The Steelers upset the Buccaneers 20-18 on Sunday, in large part because of contributions from Matt Canada, Mitchell Trubisky, Chase Claypool and Devin Bush. Those four individuals have been the favorite scapegoats of the fan base this season, yet on Sunday they found redemption with their performance. Here, in my “3 & Out” column, I look at their contributions against the Bucs, with some food for thought at the end.
Let’s get this out of the way up front: it was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a stellar performance by the offense. There, I’ve said the obvious. It did represent progress though, particularly from the team’s beleaguered coordinator, Matt Canada.
For the second straight week, Canada scripted a creative opening drive. The offense went 66 yards in 11 plays for a touchdown, mixing five passes with six runs. Canada spread the ball around, with six different players touching it, and mixed things up by running timing routes, RPOs, zone runs, jet sweeps and a nicely designed passing concept to Najee Harris for the touchdown.
The scoring play began with the Steelers aligned in a compressed 2x2 set, with Harris in the backfield to the right of Kenny Pickett. The Bucs locked on in man coverage and brought a six-man pressure, expecting Harris to stay in to pick up the blitz. Therefore, they didn’t assign anyone to cover him, opting instead to let their free safety squat at the goal line. Pittsburgh ran crossing routes to clear out the far side of the field, and Harris, rather than protect, snuck into the opposite flat, where Pickett hit him for a walk-in touchdown:
Canada has scripted several productive opening drives this season. At Buffalo, the offense went 50 yards in 12 plays and kicked a field goal on its first possession. Against Cleveland, they went 38 yards in 8 plays before a penalty derailed the drive. The problem has been everything that comes after. When given a week to study an opposing defense and script plays against it, Canada has found some success. Once off his script, however, he has not.
Following that pattern, the offense quickly bogged down against the Bucs. They garnered just 59 yards on 31 plays on their next six drives. This included a horrendous possession at the end of the first half where the Steelers handed Tampa three points by throwing incomplete with the ball deep in their own territory when three rushing plays would have run out the clock. Fortunately, the defense kept Pittsburgh in the game. They led 13-12 when Pickett left with a concussion in the 3rd quarter. Trubisky entered, the offense promptly went 3-and-out, and the odds the Steelers would score another point seemed slim.
Then, on Pittsburgh’s following possession, Canada found something. Trubisky made a great throw to George Pickens on a 3rd and 13 to keep the drive alive. Pittsburgh then ran the ball twice to bring up 3rd and 6. Knowing Tampa would substitute to bring out its coverage players, Canada had Trubisky snap the ball almost immediately. This caught the Bucs off guard and drew two flags on them — one for too many men on the field, and the other for defensive offsides, as their linemen attempting to exit were caught behind the line of scrimmage when the ball was snapped. Meanwhile, play continued, and in the ensuing chaos, Trubisky found Connor Heyward wide open down the seam for a huge play:
It was a smart move by Canada that led to a big payoff when the Steelers found the end zone two plays later.
Canada was sharp on Pittsburgh’s final drive, too, as they ran the remaining 4:38 off the clock and prevented Brady from getting a shot to win the game. Trubisky and Claypool hooked up to convert two 3rd and long plays, but with 2:07 remaining, and Tampa holding a final timeout, the Steelers needed one more first down to seal the deal. Everyone in the stadium expected them to pack things in and hand Harris the football. But Canada anticipated pressure off the edge from Tampa, so he spread the field and called a zone read play. When Trubisky saw safety Dee Delaney (30) come screaming down to chase Harris, he pulled the ball and made nine crucial yards that set the Steelers up in 2nd and 1. They converted the 1st down on a sneak by Trubisky, and that was the ballgame.
The best coordinators are masters of in-game play calling. Canada is yet to prove himself in this regard. He struggled with it again for long stretches on Sunday. He did, though, make some crucial decisions in the 4th quarter that impacted the outcome. For that, Steelers fans should be relieved, if not happy.
The Other Guys
Fans of the sneaky-good Will Farrell movie “The Other Guys” will recognize the following analogy. Others may not. But so far, through six weeks of the season, Kenny Pickett and George Pickens have been received in Pittsburgh like Highsmith and Danson while Trubisky and Claypool have been Gamble and Hoitz. The only thing that could have made it worse would be if one of the latter had shot Joe Greene by mistake.
But I digress.
When Pickett exited on Sunday, it seemed unlikely Trubisky and Claypool would make the crucial plays down the stretch to save the day. Trubisky was the quarterback no one believed in, including his teammates. Claypool was considered wasted talent — one of the saddest designations an athlete can acquire — for the fact his considerable physical skills rarely translated to his play. Together, they had demonstrated no chemistry through Trubisky’s time as the starter. How would they suddenly find each other, on the fly, in crunch time, against an imposing Tampa defense?
I don’t really know. But they did. And that’s all that matters.
On Pittsburgh’s final two drives, the Steelers gained 117 yards on 18 plays, scored a touchdown and ran out the clock. Trubisky found Claypool three times on those drives, and all three plays were huge. One was the touchdown, and the others converted 3rd and 14 and 3rd and 11 situations. Overall, Trubisky went 9-12 for 144 yards while Claypool caught 7 passes for 94 yards. It was some of the finest football either has played in a Pittsburgh uniform.
Their connection on the touchdown showed good coverage recognition by both players. Claypool, aligned below in the middle of the trips set to the top of the formation, curled around the jam of the alley player, then immediately threw up his hand, recognizing the space he had between the alley and the near linebacker, who had attached himself to tight end Zach Gentry. Trubisky saw the same thing and zipped a throw into the window:
After the game, Trubisky said the Steelers ran that play in practice a lot as part of their red zone plan. “I didn’t get a rep at it,” he told reporters, “but I knew where (Claypool) was going to be.” That shows great mental preparation on his part and is a credit to his approach to the game. Trubisky could have sulked at being benched for Pickett and neglected to prepare. Instead, he made sure he was ready when the call came.
The 3rd and 11 completion to Claypool on Pittsburgh’s final drive was especially impressive. With the Steelers in a bunch to their right, and Pickens singled up on the back side, Trubisky got pressure from both edges, stepped up and escaped the pocket to his left. Claypool was running a crossing route from his alignment at the top of the bunch. When he saw Trubisky move out of the pocket, he smartly turned his route up-field, where he gained ground on linebacker Lavonte David (54), who was chasing him in coverage. Trubisky saw Claypool go vertical, then made a smart throw to his back shoulder, putting the ball away from David so he couldn’t deflect it or obstruct Claypool’s view:
Claypool deftly opened his hips to make the catch, then did a nice job of getting his elbow down in bounds. The placement of the football was excellent, as was the execution by both players.
It’s hard to say if Sunday’s performance will inspire better play from Trubisky and Claypool. As I write this, Pickett’s status for next week’s game at Miami is unknown. The Steelers may need Trubisky to reprise his starting role, for one game at least, and to be better than he was previously. They will certainly need continued production from Claypool. Whether he can pick up where he left off on Sunday remains to be seen. For one game, though, it was great to see these two players come alive when the Steelers needed them most.
Which brings us to Devin Bush. In the popular narrative, Bush is responsible for everything from Pittsburgh’s porous run defense to the $31 trillion national debt. Only Canada has received a fraction of the criticism directed towards Bush these past two seasons. That’s what happens when you’re a 1st Round pick the organization trades up to acquire and you fail to meet expectations. It may be cruel, but it’s reality.
One of the knocks on Bush is he simply doesn’t make plays, which is a huge liability for an inside linebacker. Bush made a big one on Sunday, though, breaking up a pass to Chris Godwin on a two-point conversion attempt that would have tied the game at 20 late in the 4th quarter.
On the play, Tampa motioned Godwin from left to right. They then tried to create space for him in the middle by using tight end Cade Otten (88) as a moving screen:
The ploy worked, as Otten cleared out safety Terrell Edmunds (34). But Bush did not sink with Otten. Instead, he held his ground, found Godwin crossing the middle and undercut his route to knock away Tom Brady’s throw.
It was good recognition by Bush, and, as you can see from this angle, a nice job of not getting picked off by Otten or interfering with Godwin as he made his play on the ball:
Quietly, Bush has performed fairly well this season. This isn’t to suggest the criticism directed towards him is unwarranted. Or that he is the answer at Mack linebacker moving forward. His flaws are still there, like how he fails to get off of blocks, and sometimes avoids contact. But he’s also in the middle of a lot of plays these days, including one on Sunday that helped the Steelers to an unlikely victory.
The Steelers are now 4-15 versus Brady in his stellar career. Unless the two teams meet in this year’s Super Bowl, which is highly unlikely, this will be the last they see of him.
Brady has been more than just an adversary over the years. He’s been like Dracula, a villain who will only die if you drive a stake through his heart. Even then, he’s managed to rise again and again. Only this time, at age 45, he won’t be able to. Time catches everyone in the end, and Brady’s performance on Sunday showed it’s finally caught up to him.
With that in mind, allow me to say the following: Tom, you’ve been an amazing player over the years, the best I’ve ever seen. Now go away, please, and don’t let the door hit you in the behind on your way out.