The Pittsburgh Steelers head into Sunday’s game against the New Orleans Saints at Acrisure Stadium with every hope on the line. For decades the Steelers have made unlikely comebacks a routine and on Sunday we’ll see if the black and gold can hold out hope until at least Thanksgiving.
Something drastic has to happen to the Pittsburgh offense. Steelers rookie flagger Kenny Pickett called on the entire team to prepare ahead of the bye week after an embarrassing 35-13 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.
“We have to study more,” Pickett told the media after the Eagles game. “I don’t think we study enough in groups.”
Pickett is the de facto leader of the offense and despite his attempt to motivate the group, he has enough with his own game to keep them busy. He’s 1-3 as a starter, and that win can arguably be attributed to a heroic performance from Mitch Trubisky in relief. He threw two touchdowns for eight interceptions and rushed for two more touchdowns since taking the field.
Pickett was trying to step up, but when you’re not playing on a struggling team, teammates rarely listen. On Tuesday, head coach Mike Tomlin held his weekly press conference and he didn’t agree with his rookie quarterback’s view.
“I don’t know what he was referring to here,” Tomlin said. “I’m not going to try to add color to an opinion. I believe our guy is studying at an appropriate level, and I saw him continuously throughout the process. I’m not going to add color to an opinion that I don’t know very well.
Tomlin has a tough job to do and faces the steepest climb to field a competitive team of his career. The Steelers have gone four games under .500 before, but the offense had a Hall of Fame quarterback and was littered with All-Pro performers. The 2022 offense is unlikely to feature a Pro Bowl player at this point and Tomlin won’t change his coaching philosophy or style because a rookie quarterback complains.
“Kenny, he speaks for himself,” said coordinator Matt Canada. “We have to play better. We have to save things. We cannot make the same mistakes over and over again. I think that’s probably what he was talking about.
Matt Canada received backing from several Steelers insiders last week who suggested the game’s design wasn’t to blame for the offense’s difficulties. The consensus among those supporting Canada was that any additional education requirements should be directed to Pickett himself.
The fans have all seen the diagrams. Short passing passes topped the Steelers passing chart under Trubisky, Pickett and even Ben Roethlisberger last season. That doesn’t mean those are the only routes available to Pickett when he comes down to pass and it’s up to him to find different places to throw.
Pat Freiermuth will work in areas where athletically athletic Chase Claypool was running routes, and the change could be significant. Defenses should attempt to cover Freiermuth with linebackers and safeties. A security blanket relationship between Pickett and Freiermuth could develop quickly.
Roethlisberger and Heath Miller developed a similar unspoken bond that became an important weapon during the dynamic duo’s long career. Roethlisberger talked about it recently Soccer with Ben Roethlisberger podcast.
“If I had to honestly pick a Steeler,” Roethlisberger said in response to who his favorite receiver was. “I would say probably Heath Miller. He’s a good friend. He’s just one of the best teammates I’ve ever had. Just a solid salt of the earth kind of guy.
Tomlin and the Pittsburgh front office paved the way for Pickett to start making that same connection with Freiermuth and if the offense starts to improve significantly in the second half of the season, that pairing will likely be a big key.
If Tomlin and Canada can impress on the rookie that the current offense can work, the Steelers could have a special second half in 2022. It would also mean that despite heavy criticism, the Steelers have recognized a significant and misplaced mismatch the chess pieces needed to operate this.