Deep trouble? Steelers look to revive sluggish pass game
By WILL GRAVES
PITTSBURGH (AP) Mitch Trubisky won the starting quarterback job in Pittsburgh during training camp by basically not losing it.
He didn't turn the ball over during the preseason and won raves from the coaching staff for his decision-making.
That same pragmatic approach however, isn't playing so well now that the games count. And Trubisky knows it.
The Steelers (1-1) have put together two touchdown drives in two games heading into Thursday's visit to Cleveland (1-1), a ratio that needs to change if Pittsburgh wants to be a factor in what looks like a wide-open AFC North.
"We've just got to score more points," Trubisky said Tuesday. "So however we do that, that's got to be our mindset."
Therein lies the issue. Pittsburgh's biggest moves during the offseason were aimed at trying to jumpstart an offense that finished in the bottom third of the league in most major offensive categories.
The Steelers signed Trubisky and drafted eventual franchise quarterback Kenny Pickett, revamped the offensive line and added field-stretching 6-foot-3 wide receiver George Pickens to a wide receivers room that already featured Pro Bowler Diontae Johnson and 6-4 enigma Chase Claypool.
Yet through nine quarters, the deep passing game is non-existent. Trubisky is 32nd in the league in yards per attempt. His two longest completions have been to tight ends Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry on plays where Freiermuth's and Gentry's legs did most of the work while turning short tosses into 30-plus yard gains and Pickens - a standout during camp - has been basically invisible while catching two passes for 23 yards.
Coach Mike Tomlin declined to place blame on any one specific person, but added both the quarterback and the game plan could be more aggressive. Trubisky insists he doesn't need to be told twice.
"I think every quarterback in their heart likes to throw the ball as far as they can on the football field and watch their playmakers go up and get it," he said.
Trubisky's playmakers are waiting. Johnson became demonstrably upset at one point during last Sunday's 17-14 loss to New England after Trubisky went elsewhere with the ball on a play Johnson felt he had a matchup advantage.
Pickens estimates he was open "90%" of the time against the Patriots, a percentage more symbolic of Pickens' confidence than reality, a perception that's fine by his head coach.
"We've got playmakers, young playmakers, guys with a lot of talent, guys that want to be the reasons why we're successful," Tomlin sad. "I'd much rather say `whoa' than `sic'em.' I think that's just a general attitude that we as competitors in a competitive football team in a competitive organization have."
It's an attitude Trubisky insists he shares, though he's also quick to point out that he doesn't need to start channeling Kansas City star Patrick Mahomes and chuck the ball all over the field. A little bit of daring might go a long way with a defense that looks significantly improved over last year's group that finished last in the league against the run.
"There's a fine line between protecting the football and (wanting) to be aggressive," Trubisky said. "So you want to be aggressive as a quarterback. But when you have a great defense (like we do), you also want to protect the football because they're always going to keep us in games."
Maybe, but the Steelers are currently missing All-Pro outside linebacker T.J. Watt, who is out indefinitely with a left pectoral injury. Pittsburgh didn't have a sack against the Patriots and produced just one turnover after racking up five in Week 1 in Cincinnati.
If Pittsburgh wants to do more than tread water in Watt's absence, the offense needs to pick things up. The Steelers got off to a similar sluggish start last season and recovered to make the playoffs.
It's far too early to panic, especially in a season that now stretches well past New Year's and the offense is incredibly young. Pittsburgh's longest-tenured offensive starter is right tackle Chuks Okorafor, who is in his fifth season. Trubisky has been in offensive coordinator Matt Canada's system for a handful of months. Every starting skill position player has been in the NFL four years or less.
Canada used the words "grow" or "growth" multiple times on Tuesday, essentially saying the Steelers need to trust the process. It's a sentiment echoed by the 21-year-old Pickens, who's only been a pro since May but understands how quickly perceptions and production can change.
"Somebody might catch a 90-yard bomb (on Thursday)," Pickens said. "And now everybody is excited again. So it can happen at any time."
The sooner the better in Pittsburgh.
NOTES: LB Devin Bush (foot) practiced on Tuesday and is expected to play in Cleveland. ... The Steelers signed WR Jaquarii Roberson to the practice squad and released CB Mark Gilbert.
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Updated September 20, 2022