For the Pittsburgh Steelers’ third, and final, preseason game Sunday against Detroit, I put the much-maligned offensive line under the microscope to see if they had improved on their underwhelming performance the previous week at Jacksonville.
Here’s a critique of their performance, with some thoughts on their overall outlook as the Steelers head towards the season-opener September 11 in Cincinnati.
I broke down each possession with the starting line in the game, paying particular attention to two areas: Were the Steelers getting better in pass protection, where the unit had been slow to master changes in technique new line coach Pat Meyer had introduced? And what kind of push were they getting in the run game?
Those two issues had been problematic against Jacksonville, where the quarterbacks were often throwing under duress and the running backs gained just 10 yards on 10 carries.
1st drive: 0-0, 12:31 1st quarter. 3 plays, -6 yards, Punt
Offensive coordinator Matt Canada opened in heavy personnel with three tight ends on the field. Canada ran inside zone to the left, with Connor Heyward, who was aligned as a fullback, leaking into the right flat and Zach Gentry kicking the backside edge. The push inside was decent, with right guard James Daniels driving the 1-tech tackle four yards off the ball. Center Mason Cole assisted Daniels by chipping the 1-tech before coming off to block the backer. Better pad level from Cole could have helped him here. Still, Harris plunged inside for a three-yard gain:
On 2nd down, Detroit did a nice job covering up Pittsburgh’s receivers on a bootleg, and quarterback Mitchell Trubisky ran out of bounds for a one-yard loss. That brought up 3rd and long. The Steelers spread the field in a 3x1 formation. Detroit bluffed a linebacker stunt and rushed four. The result wasn’t good:
Daniels, Cole and left tackle Dan Moore Jr. were all pushed into Trubisky’s lap, while left guard Kevin Dotson slid to an empty gap and was late to fall back inside to assist Cole. Trubisky didn’t help the situation by holding the ball longer than he should have. But the line gave ground much too fast. Daniels, in particular, got into bad position by lunging at Aidan Hutchinson (97), who pinched across his face. Daniels has really struggled to adapt to Meyer’s pass protection philosophy, which asks interior linemen to strike first before setting. Traditionally, interior linemen pass set first, then anchor in while staying square to pick up twists and bull rushes. But Meyer doesn’t want his linemen accepting blows, which is the impetus for his “strike first” philosophy. You can see below how, while attempting to strike, Daniels turned his shoulders and lost his ability to stay square and move laterally. He also punched with both hands parallel, which is a no-no. Linemen are taught to strike with one hand high and one hand low, which creates more power than a parallel strike. Daniels was a mess fundamentally on this play, and it created a path for Hutchinson to reach Trubisky:
2nd series: 0-0, 9:36 1st quarter, 10 plays, 58 yards, FG
A quick throw to tight end Pat Freiermuth earned five yards on 1st down. Hutchinson aligned over Moore on the play, and Moore did a nice job shielding him from Trubisky on an up-field rush. On 2nd and 5, the Steelers ran counter-gap, a Pittsburgh staple, which features down blocks on the play-side with pulling linemen coming from the back side. Heyward, aligned as the H-back, was responsible for the play-side linebacker, but whiffed on his block:
This presented another 3rd and long. The Steelers dug out by drawing an encroachment penalty and then connecting on a nicely thrown deep ball from Trubisky to Diontae Johnson. They smartly went up-tempo on the next play, and Harris popped a zone run for 10 yards. It was the best push the Steelers got in the run game in the half, and it may have come because the tempo at which the ball was snapped forced Detroit into a vanilla front:
This put the Steelers at Detroit’s 28-yard-line. But Moore racked up holding penalties on two of the next three plays, and a false start by Dotson set them back further. They threw a check down to Harris on 3rd and 23 before Chris Boswell came on and hit a 45-yard field goal. The drive netted points, but it was disappointing to see penalties squander what could have been a bigger scoring opportunity.
3rd series: 3-0 Pittsburgh, 14:06 2nd quarter. 3 plays, 3 yards, FG
A Cam Sutton interception set the Steelers up nicely at the Detroit 19-yard-line for their third possession. This was a drive that, given their field position, needed to finish in the end zone.
It could hardly have started worse up front. On 1st down, the Steelers ran a pin-and-pull sweep that was blown up when Hutchinson stalemated Gentry on the edge and the play-side linebacker came downhill to stuff Cole (61), who was pulling to his right. Harris had nowhere to go, and the play lost two yards.
Trubisky got a clean pocket on 2nd down and threw a quick out to Steven Sims for a five-yard gain. He got another clean pocket on 3rd down and threw a nice slant to George Pickens. But cornerback Jeffrey Okudah made a solid play to break it up. Boswell came in and kicked another field goal to put the Steelers up 6-0. It was a squandered opportunity, though, the product of poor run blocking that put the Steelers behind the chains.
4th series: 6-0 Pittsburgh, 10:16 2nd quarter. 3 plays, 5 yards, FG
The Steelers again took over in fantastic field position after Detroit failed on a 4th and 1 attempt from their own 25-yard-line. They threw a perimeter screen to Pickens on 1st down that gained nothing. On 2nd down, they ran split zone, and right tackle Chuks Okorafor got smoked on a slant for what should have been a loss. Fortunately, rookie back Jaylen Warren bounced the run outside and was quick enough to turn the corner to make five yards.
The Steelers could not convert on 3rd down, though, as a short pass to Freiermuth fell incomplete. Boswell kicked a third field goal, the Steelers led 9-0 and it all felt unsatisfying.
5th series: 9-0 Pittsburgh, 5:46 2nd quarter, 4 plays, 11 yards, Punt
The starting line returned for a fifth series. The Steelers took over at their own 20 after a Detroit punt sailed into the end zone. They began the drive with an RPO off of a one-back power run, with Trubisky reading Detroit’s unblocked right inside linebacker. The good news is Trubisky pulled the ball and made a nice throw to Pickens for a gain of 13 yards. The bad news is the run portion of the play was blocked poorly. Dotson, the left guard, missed the play-side linebacker, who came clean up the left hash and into the backfield. Had Trubisky handed the ball to Harris, this would have been another dead run play:
A false start set the Steelers back five yards, and then a fade to Pickens fell incomplete. Cole whiffed on a swim move by the nose tackle on the play, and Trubisky had to make the throw off his back foot, falling away from his target. A jet sweep to Gunner Olszewski gained nothing, which brought up 3rd and 15. The Steelers gave Trubisky his best pocket of the night, but with everything covered downfield, he had to dump the ball to Harris for a short gain. The punting unit came on, ending another feckless drive.
6th series: 9-0 Pittsburgh, 1:34 2nd quarter. 7 plays, 92 yards, TD
A stout Pittsburgh defense forced another quick punt from the Lions, giving the first-team offense one more drive before halftime. The Steelers started at their own 8-yard-line with 1:34 to play. They went to the quick passing game, throwing short to Sims, then drew a pass interference call to push the ball out to the 36. A catch by Freiermuth moved them to the 44, but then Okorafor got flagged for a holding penalty that was as much Trubisky’s fault as his own. With a fairly clean pocket to step into, and receiver Miles Boykin (13) breaking open across the middle, Trubisky instead scrambled to his right. This prompted Okorafor, who was running his defender up the field, to reach out and grab him as he played off the block:
There was some good news on the following play. Moore and Dotson did a nice job trading off on a twist stunt, leading to a completion to Heyward. Moore kept his outside arm free on the play, which prevented him from turning into the initial block and allowed him to come back out to pick up the twist. Dotson, meanwhile, blunted the inside move with a strong left-hand strike:
This set up a 3rd down conversion to Pickens, who caught a back shoulder fade for 23 yards into Detroit territory. Trubisky got another clean pocket on the next down and drilled a ball up the seam to Freiermuth, who took it all the way to the 6. From there, Trubisky hit Sims on a slant for a touchdown with just 0:14 remaining to finish what was the first unit’s final, and certainly most effective, drive of the half.
There were some encouraging things up front. The Steelers had 178 yards and 16 points in the 1st half. They looked good executing the quick passing game, where the line gave Trubisky ample time to throw. When he had that time, Trubisky was efficient. He completed 15-19 for 160 yards and had some beautifully placed throws. The numbers were backloaded, with the bulk of the passing yardage coming on the final drive. Still, 160 yards in a half is nothing at which to scoff.
While the last drive was encouraging, the first five were not. Of their 178 first-half yards, only 86 came on those first five drives. The other 92 came in the final 1:34 with Detroit playing a soft zone and the Steelers in hurry-up mode. The line was good under those circumstances. But when Detroit mixed their fronts and coverages and brought the blitz, it was a different story.
Also, with starting field position on the +19 and +25 yard lines on two of Pittsburgh’s first half drives, it was disappointing to come away with only 6 total points. That’s an area that can be difficult in which to pass due to the condensed field. The Steelers needed to be able to run there. The fact they couldn’t was discouraging.
There were also too many penalties. Pittsburgh was flagged for four holds and two pre-snap penalties in the first half, all but one of which were called on linemen. Those types of self-inflicted wounds are drive killers and will doom the Steelers in the regular season if they are not remedied.
I wish I could be more positive. But the truth is, the line is still a mess. Maybe not so messy as last season, when they were routinely dominated by opposing defenses. But they are far from a well-oiled machine.
The run game doesn’t look any better right now than it did in 2021, when the Steelers finished last in the league. They are still struggling to get a push and are missing assignments, often allowing unblocked defenders to find clean lanes to the ball. Their tailbacks rushed for 54 yards on 28 carries the past two weeks, an average of less than 2 yards per carry. That won’t cut it.
In pass protection, similar problems have carried over. There are both technique and execution issues, and the resulting pressure has made the Steelers once again reliant upon the short passing game as a survival tool. When they do try to throw longer-developing concepts, Pittsburgh’s quarterbacks are under duress, which can lead to ill-advised throws or fleeing the pocket faster than necessary, as we saw with Trubisky. Unless defenses are willing to oblige the Steelers by rushing four and sitting in soft zone coverage, the vertical passing game may again disappear.
Still, there are reasons for optimism. This line has had less than a full game’s worth of snaps together to gel, yet they are already better than last year’s unit. And, despite their flaws on Sunday, they still scored 16 points and threw for 150 yards in a half. Matt Canada did a nice job getting the ball to the perimeter to alleviate pressure between the tackles, and the Steelers have enough in the way of smoke and mirrors, which may include more up-tempo than we’ve seen in recent seasons, to survive with a mediocre line.
That is, if the line can become mediocre. Right now, they seem a shade below that designation. The success of the Steelers in 2022 may depend on how much the line can progress, and how quickly they can do it. My suspicion is there will be growing pains early on, and the Steelers will struggle on offense out of the gate. Hopefully, that won’t derail their season before they have a chance to get rolling.