This is the first in a series I’m writing each week during the season in which I take one play, or a small sequence of plays, and examine how it became the “turning point” in each Steelers contest. This week, the focus is on Mitchell Trubisky’s 26-yard completion to Pat Freiermuth in the final minute of overtime that led to Chris Boswell’s game-winning field goal as time expired to give the Steelers a 23-20 upset win in Cincinnati.
I picked a heck of a game to launch this “Turning Point” series. How many turning points could one game author? I started writing this article three different times before finally settling on Trubisky’s play as its subject. There are 1,000 dead words in the BTSC queue somewhere, the product of me trying to get a jump on the story. So much for being pro-active.
First, it was Minkah Fitzpatrick’s pick-six in the first quarter. The article was set to be titled, “Minkah’s pick-six kicks off an epic performance by the Steelers defense in Cincinnati.” But as the offense floundered, and Cincinnati crept back, the narrative changed. When the Steelers botched their final drive in regulation by throwing an incomplete pass and stopping the clock, allowing the Bengals to retain their final time out, which they used in route to a touchdown that tied the game with :02 remaining, I scrapped the Fitzpatrick angle and began writing something else: “Woeful final series on offense dooms the Steelers in Cincinnati.” It would be a dark and dreary piece, something Dostoyevsky would write if he covered football. Then, of course, Fitzpatrick heroically blocked the extra point, sending the game into overtime. That play, plus a missed field goal by each team in the extra period, seemed to consign the affair to a draw. Now I had a new title: “Kicking woes on both sides send Steelers and Bengals to unsatisfying tie.” I can still hear the sound of Chris Boswell’s 55-yard attempt clanking off the left upright. With respect to Homer J, it sounded something like this:
But no! The Steelers got a final chance after their defense once again stood on its head. The offense, which had been inept for 69 minutes, came on to the field, and Trubisky made his play — his one big play — to help save the day. And so, after 7 sacks and 5 turnovers by a swarming, snarling Pittsburgh defense that yielded just 20 points on 94 plays by the Bengals, and after gaining only 267 yards and 13 first downs while possessing the football for about as long as my children spend picking up after themselves, the turning point really was a play by the Pittsburgh offense, and its (for now) starting quarterback, Mitchell Trubisky.
When the offense trotted out for that final series, there were :56 seconds remaining in overtime. The Steelers were buried at their own 20-yard line. To that point, Trubisky had thrown for 149 yards on 31 attempts, an average of less than 5 yards per pass. He hadn’t been terrible, but he’d done little to inspire confidence. The passing attack had been a series of dinks and dunks reminiscent of the 2021 offense, and on the few deep balls Trubisky had thrown, he’d found little success. Pittsburgh’s longest pass play of the day was a 32-yard completion to tight end Zach Gentry. On a screen pass.
The Bengals had no timeouts remaining and could not stop the clock. I turned to my wife, who was watching the game with me, and said, “Run the ball, take the tie and get out of here.” My wife said, curtly, “Why would you do that? Ties suck.” I explained that the odds of pushing the ball down the field quickly enough to get into field goal range seemed slim-to-none, with “none” the clubhouse favorite. And also, that while ties indeed suck, they suck less than three quick incompletions that would give Cincinnati the ball back for one more shot, which is what I was certain would happen if the Steelers took an aggressive approach.
My fears grew as Trubisky threw incomplete on 1st down. He failed to drive the throw, and it wobbled down the middle of the field as though some schoolhouse bully had pinned a note to it that read “Intercept me!” Thankfully, no Cincinnati defender was in position to make a play, and it fell to the ground before further harm could be done:
On 2nd and 10, Trubisky found Diontae Johnson on the sideline and hit him for a 9-yard gain. That set up an interesting dilemma. Johnson was tackled in bounds, one-yard short of the marker, and the clock was under :40 and ticking. A run here was the conservative call. If the Steelers were stopped short, they could let time run out and take the tie. If they made the 1st down, they could line up quickly, spike the football and have perhaps :20 left to do something. But if they threw, and it was incomplete, Pittsburgh would have to punt the ball back to Cincinnati. Late-game gaffes aside, Bengals’ kicker Evan McPherson was one of the best in the business and had made a 59-yarder earlier in the contest. Passing was a risk, and giving McPherson one more shot seemed dumb. So, play it safe or play to win?
Anyone who has watched Mike Tomlin over the years knew the answer to that query. Mike Tomlin does not live in his fears.
The Steelers hustled to the line and got set. They were in a 3x1 formation with Johnson by himself to the short side of the field. Cincinnati played their corners off, giving the Steelers the short throws, with bracket coverage on Johnson and deep safety help to the trips, As I looked at the pre-snap alignment, I assumed we’d see a quick out that would gain 3 or 4 yards and allow the receiver to step out of bounds:
But, inexplicably, Bengals defensive end Sam Hubbard jumped offsides. I say “inexplicably” because there was no need for Hubbard to try to anticipate the snap count. Odds are Trubisky was going to throw quickly, meaning an aggressive pass rush would be futile. Worse for the Bengals, Hubbard could get run up the field and allow Trubisky an escape route, where he was more dangerous than he’d proven himself to be from the pocket all afternoon. It doesn’t appear Trubisky used a hard count to draw Hubbard off. Yet he jumped, and when he did, it created that somewhat frozen moment where players stand around for a second thinking the play is going to be blown dead before they realize it hasn’t. You can see this in the clip below, as Hubbard jumps and right tackle Chuks Okorafor stops blocking and points at him. Hubbard then runs unabated to the quarterback, which may have prompted some officiating crews to whistle the play dead. This one let it go. Hubbard swiped at Trubisky, Trubisky stepped up and ducked, and the whole thing looked chaotic:
By stepping up, Trubisky prevented Hubbard from getting a clean shot on him. Hubbard merely swung Trubisky around. When the quarterback jumped off that particular merry go-round, he was facing the Pittsburgh sideline. Trubisky took off in that direction while Cincinnati’s linemen gave chase. Running back Jaylen Warren came open in the flat right in front of Trubisky, but Trubisky ignored him. Instead, he did that thing that makes all quarterback coaches clutch their hearts like Fred Sanford waiting on the big one: he threw back to the middle of the field while rolling left and fading away from the line of scrimmage. This is a terrible idea in every situation but the one in which Trubisky found himself. In this one, however, with nothing to lose due to Hubbard jumping offsides, and with Freiermuth flashing open near midfield, it was a brilliant one:
Freiermuth, to his credit, stayed with the play as well. He had aligned as the third receiver to the trips, along the right hash. He was not the intended receiver here. That was Chase Claypool, the middle receiver, who ran a shallow cross underneath Freiermuth. Freiermuth’s job was to clear out the near linebacker so Claypool had space to cross underneath. Freiermuth did this, and had Hubbard not jumped offsides, Claypool would have been open for a short gain. Once things turned into playground football, though, Freiermuth continued up the seam, away from the linebacker, then moved towards the middle to get into Trubisky’s line of sight. Trubisky found him and got just enough on his throw for it to reach Freiermuth before the safety could make a play. Freiermuth caught it, fought off the safety and got upfield. The play picked up 26 yards and moved the Steelers in to Cincinnati territory. A few plays later, after another completion to Freiermuth put them in Boswell’s field goal range, the veteran kicker came on and atoned for his Doh!
The offense has a lot to fix if this Pittsburgh team is going to make any noise this season. The line could not run block on Sunday, and Trubisky could not push the football down the field effectively. Coordinator Matt Canada can only run so many jet sweeps and gadget plays to get things going. The defense will not produce 7 sacks and 5 turnovers each week, especially with T.J. Watt on the shelf. At some point, Pittsburgh will have to execute a base offense to stay competitive.
That’s a conversation for another week, though. For this one, Mitchell Trubisky made one big play against the Bengals, and thanks to an amazing defensive effort and some quirks on special teams, one big play was enough.