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Steelers Analysis

7 Steelers Takeaways: Pittsburgh’s Everything Problem, Putrid Offense



PITTSBURGH — The Steelers feel like a directionless organization after suffering another loss to a lowly team in the Patriots. Is there anything that can be taken away from this game, and is there any hope to turn this ship around? If you go through all the negatives, it should not make you confident. Let’s check out the laundry list.

Game Management

Let’s talk about the first issue on the cache: game management. This one mostly goes down to timeout usage, costing the Steelers dearly. If they had stayed within themselves on this, they likely would have had a chance to get the football back at the end of the game for one more try. Instead, the team came out of the huddle in the red zone with six seconds left on the play clock, forcing them to call a timeout. Then, on a fourth-and-short, Pittsburgh sent the punt team out on the field, but Tomlin called a timeout, sending the offense back on for a quarterback sneak. When you dial up a third down play at the sticks, you better be prepared for that scenario already.

Steelers HC Mike Tomlin

Steelers HC Mike Tomlin against the Arizona Cardinals, Dec. 3, 2023 – Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

Instead, they needlessly burned two timeouts. This is something that has cropped up time and time again over the tenure of Mike Tomlin. Whether he needs someone else on his staff or not is not good enough for what this team needs. They have to maximize everything.

Frustration with George

George Pickens is frustrated. Again. But this time, it’s hard to blame him. The Steelers put together a putrid game plan to get Pickens involved, and over the last six games, he has averaged just five targets per game. For someone who looked like an actual top receiver, and, more than that, the best weapon in the passing offense, Pickens has just five receptions for 19 yards. Most of the ways to get him involved were stop routes or screens. But that’s not how you get a guy like Pickens going.

You can see it on his face, in his body language. I’m not even sure it’s frustration. Pickens seems almost apathetic. He is exhausted and not sure what to do. The offense would benefit from more targets for him, but there is no doubt that he is fully enraptured in a cycle that seems to not end for him.

“He’s probably frustrated,” receiver Diontae Johnson said. “My job is to just tell him to keep his head in the game. You can’t let one bad play define the game for you. Once you do that, you take yourself out of the game. I’m always there for him and trying to keep his head in the game. You have to keep his energy up. We need him. When his energy comes down, he doesn’t make those plays anymore.

Pickens is the alpha dog of the offense, or at least should be. Instead, the Steelers have him as docile as a top receiver should be. The effort stuff gets highlighted each week. It’s an issue. Maybe it’s a symptom of a broader issue. But these receivers are not the problem. They’re talented enough to make noise and fireworks happen. Pittsburgh just does not let them.

Same Things Come Up

The Steelers players sound like a broken record. Mike Tomlin gets testy in press conferences. You want to know why? I’ve been asking them the same things for 14 weeks. Very little has changed in this offense since Week 1, and you can argue they are even worse now. Mason Cole summed it up pretty well, but so did Johnson.

“You guys might want a colorful answer, but it’s really execution,” Cole said. “Like, that’s it. The stuff is there, we aren’t executing.”

“I think it comes down to execution,” Johnson said. “We can’t do much more than that. You just have to watch the film and get back to work. That’s all you can do.”

Steelers QB Coach Mike Sullivan

Steelers play caller Mike Sullivan against the New England Patriots, Dec. 7, 2023 – Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

That happens when the guys have little to no idea how to fix this. It’s basic things. Getting the play calls in on time, running the correct route depth, catching the football, lining up correctly, and communication gaffes. Everything is at the bottom of the pit. It has not improved, not one bit. The timing and rhythm are off. There are no details. That’s coaching. The players are not blameless, but when this happens, you must ask yourself ‘why’ at some point. That all comes after firing Matt Canada. The more things change, the more things stay the same.

Illegal Formation Continues

The Steelers got called for an illegal formation penalty again on Thursday. That comes after offensive coordinator Eddie Faulkner guaranteed it would not happen this week, despite putting it on film. Then, the bad snaps continued, too. It was like watching the same movie in the first half of this game.

“That was the first thing we addressed,” Faulkner said before the game. “Obviously, we made sure that everybody understood that it wasn’t acceptable. We did that collectively as a unit. And then we’ve got to move on. They were definitely held accountable. Everybody was held accountable for any mistakes that were made in that game, because that wasn’t what we were hunting. Now we plan forward for Thursday night.”

Take it for what it is, but the same things happened again. That’s on coaching. You can not let that happen when you go over the same play it occurred on, the toss play where they use pre-snap motion. If the details were the focus, they failed once again. Even basic things like lining up in legal formations are trouble for the offense.

Defensive Communication

You can somewhat make an excuse for this one because Cole Holcomb and Kwon Alexander were out. But it was clear the Steelers came into the game wanting Elandon Roberts to play on a snap count. But he could not do that. In the main part, the defense could not communicate a lick without him on the field. Roberts even stayed on the field on one play to relay the call and then ran off. The group was in disarray until he played through pain, and he knew he felt it, but he did it anyway.

Steelers LB Elandon Roberts

Steelers LB Elandon Roberts against the New England Patriots, Dec. 7, 2023 – Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

“I’m always the type of player, I will never use an excuse. I was out there. I was ready to go for my team,” Roberts said.

He gets it. But the team’s inability to even get the play calls in, let alone line them up correctly, was baffling. It’s like the second level had no idea what to do. You get that when two of your contributing linebackers are newly minted veterans in the building, I get that. But at some point, you have to get something going with another method than just the guys on the field. If Walker, Martinez, and Mark Robinson can not relay those calls, someone else on the defense must wear that green dot, or the coaching staff must devise an alternative method like hand signals.

The Tight End Strikes Again

Hunter Henry and JuJu Smith-Schuster were the Trey McBride-like equivalents of this game. Two big-bodied, physical receivers that the Patriots attacked over the middle of the field to make plays. More than that, Ezekiel Elliott turned out to be an exceptional performance. But that was mainly due to the Steelers putting their linebackers in bad spots. Mykal Walker got caught looking in the backfield and having to get to the flat far too often. Realistically, they put Walker in bad spots to succeed and did not adjust until it was far too late.

Patriots TE Hunter Henry

Patriots TE Hunter Henry catches a touchdown against the Steelers, Dec. 7, 2023 – Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

But the most problematic thing is that the Patriots went to the same gameplan that worked for the Cardinals. They hit the Steelers linebackers all night. Pittsburgh had no answer until they were suddenly down 21-3. Those adjustments should have been made during the week. It was known that this was the defense’s weakness. It felt like the Steelers did very little to cloud against that weakness and were repeatedly burnt for it.

Play Calling Falls Short

The Steelers’ play-calling woes continue. Even after Canada is gone, Mike Sullivan has the same tendencies that Canada did, if not worse. The big play call of the game, of course, was the 4th and 2 launch to Johnson that made little sense. Tomlin backed it up, saying the team wanted to be aggressive.

“It was, we were down there,” Tomlin said. “We play to win, we wanted to be aggressive. We just didn’t get it done.”

Steelers OC Eddie Faulkner

Pittsburgh Steelers interim offensive coordinator Eddie Faulkner before a game against the Arizona Cardinals on Dec. 3, 2023. — Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

Of course, they did not try to run it once in that scenario before the two-minute warning. But, they will run it on 2nd-and-17 after a botched double reverse. The Steelers do not have a coherent building process in their gameplan. More than that, when something finally works, they spam it. They can tendency break once in a blue moon, but the team will spam that until the team adjusts, and then run it some more before finally scrapping it out of the playbook. Plays do not build on each other to any meaningful point. The play sequencing continues to fall far short of where it needs to be.

It’s not good enough. I can think of many more play calls that boggled my mind. When you get bad quarterback play, and Mitch Trubisky was certainly terrible on Thursday night, the play-calling better make up for it. Instead, the Steelers defy all logic, and instead, hurt themselves the worst. They do not target weaknesses, and fight their hardest to put players in worse spots than they need to be. That’s a significant part of the problem, and the entire staff falls too short of where they need to be consistently. That’s a result of bad process, all the time.