive coordinators were fairly unmitigated failures. Faulkner held the position on an interim basis for a few weeks when he was at Ball State in the early 2000s.

They are nice men. Hard workers. Good team players. Faulkner might be a pretty good running backs coach, especially if any of the development of Jaylen Warren can be attributed to him.

But it’s very clear that they’re not the answer at offensive coordinator. The Steelers made the extremely unusual step of firing a coordinator mid-season, doing so for the first time since World War II. They did that to try to find out if the personality of the play-caller and the way he went about his day-to-day business was the problem with the offense.

The answer is that it is not.

Steelers OC Eddie Faulkner

Pittsburgh Steelers interim offensive coordinator Eddie Faulkner in a game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Nov. 26, 2023. — Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

Kenny Pickett development the key

With quarterback Kenny Pickett suffering an ankle injury that will have him sidelined for at least this week and likely several more, the Steelers will get the chance to see if Pickett was that big problem, too.

From this seat, it seems unlikely. Pickett has been slightly but consistently better than backup Mitch Trubisky when he’s played this season, and Trubisky has little remaining upside at 29 years old.

The Steelers might win with Trubisky. They’re favored by a touchdown over New England Patriots on Thursday and have a fairly approachable schedule the rest of the way.

But I’m extremely skeptical that the change at quarterback is going to make the offense suddenly look much better.

While Pickett’s injury will give the team the opportunity to see how it looks with another passer, it will rob Pickett of the ability to right his play on his own. Pickett has been ever so slightly better than he was as a rookie in 2022 this season, but he has not been nearly good enough.

Physically, he’s getting the job done for the most part. But Pickett’s decision-making in terms of finding open receivers, getting the ball out on time, and especially in dealing with the rush, has been well below the line.

It’s clear that Pickett’s development is flailing, and really, that shouldn’t be a surprise, either. That was the biggest red flag when it came to the team deciding to enter the season with Canada as offensive coordinator.

Yes, the Steelers avoided Pickett needing to learn an entirely new system and scheme in his second season, but Canada has never developed a quarterback at the NFL level and he wasn’t exactly known for it in college, either. His scheme was built on motions, shifts and unique ways to get ahead in the running game. Even his best college teams had quarterbacks as mostly passengers, not stars.

The Steelers also didn’t put anyone around him that had the quarterback development bona fides that Canada lacked. Sullivan had worked with Eli Manning for a few years, but let’s not pretend that he needed a lot of external development. Shockingly, the Steelers coaching staff this year doesn’t possess a single member that even played quarterback in college.

This offseason, the Steelers are going to hire a new offensive coordinator. The biggest takeaway from the embarrassing loss to the Cardinals needs to be that it must come from outside the organization. The Steelers cannot continue to put Pickett out there without giving him the coaching tools that he needs to succeed.

If the Steelers hire a coach that’s a proven quarterback developer, someone like Pep Hamilton, who shepherded the start of Andrew Luck’s career in Indianapolis, Darrell Bevell, who has overseen a career year for Tua Tagovialoa with Miami or Klint Kubiak, who helped Brock Purdy’s continued emergence as a star in San Francisco, and that coach can’t get Pickett right, then perhaps he can’t be fixed.

But the Steelers won’t find out for sure until he plays for someone with a proven track record of success.