PITTSBURGH — For the first half of the 2023 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers did a pretty good job of maximizing the team’s ability.
The Steelers weren’t playing dominant overall football, but they were winning games thanks to a specific formula. The Steelers didn’t turn the ball over on offense, they created turnovers on defense, and they found a way to get just good enough play out of Kenny Pickett in the fourth quarter to scratch out some wins.
They did that despite having one of the worst offenses in the league, a defense that was good but not as great as it wants to be, and very inconsistent special teams.
It seemed unlikely that scenario would continue to play out the rest of the season. Water would eventually find its level.
Instead, there was a full-blown change of tide. After using their formula to beat several good teams earlier in the year, the Steelers didn’t do anything right in consecutive losses to 2-10 teams over the last five days. Instead of doing enough to get by, the Steelers didn’t do enough to do almost anything right.
Which leads to two big questions: What happened? And what happens now?
What happened to the Steelers?
The results that they had earlier this season failing to continue was predictable. At some point, Pickett was going to be unable to lead that last scoring drive, or the defense wasn’t going to get the big turnover, or the offense was going to turn the ball over itself, no matter how bad it tried not to.
That process started four weeks ago against the Cleveland Browns. The Browns used an offensive game plan with backup quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson that was so vanilla, it made it nearly impossible for the Steelers to get a turnover. Of course, the Browns only scored 13 points in the game, but they didn’t let the Steelers defense help the Steelers offense.
That unit had one of its worst games of the season, and couldn’t come up with a big play. The Browns eventually clawed out one last field goal against the Steelers defense, and that was enough to win the game, because the offense couldn’t do anything.
That loss precipitated the firing of offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who had at that point, led the Steelers to an average of 16.6 points per game. In the three games since Canada’s firing, the Steelers have averaged 14.6 points per game.
Canada’s replacements, the previously unheard of arrangement of offensive coordinator Eddie Faulkner and offensive play-caller Mike Sullivan, have not been an improvement.
Faulkner ascended to the offensive coordinator position because of his success as a running backs coach, where he was known as a creative leader that got buy-in from his players and preached focus and attention to detail.
Since he’s become the offensive coordinator, the Steelers offense has been beset by so, so many miscues, mental errors and sloppy play. After taking two illegal formation penalties against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, they took another one on Thursday. After burning a second-half timeout for not having enough players in the huddle on Thursday, they wasted one because they couldn’t get a play in on time.
George Pickens spent most of the game pouting, either on the field when he didn’t get the ball, or on the sideline, yelling at teammates. There is nothing cohesive, disciplined or bought in about the Steelers offense right now. The areas that Faulkner figured to be able to make an impact in have actually gotten worse.
So has the play-calling under Sullivan. The Steelers had so many opportunities to beat the Patriots in the second half, but their offensive game plan seemed allergic to taking any kind of a shot down the field. In the two quick-change instances, the Steeles were given the ball at the 16 and 26-yard lines by the defense and special teams, respectively. Both times, their first play was an inside handoff to Najee Harris.
That is a classic situation to dial up a deep shot and make the other team pay for putting you in good position. They didn’t. You know when they tried that deep shot? On consecutive plays at 3rd and 2 and 4th and 2 with the game on the line, when they only needed about 20 yards to attempt a game-tying field goal.
It was just a clusterfuck of cosmic proportions. I apologize for the profanity. I can’t come up with a non-profane way to describe it. As bad as Canada was as the Steelers offensive coordinator, his replacements have been much, much worse.
The same can be said at quarterback, where Pickett will miss several weeks with a high ankle sprain that required surgery. Pickett was not having a very good season. He’s 25th in passer rating, 26th in QBR, 26th in completion percentage and 23rd in adjusted net years per attempt.
Every quarterback behind him in passer rating that’s thrown enough to qualify either has been benched or is himself a backup, except for rookie Bryce Young.
Which naturally, led for some in Steelers nation to call for Pickett to be benched. After all, the Steelers have an experienced backup in Mitch Trubisky, who couldn’t possibly be that much worse, right?
Wrong. Trubisky threw one interception against the Patriots and probably should have thrown three. One was called back for a defensive penalty. A third was dropped. Trubisky has three interceptions in 84 attempts this season. Pickett has four in 324.
In all of those stats that I just lined up that showed that Pickett was one of the worst quarterbacks in the league, Trubisky is worse. Pickett has completed 62% of his passes, Trubisky 60.7%. Pickett has an 81.4 passer rating and a 38.1 QBR. Trubisky has a 72.7 rating and a 35.5 QBR. Pickett’s ANY/Y is 5.29. Trubisky’s is 4.15.
There were chants from the crowd during the game to replace Trubisky with Mason Rudolph, as if that would help. This offensive coaching staff might not be good at much, but they did at least figure out which quarterback was best.
On defense, the diagnosis is easier. The Steelers have been beset by injuries at the linebacker position, forcing practice squad players Mykal Walker and Blake Martinez and inexperienced youngster Mark Robinson into prominent roles over the last two games.
The Arizona Cardinals took advantage, using tight end Trey McBride over the middle over and over again to beat the Steelers. Given a chance to re-set for the Patriots, the Steelers made no perceptible changes, and were beaten by exactly the same stuff.
The Steelers defense has several great playmakers. T.J. Watt is one of the best defensive players in the history of the league, let alone right now. Cam Heyward, Alex Highsmith and Minkah Fitzpatrick are stars in their own right. Patrick Peterson has come around after a slow start with a new team. Elandon Roberts has been a revelation. Youngsters Joey Porter Jr. and Keeanu Benton continue to show progress.
This should be one of the best defenses in the NFL. Instead, it gave up three touchdowns to the Patriots in the first half, after the Patriots had failed to score one in over 90 minutes of game time entering play on Thursday.
Where the offensive coaching has fallen short on details, the defensive side of the ball has been unable to come up with scheme answers for what opponents want to do to it. The problems with tight ends aren’t even new — Evan Engram gashed a mostly-healthy center of the Steelers defense with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
In 2022, the Steelers spent most of the season without Watt, and finished 10th in scoring defense and 14th in yards. This season, with a healthy Watt, though without Heyward and Fitzpatrick for stretches, they’re 12th in scoring and 27th in yards. The defense got the best player in the world back and has gotten worse.
How? It’s hard to say exactly, but the easy answer is that the departure of Brian Flores from the coaching staff really hurt. The Steelers seemed to find something that works when it added Teryl Austin to the defensive coaching staff as a senior defensive assistant to work alongside defensive coordinator Keith Butler. When Butler was not retained in 2022, Austin was promoted and Flores took the spot at his side. That two-man arrangement seemed productive.
The Steelers did not replace Flores when he left to become the defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings are seventh in scoring defense and 12th in yards allowed. Flores has made headlines for having success with a defensive plan he picked up while in Pittsburgh. Not one he borrowed from the Steelers — but from Pitt’s Pat Narduzzi. That’s embarrassing. If the Steelers chose between Austin and Flores, they picked the wrong one. If they chose between one veteran defensive mind and two, they made the wrong choice.
The Steelers have also been up-and-down this year on special teams. Chris Boswell has been elite, and Miles Killebrew has blocked one punt and partially blocked another. But the returns units have been below average on both sides and the Steelers have been far too highly penalized, considering the number of special teams-only players they have on their roster.
It adds up to a team that has been poorly coached. They lack discipline, they make mental mistakes, and they repeat mistakes from week to week.
That doesn’t mean that Mike Tomlin isn’t a good coach or can’t be one, but he is responsible for the totality of the output of his staff, and that has been — to use his words — below the line.
What happens now?
You’re probably reading this alongside calls for the Steelers to fire Mike Tomlin. That might happen. It probably won’t. Let’s get into why.
Let’s look at the big problems with the Steelers we identified above.
The Steelers made a bad hire of Canada as the team’s offensive coordinator in 2021 and compounded that hire by letting him keep his job entering the 2023, and then further compounded that by not adding a single capable potential replacement to the staff.
They may have missed in drafting Pickett at No. 20 in the 2022 NFL Draft, although as bad as their offensive scheme has been, it’s honestly been hard to tell.
They have not been able to corral the personalities in the locker room and get buy-in from players in order to play sound football. Tomlin preaches making “routine plays routinely.” That is the very antithesis of what the Steelers are right now.
They also didn’t keep the right voice of their defensive leadership tandem and didn’t replace the one that left with anyone of significance.
So, whose fault is all of that? And does someone deserve to be fired for letting all that happen?
I’m not sure we have enough information to really say.
It was reported at the time that Canada was hired that it was Rooney’s choice. Did Tomlin want him? Did he ask for him to be fired before the 2023 season? Did he ask to hire additional coaches with significant NFL experience in support of Canada?
Why were the Steelers unable to retain Flores? Was it money? Opportunity for advancement? Something else? Who made the decision to not replace him, and why?
Was it Tomlin not wanting to water down his influence in the room? Did Art Rooney II not want to open his ledger book to pay what an experienced coach that wasn’t currently a pariah around the league would demand?
Who was the driving force behind picking Pickett? Was it Tomlin? Was it already-departed general manger Kevin Colbert? Was it Rooney himself, who admitted immediately after the selection that he wasn’t keen about letting a star Pitt quarterback go past, as his father had done with Dan Marino in 1983?
Tomlin is only member of the Steelers’ decision-making troika that regularly speaks with the media. As a result, he often characterizes their decisions as his decisions, partially because it would be disingenuous for him to say that someone else made them, and then the team not make those individuals available to be accountable. Tomlin is a figurehead for the team’s decisions, and that’s a role that he’s comfortable with, but that doesn’t mean he makes them all.
Not many people outside those three know who advocated for what decisions to be made. If Tomlin was the primary reason that things are the way they are, then he should not be allowed to be the one to make the decisions about how this coaching staff will be rebuilt.
However, if those decisions were primarily made with finances in mind — if the Steelers didn’t fire Canada because they didn’t want to pay two people to be offensive coordinator in one season and they weren’t able to keep Flores or attract a replacement because they didn’t want to spend the money necessary to do so, then firing Tomlin will likely only exacerbate, not help, the team’s coaching problems.
Tomlin is an all-time great coach. He has a spot waiting in the Hall of Fame already. That doesn’t mean that he can’t be fired. But it certainly changes the stakes for finding a replacement.
A lot of head coaches get hired in the NFL every year. The Steelers haven’t missed on a hire since the 1960s. That’s probably more good fortune than some kind of cosmic certainty. Life after Tomlin might not be an improvement, especially if it’s been the Steelers holding him back and not the other way around.
At the end of the day, big changes must be made, possibly including the head coach. But part of the positive of coaching being the problem, is that the trajectory of the on-field talent level seems positive.
The team’s 2023 draft class that was so lauded his offseason has been excellent so far. If Omar Khan, Andy Weidl and company can continue to navigate offseasons as well as they did this year, the Steelers could have a very strong team sooner rather than later. You could argue they’re only a quarterback away from that place as it is.
This doesn’t need to turn into a long rebuild. It doesn’t need to be a reset of the work in that regard that has already been done. This is not a tear-it-down-to-the-studs renovation project. The change doesn’t have to be seismic. But it does have to be significant.