There are a lot of opinions on the Steelers starting quarterback Mitch Trubisky. And a lot of it has nothing to do with Mitch Trubisky himself. There are people who see the offense struggling, and the passing game specifically, and immediately blame the quarterback. There are people who defend him because they think Matt Canada, or Mike Tomlin, is the real problem with the offense. People who want Kenny Pickett because they are fans of Kenny Pickett and people who want Kenny Pickett because it’s something new, or they are desperate for a franchise quarterback and Pickett was a first round pick. There’s people who defend Trubisky because they don’t think Pickett is that guy. And then there are people who just want to watch the franchise burn.
There are people with highly informed opinions that support Trubisky or want him replaced, but most of the opinions I see on the quarterback situation fall into the categories from the first paragraph. So for people who want a more informed opinion, but don’t have the time or resources to research and come up with a more informed opinion, I’m here. I have the time, and I get paid to do this, so let’s dig into the numbers and film and see if we can’t figure out Mitch Trubisky and why he isn’t working.
I know I’m going to get comments like “You could have saved your effort, I could have told you Trubisky/Canada/Tomlin/Harris/Bradshaw is trash.” But that’s okay, this article is for the people who want more information. If you don’t want or need any more, feel free to skip the rest of the article and post your thoughts directly into the comments. Also feel free to tweet a link to the article telling people that the author is an idiot. You’d be surprised how many people click on articles that way.
Mitch Trubisky and the deep ball
One of the most ill-informed complaints we hear about Trubisky and the Steelers passing game is that the team doesn’t throw deep. That the offense is dink and dunk and doesn’t even try to be aggressive. That feeling you have from watching the games isn’t accurate, but it is understandable. If you are sitting there thinking the Steelers don’t throw deep you are wrong, but you are also kind of right, I’ll get to that part in a bit.
First, Trubisky is second in the NFL in deep passes by Pro Football Focus’s standard (targeting a receiver 20+ yards downfield) with 19. Mac Jones leads the NFL with 20. If you prefer Pro Football Reference and their 15+ yard distinction for deep passes, Trubisky is tied for second with 27, again trailing Mac Jones who has 28.
The problem isn’t the Steelers not throwing downfield.
Downfield throw efficiency, however, is not good. Trubisky has completed only 33.3% of his throws 15+ yards downfield. Only Jared Goff, who is known for not having a strong arm or good deep ball has attempted at least 20 passes 15+ yards downfield and completed a lower percentage. But that isn’t even the real problem. It’s more of a symptom of the problem.
Because when you look at the quarterbacks having a lot of success in the NFL right now, none of them are throwing deep at a rate close to Trubisky. The most dangerous passer throwing deep in the 2022 NFL season so far has been Tua Tagovailoa at 23 yards per deep throw (PFR) has attempted 10 fewer deep balls than Trubisky has. Tagovailoa has attempted 12 more total passes than Trubisky. If you look at percentage of passes that are 15+ yards downfield, Trubisky has one of the highest rates. Mac Jones and Trey Lance have higher rates of downfield throws than Trubisky, but here’s Trubisky’s deep throw rate against other notable players, and each quarterback’s overall passer rating.
(I’m using PFR’s 15+ downfield measurement for this since their stats are easier to sort through and edit)
Mac Jones: 28.9% deep, 76.2 passer rating
Mitchell Trubisky: 26.2% deep, 77.7 passer rating
Lamar Jackson: 22.7% deep, 119.0 passer rating
Jared Goff: 20.5% deep, 92.4 passer rating
Tom Brady: 16.5% deep, 89.2 passer rating
Jalen Hurts: 16.3% deep, 106.5 passer rating
Tua Tagovailoa: 14.8% deep, 109.9 passer rating
Joe Burrow: 14.7% deep, 91.3 passer rating
Josh Allen: 12.1% deep, 109.8 passer rating
Patrick Mahomes: 11.9% deep, 112.1 passer rating
Aaron Rogers: 11.7% deep, 98 passer rating
Jacoby Brissett: 7.6% deep, 94.3 passer rating
It may surprise people to see the top tier quarterbacks in the NFL throw deep less than half as often as Trubisky has in 2022. Even with their higher efficiency, those quarterbacks don’t rank near the top in completions 15+ yards downfield, Josh Allen ranks 12th, Patrick Mahomes 24th and Aaron Rogers 27th in downfield completions. And while Tagovailoa leads the NFL in yards and is tied for first in completion percentage and deep completions, he throws deep a significantly lower percentage of the time than Trubisky.
I would argue that Trubisky’s deep throws are a problem, and not only because they don’t complete those passes, but because the high percentage of deep throws is caused by a much bigger problem that is the real problem with the Steelers offense.
Mitch Trubisky’s big problem
If Trubisky’s problem isn’t his deep throws, then what is it? It’s his short throws. His throws that go fewer than 15 yards downfield. Trubisky ranks 2nd in deep throws, but he ranks 26th in passes thrown 15 or fewer yards. He has a completion percentage of 71.6% on those throws, which is good for 12th best in the league, and his 2 touchdowns and 0 interceptions on those throws isn’t anything to complain much about. But his yards per pass attempt is 4.7, and that ranks 32nd out of 37 quarterbacks who have thrown at least 10 passes. His yards per catch is last in the NFL at 6.58 yards per catch.
And the worst stat overall is the Steelers yards after catch, which is second worst in the NFL at 175 yards. Worse yet is the last place team is Chicago who has 145 yards after the catch but has only thrown 45 passes this season compared to the Steelers 103. If you look at yards after the catch per pass completion, The Pittsburgh Steelers rank dead last in the NFL. In 2021 with as anemic as that passing game was, the Steelers ranked 26th with 4.8 yards after catch per pass completion. Significantly better than the Steelers 2.8 yards after the catch per completion in 2022.
And that is the real problem, because the Steelers 6.4 air yards per completion is pretty good, ranking 12th in the NFL. If the Steelers yards after catch were at the 4.8 mark they were in 2021, this offense would rank 14th in the NFL in yards per completion, instead they rank 30th.
Yards after the catch can be an offensive scheme problem, but most of the time it is a quarterback problem, or at best a quarterback and receiver problem where the timing and chemistry just isn’t there. For example, I pointed out that Diontae Johnson’s yards after the catch were not good last season at 4.9 yards after the catch per reception. But in the 2022 season, so far, that number is 0.4. Diontae Johnson has caught 21 passes this season and gained 8 yards after the catch. That is terrible.
The best wide receiver in terms of yards after the catch per reception for the Steelers in 2022 is Chase Claypool with 1.4 yards after the catch per reception. Meanwhile Zach Gentry ranks higher than any wide receiver and third in total yards after the catch on the team with 40. He has two receptions. Last season in 5 games JuJu Smith-Schuster gained 68 yards after the catch in 5 games, and his 4.5 yards after the catch was not good at all. No Steeler wide receiver is even close to that pace right now.
Last season we debated whether it was Ben Roethlisberger’s limitations due to health combined with the offensive line being bad or Matt Canada’s offense causing the problem. With it being much worse this year with a much better pass blocking offensive line and the same offensive coordinator, it’s hard to argue that Mitchell Trubisky can be exempted from receiving a large chunk of the blame.
In part two we are going to dig into the film to explore why this problem is so bad, what the Steelers can do to work around it with Mitch Trubisky, and if Kenny Pickett or Mason Rudolph could be a better option at quarterback.