HOUSTON — Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin promised changes after his team’s 30-6 loss to the Houston Texans on Sunday.
Tomlin was emphatic when asked if he would consider making changes to the way his team operates.
“Hell yeah, we’ve got to make some changes, man,” Tomlin said following the loss. “That was an ugly product we put out there today. We’re not going to do the same things and hope for a different outcome. What those changes are, we’ll put together a plan in preparation this week.”
That’s fine to say. But there are only so many changes that can be enacted in one week’s time. It’s difficult for a football team to change who it is or what it does in the middle of a season.
But there are things the team could certainly be doing differently. Here are three changes that Mike Tomlin should have already made.
FIND SOMEONE TO HELP PICKETT
There was a nonsensical report out last week that said that the Steelers were giving offensive coordinator Matt Canada a bigger role in the development of quarterback Kenny Pickett.
As coordinator, Canada was already heavily involved in the development of Pickett, so that really made no sense. Tomlin, Canada and Pickett all denied the report.
Even if it had been true, it wouldn’t have been a good idea. Even approaching Canada’a track record as an offensive coordinator favorably, he’s never been some kind of quarterback whispered. His best collegiate offenses relied on strong running games and system quarterbacks like Jacoby Brissett and Nate Peterman.
There’s nothing wrong with operating that kind of offense. The Tennessee Titans just smashed the Cincinnati Bengals doing that. The Minnesota Vikings have looked a lot like that in the recent past, too.
But let’s not mistake what those teams are doing for great quarterback play. You wouldn’t call up Titans offensive coordinator Tim Kelly to develop your first-round quarterback, would you?
The Steelers have two other assistant coaches on the offensive staff that could and perhaps should be filling that role. Mike Sullivan is the team’s quarterbacks coach. He has developed exactly one NFL quarterback: Eli Manning, from his time as the New York Giants offensive coordinator. That was a long time ago, and it’s not clear how much developing Manning really needed, anyway.
It’s clear that Pickett is not progressing the way the Steelers hoped. Even before his injury on Sunday, Pikett was 77 of 127 (60.6%) for 803 yards and a 76.3 passer rating. Some of that could be attributed to the scheme, but Pickett has actually been worse in 2023 than he was in 2022 in the same offense.
The Steelers added Glen Thomas as an offensive assistant before this season. Thomas worked with Matt Ryan in Atlanta during the middle of his time there, leaving before the Falcons got to the Super Bowl. It doesn’t seem like he is the answer, either.
Pickett’s injury throws a wrench into enacting this plan right now, but it’s something that will need to be done eventually. Canada’s scheme has not done Pickett any favors, but he has not developed the way he should even within the constraints of that scheme. That should be alarming to the team that made him a first-round draft pick and hiring someone to be a “quarterback whisperer” to get him on the right track should be a priority.
STOP USING PAT FREIERMUTH LIKE A TIGHT END
Pat Freiermuth is a tight end. Clearly. However, not all players at that position are made equally. Freiermuth is a decent route runner and has good hands. He is not a very good blocker. He has been an especially poor run blocker this season. Perhaps the chest injury that he suffered earlier this season is still impacting him.
Either way, the Steelers are inviting more-loaded boxes in the running game by playing Freiermuth like a traditional tight end, and then he’s losing his one-on-one matchup. They’d be better off spreading the defense out and trying to run against lighter boxes, something the Houston Texans just did to them quite successfully.
But the Steelers don’t really have the wide receiver depth that run four wides all game. They can, however, use Freiermuth as a receiver. Last season, he was the second-most effective tight end in all of football in terms of yards per route run as a flexed-out tight end.
With Diontae Johnson out, Freiermuth is no worse than the team’s fourth-best wide receiver, anyway, and might be better than that.
If the hold-up to this plan is the team not trusting rookie Darnell Washington to get in-line job done enough, the team can always go get Zach Gentry back from Cincinnati’s practice squad.
The drafting of Washington seems to indicate the front office would prefer that Freiermuth be used in this fashion, anyway, so there should be little hold up.
DRESS BREIDEN FEHOKO
Breiden Fehoko is not a game-changer of an NFL player. He’s really only good at one thing. But the Steelers are really struggling at that one thing right now.
Fehoko is a pure run plugger, and the Steelers’ run D, especially operating without Cam Heyward, could really use the help right now. The Steelers gave up 81 yards to Dameon Pierce on Sunday and another 25 to backup Devin Singletary.
The Steelers will wake up on Monday morning ranked 29th in the NFL in run defense. It’s a huge problem. Fehoko getting a helmet is an obvious step toward solving it.