The Steelers squandered a 10-point lead in the 4th quarter against the New York Jets on Sunday to lose, 24-20. The result spoiled what had been another stellar performance from Minkah Fitzpatrick plus an exciting, if not perfect, debut by rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett. Here, in my “3-and-Out” column, I offer some insights on those subjects, with some food for thought at the end…
Let’s not bury the lead. Pittsburgh’s late defensive collapse aside, Sunday’s game was all about the halftime decision to switch quarterbacks and replace Mitchell Trubisky with Kenny Pickett. The move seemed inevitable at some point this season, but I didn’t anticipate it being made until the Steelers had run their gauntlet of heavyweight opponents following the New York game — Buffalo, Tampa, Miami and Philadelphia, who own a combined record of 12-4.
Another depressing half by the offense, however, seems to have forced Mike Tomlin’s hand. Mitchell Trubisky was typically mediocre in the 1st half — 7-13 for 84 yards with an interception that sailed through Diontae Johnson’s hands — but it was more the vibe that needed changing. As the offense slogged through one drive after another, the crowd grew restless. The Steelers trailed 10-6 at halftime and seemed demoralized. Whether Pickett was the answer or not, Tomlin recognized the need for change.
Pickett’s presence immediately ignited a team and a fan base that, if we’re being honest, never believed in Trubisky. That was evident in the way the body language, energy and intensity of everyone in the stadium not wearing green transformed once Pickett entered. Pickett put on a show — for good and for bad — and was more impressive than not in the most anticipated quarterback debut in Pittsburgh in 18 years.
After throwing an interception on his first career pass, the rookie came to life. He scored on a quarterback sneak on his next drive. Then, he took the Steelers 82 yards in 12 plays to score again, capping things by scrambling into the end zone from two yards out. The Steelers converted three 3rd downs on the possession, each one led by Pickett.
First, on a 3rd and 6 from the New York 48, Pickett escaped the pocket and scampered past the chains. Then, on 3rd and 4 from the +35, he hit George Pickens on a beautiful back-shoulder throw for a gain of 13:
Most impressive was this play, on 3rd and 8 from the 20, where he stood in the pocket, took a hit and delivered a ball to Pat Freiermuth that set up 1st-and-goal:
Pickett got up from that throw, jawed a bit with the Jets lineman who clobbered him, and smiled as he walked away. He seemed to be enjoying himself, which was refreshing considering the dour tone over which Trubisky had presided.
Pickett wasn’t perfect, of course. While the interception on his first throw was excusable — he was asked to roll to his right, then throw deep to the opposite side of the field, which is challenging, even for a veteran — the second one was costly. Pickett was under pressure and backing up when he tried to fling a ball to Freiermuth along the sideline. The throw was high, Freiermuth leapt to grab it and tipped it into the arms of cornerback Michael Carter:
That pick, which came with 3:34 to play, gave the Jets the ball at their own 35-yard line, from where they marched down the field to score the winning touchdown with :16 remaining. Had Pickett thrown incomplete there, the Steelers would have remained in field goal range with a 3rd down upcoming. Had he eaten the ball and taken a sack, they could have punted New York deep. But the interception gave the Jets both good field position and momentum. It was a poor decision by a young quarterback who was trying to make a play when there was none to be made. Pickett will learn from it. Unfortunately, like most lessons, he will learn the hard way.
None of this should detract from what we saw from Pickett on Sunday. His decision-making was noticeably quick for someone who hasn’t taken practice reps with the starting unit. He displayed toughness in the pocket, great touch on his throws and immediate chemistry with Pickens, with whom he completed 4 passes for 71 yards. His mobility was an asset, as was his leadership. There’s no question the offense responded better to Pickett than they have to Trubisky, and that Pickett is a quarterback in whom they believe. The intangibles are already in place, after just two quarters at the helm.
The challenge will be to endure what lies ahead. This is a bad Steelers team, perhaps the worst since 2003. Given their next four opponents, Pittsburgh could be 1-7 or 2-6 when they reach the bye. Pickett will face some elite defenses in that stretch and will struggle at times. It will be important to remember that the investment in Pickett is not about what happens in 2022. It’s about the long term. He looks like a player upon which the offense can build around. But building takes time. The future in Pittsburgh has arrived, but it may not pay dividends until further down the road.
The Collapse on Defense
It’s hard to fathom what happened on defense in the 4th quarter given how the momentum had changed once Pickett entered. The 3rd quarter and first ninety seconds of the 4th were as dominant as Pittsburgh has been all season. They outscored New York 14-0, outgained them 115 yards to 43, and had eight 1st downs to two from the Jets.
Then, with a seemingly comfortable 20-10 advantage and 13:30 on the clock, everything changed. The Jets put together back-to-back scoring drives of 81 and 65 yards. The keys to their success came largely as a result of two factors, which were occasionally related: exploiting the Steelers in the passing game in the middle of the field, and converting 3rd downs. To the latter point, New York went 4-4 on those drives. One stop by the Steelers would have likely won them the game. Pittsburgh couldn’t get it, though, as New York won time and time again in one-on-one matchups, like we see below.
On New York’s first 4th quarter touchdown, they motioned receiver Corey Davis (84) to a bunch formation, which gave Davis room to release outside. He did so, and was picked up by corner Cam Sutton (20). As Davis disappears from the screen, he seems to be headed to the flat. But, a step or two later, Davis pivoted and returned inside. That move lost Sutton, who had committed to the flat, allowing quarterback Zach Wilson to hit Davis for an easy score:
On the game-winning drive, the Jets converted a key 3rd and 6 near midfield by beating man coverage again. They ran tight end Ty Conklin (83), who aligned to the left of the formation, on a simple crossing route. The Steelers locked on, had Minkah Fitzpatrick squat in the middle of the field, and rushed four. Linebacker Robert Spillane (41) was assigned to Conklin. He tried to jam Conklin at the line, fanned on him, and wound up in a chase position. Wilson hit Conklin at the 1st down marker before Fitzpatrick could provide help. The chains moved again.
When the Steelers played zone, Wilson carved them up with throws to the middle of the field. Pittsburgh was soft in the middle all afternoon, as they had been against Cleveland the week before. On this play, Spillane, the inside backer to the top of the screen, gets caught staring at Wilson and never sinks to get under the dig route developing behind him. There have been several plays like this the past couple of weeks, with Pittsburgh’s inability to defend the middle of the field beginning to compromise the effectiveness of their defense.
One potential solution is a pass rush. That, unfortunately, has been non-existent since T.J. Watt left the lineup in Week 1. The Steelers sacked Wilson once on Sunday and have notched just two in 12 quarters after recording seven in the season opener. They are now 0-7 in games Watt does not play in his career. Pittsburgh’s mojo on defense derives from their ability to get to the quarterback. Without that, they are decidedly less effective, as the final few series on Sunday demonstrated.
As depressing as this loss was, Pickett’s arrival at least made things interesting. Lost in those two narratives, though, was the continued brilliance of Fitzpatrick, who had another key interception to set up Pittsburgh’s first touchdown and was around the football all afternoon. Fitzpatrick finished with eight tackles, which tied him with Myles Jack for the team high, two pass break-ups, and nearly had a second interception on a tipped ball in the 3rd quarter.
Increasingly, Fitzpatrick has been used in the “rat” role as a second-level disruptor. He often aligns in a two-deep look and, at the snap, drops into the “high hole” area in the middle of the field at about 10 yards deep, where he seeks out crossing routes, slants and digs. Often, you can see Fitzpatrick reading the eyes of the quarterback in anticipation of where he intends to throw. This recognition, coupled with Fitzpatrick’s quick breaks to the ball, have put him in the middle of things more this year than he was last season, where he often manned the deep middle in cover-1 schemes or played true two-high. Fitzpatrick isn’t enjoying the same freedom Troy Polamalu had with his ability to roam, but he is being allowed to use his instincts more and to jump plays. He is also playing more physically, as his tackling and willingness to mix it up in the box have both improved.
It’s hard to say what the catalyst for Fitzpatrick’s stellar play has been. Maybe it’s the scheme. Or his new contract. Or an increased familiarity with the defense in his third season in Pittsburgh. Maybe it’s all three. Whatever the case, he’s making a push for Defensive Player of the Year one season after his teammate, Watt, claimed the award. No teammates have won in back-to-back seasons since Ray Lewis and Ed Reed did it for the Ravens in 2003-2004. But if Fitzpatrick keeps playing at this pace, the Steelers may have the latest duo to do so.
I mentioned earlier this may be the worst Steelers team since 2003. That team went 6-10 and was quarterbacked by Tommy Maddox, who was 32 years old at the time. Jerome Bettis, their leading rusher, was 31. On defense, they had three players in their 30s in tackle Kimo von Oelhoffen, linebacker Jason Gildon and corner Dewayne Washington. The rest of the starters, though, were young players approaching their primes. Players like Hines Ward, Alan Faneca, Kendall Simmons, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, James Farrior and Joey Porter. Each gained valuable experience in 2003 and learned to handle adversity. Their season was not a successful one, but they started to grow up together. Once they added their franchise quarterback that offseason, the team took off, eventually earning two Lombardi's and a place in Steelers lore.
So, while the 2022 season may be a rough one, it’s possible, given the team’s young core and the arrival of its new franchise quarterback, that it’s a prelude to greater things to come...