The Steelers lost 16-10 to the Dolphins in Miami on Sunday night, in a game where they recovered from a dreadful start to give themselves a chance to win. They couldn’t get it done, though, as missed opportunities and Kenny Pickett’s learning curve squandered a stellar defensive effort over the final three quarters. Here, in my “3 & Out” column, I examine these topics, with some food for thought at the end.
Maybe it was the bright lights of a national prime-time game. Maybe it was the return of their quarterback to the lineup. Maybe it was all the Dolphins legends in the house to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their 17-0 team. Probably all three. Whatever the reason, Miami came out swinging. The Dolphins went 71 yards in 9 plays for a touchdown on their opening drive. On their second drive, they went 59 yards in 8 plays and kicked a field goal. On their third, they went 30 yards in 6 plays and kicked a field goal again.
Their game-plan capitalized on the considerable speed of their playmakers. It featured an array of quick throws, play-action passes, outside zone runs and RPOs designed to create space or get them the ball quickly so they would have room to run. These were effective because the Steelers, fearing they would get run by if they crowded the line, backed off and gave Miami plenty of room underneath, especially in the middle of the field. Miami was happy to take it, like they did on their opening drive with this pitch-and-catch to Tyreek Hill, who ran a simple slant from his alignment as the middle receiver in a trips formation:
The Dolphins came back to Hill on the following snap, running a glorified version of a junior league pop pass to get him the ball quickly in a massive hole in Pittsburgh’s soft zone:
When he wasn’t locating Hill over the middle, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who initially looked sharp after a three-week layoff due to a concussion, had plenty of other targets. Here he found tight end Mike Gesicki on an Over route after a quick play fake to motion back Raheem Mostert:
And then, later, off of the same action, it was receiver Jaylen Waddle:
Steelers linebacker Devin Bush was often the victim of these schemes. If you re-watch the last two clips, you’ll notice that Bush did a poor job of locating the routes that were breaking behind him. This prevented him from getting into Tagovailoa’s passing lane, giving him easy tosses to his in-breaking receivers. Bush got caught “staring at Medusa,” as my position coach in college liked to say, referring to a defender who simply watched the quarterback rather than keeping his head on a swivel. The Dolphins ran these concepts at will early on as they marched up and down the field on their first three possessions.
After one quarter of play, Miami had 160 yards of offense to Pittsburgh’s 35, nine first downs to Pittsburgh’s one, and led 13-0. The contest looked like a mismatch.
Teryl Austin didn’t earn the title of NFL defensive coordinator without learning to make adjustments, though. He did so in the 2nd quarter, and the Steelers caught up.
First, the linebackers did a better job carrying Miami’s in-cuts. Watch Bush here, aligned near the left hash at the 30-yard line, get underneath Hill on the same slant route he’d run earlier. Bush did a nice job of putting himself in the passing lane, getting on Hill’s inside hip and making Tagovailoa throw over his head. With safety help behind him, Bush could play the trail position. He just had to play it tighter than he had in the 1st quarter:
Bush and his playing partner at inside backer, Myles Jack, took turns running the seam and squatting in the middle of the field. The backer to the strength of the formation played the rat, while the backer to the weak side ran the trail. Austin didn’t adjust his philosophy, per se. He simply had his backers tighten up. That, and the fact the Steelers became familiar with Miami’s route concepts as a whole, helped stop the bleeding.
On the outside, Austin walked up his corners and had them jam Miami’s receivers at the line of scrimmage to prevent them from getting a clean release. In the clip below, watch Levi Wallace (29) at the top of the screen on Hill. Wallace made Hill stutter at the line while trying to release, then forced him inside, where Jack was dropping to impede his route. Tagovailoa still had a window in which to hit the speedy Hill, but it was a small one and he couldn’t put the ball on the money:
The Steelers began to disguise their coverages more frequently as well. In the clip above, watch James Pierre (42), aligned opposite of Wallace, come down just before the snap to play press on the outside receiver. Tagovailoa never looked to his left on this play, as the run fake was designed to displace Jack to create a window for Hill, so Pierre’s disguise had no effect. But later, the Steelers would confuse him with these movements, inducing him into several risky throws that could have been intercepted.
To make this strategy work, Austin needed a great effort from his corners. He got just that. Watch Wallace here, lined up in press against Hill again to the top of the screen. This time, on a 3rd and 3 late in the 4th quarter, with the Steelers trailing 16-10 and needing a stop to get the ball back, Wallace stayed with Hill all the way across the field as Miami tried to hit him on a boot pass:
Hill and Gesicki wound up in the same spot on this play, with Minkah Fitzpatrick covering Gesicki, and the Dolphins were lucky this wasn’t picked off. That phrase applies to several other situations where the Steelers could not corral throws Tagovailoa made into heavy traffic, including one that hit Cam Sutton dead in the hands near the end of the first half. Sutton’s drop was important, as Miami kicked a field goal two plays later. In a close game like this one, capitalizing on opportunities was essential. When it came to creating turnovers, the Steelers couldn’t do it, and it cost them dearly.
Still, the adjustments Austin made after Miami’s hot start were integral to keeping Pittsburgh in the game. Following that 23 play, 160-yard 1st quarter from Miami that produced 13 points on three possessions, the Dolphins managed only 212 yards on 39 plays over the final three periods, with three points on eight possessions. Austin’s adjustments neutered what initially looked like an unstoppable Miami attack and kept the Steelers in a game that could have become a blowout.
The Trials of Young Mr. Pickett
It was an up-and-down night for Pittsburgh’s young signal-caller. Pickett made some great throws and decisions, and some poor ones. After a slow start, he put together a stellar scoring drive in the 2nd quarter, that was kick-started when he found fellow rookie George Pickens up the left sideline for a gain of 30 yards:
Pickett, as he has shown himself capable of doing, held the safety with his eyes before coming back to Pickens, then threw a beautifully placed ball. That play seemed to get him going. He went 7-7 for 61 yards on the drive, which culminated in a touchdown to Pickens on this gorgeous back-shoulder fade:
The success was fleeting, though. In the second half, Miami mixed their coverages more frequently, abandoning their aggressive press-man approach to fall back into some softer zone looks. Pickett stopped pushing the ball down the field as a result, opting instead for a dink-and-dunk attack. On one 3rd quarter drive, Pittsburgh had 2nd and 4 and completed passes to Harris out of the backfield on two consecutive plays. They gained a total of three yards, and the Steelers had to punt.
With just under 8:00 to play, the offense came back to life. Pickett led a march down the field from deep in his own territory. It included three throws on out-breaking routes to three different receivers — Claypool, Pickens and Pat Freiermuth — that picked up 34 yards. He looked comfortable recognizing coverage and seeing Miami’s disguises, like on this throw to Pickens:
The Steelers reached Miami’s 15-yard line, where, on 3rd and 1, they appeared to run a quarterback sneak for a 1st down. But they were penalized for an illegal shift, and then, on the ensuing play, were called for holding. This created 3rd and 16, where Miami presented Pickett with a pre-snap picture that looked like this:
The Dolphins clearly intended to take away the middle of the field. Pickett was determined to make a play, however, and tried to drive a hitch to Johnson at the sticks. But the Dolphins fooled him. Safety Jevon Holland dropped down from his two-high shell as Miami rotated to Cover-3 at the snap. Pickett didn’t see it, and Holland stepped in front of Johnson for an interception, killing the drive:
The Steelers had one more chance in the final two minutes. Pickett again drove them down the field, making this ridiculous throw to Freiermuth on 4th and 6 from his own 32-yard line to keep things going:
But, again, the drive ended when Pickett forced a ball trying to make a play, this time at the goal line with :25 remaining. On the play, Pickett escaped the pocket and appeared to have enough room to pick up ten or twelve yards if he scrambled. Even if he was tackled in bounds, he would have had enough time to spike the football and have a couple of shots at the end zone from around the 15-yard line. Instead, he threw it to Johnson, whom, as he told reporters after the game, he anticipated would come back to the front pylon. Johnson went vertical instead, and that was the ballgame.
The interceptions on the final two drives were clearly Pickett’s fault. But in both situations, he was inhibited by circumstance. On the first one, back-to-back penalties turned a 1st and 10 at the 14 into a 3rd and 16 at the 30. On the second, Pickett and Johnson were not on the same page, which is likely a factor of the limited reps they’ve had together. These are not excuses, but they exemplify the shortcomings and limitations that plague the offense beyond Pickett’s decision making.
It’s easy to be harsh on the young quarterback at this point. He’s thrown two touchdowns against seven interceptions, and the offense has scored just 37 points in his 12.5 quarters of play. Those numbers are bad by any metric. But Pickett has shown himself to be accurate, decisive, mobile, and unflappable. He’s thrown some bad interceptions, but they have largely come from him forcing balls while trying to make plays. These are plays he likely could have made in college but can’t in the NFL because of the speed and complexity of pro defenses.
Many young quarterbacks struggle in this area. Buffalo’s Josh Allen, who is arguably the best signal-caller in the league right now, had five touchdowns and 10 interceptions over his first eight games as a starter. Allen was guilty of similar sins, as he tried to use his physical gifts to will things to happen. Over time, he became more judicious. Pickett should, too. He has the look of a franchise quarterback. For that, the Steelers must be thrilled. In the short term, however, they’re going to have to live with his mistakes, even if they are costly, like they were on Sunday night.
Sunday marked the 3rd start of Pickett’s brief career, yet the second time he’s been asked to attempt 40+ passes. He threw 44 against Miami, and had 52 attempts in his first start at Buffalo.
By contrast, Ben Roethlisberger did not have at least 40 attempts until his 32nd career start. He didn’t even throw it 30 times until his 19th game. Football is clearly different now than when Roethlisberger came into the league, with a much greater emphasis on passing. Still, the Steelers are putting an awful lot on Pickett’s plate. They may have no choice, given the state of their run game. It would be nice, however, if they could find a way to lessen his load.