The Pittsburgh Steelers are now 1-2 three weeks in to the 2022 NFL regular season, and the upcoming schedule isn’t going to let up. Before the rest of the Week 3 games have taken place, the Steelers’ next five opponents have a current combined record of 9-1, and contain 3 of the NFL’s Top 5 offenses and the Top 2 defenses in points per drive.
It is unlikely the Steelers will see the return of a full-strength T.J. Watt before the bye week, which means the Steelers can’t really rely on Watt returning and single-handedly saving them. That leaves the Steelers looking for answers where, so far, they have failed to find them.
Let’s take a look at the team’s snap counts following the Week 3 loss to the Cleveland Browns on Thursday Night Football...
The Steelers offensive line played the entire game together and continued their streak of playing better than the week before. It is actually impressive when you consider the absolute dumpster fire this line was to start the preseason and compare that to Week 3 when they were solid. The Steelers line is already looking like an average NFL line and still has room to improve. The Steelers continue to split running back snaps with Jaylen Warren playing almost a quarter of snaps the last two weeks, while Najee Harris’s 75% of snaps played is a decent drop off from his workload in 2021.
The Steelers personnel usage has stayed constant the last two games, averaging 2.73 wide receivers in Week 3 after averaging 2.76 wide receivers per snap in Week 2.
It is clear the Steelers believe their receiver group is their best unit and the key to turning the offense around, but the offense is still stagnant, and while Mitchell Trubisky had his best game of the season, his 81.1 passer rating and 6.47 yards per pass attempt from Week 3 is still not good enough. It’s almost a yard better than his current 5.5 ypa for the season, but would only rank 26th in the NFL instead of 31st.
If the Steelers are going to continue to focus on their receiver trio of Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and George Pickens, who take up 55% of the Steelers non-quarterback or offensive line snaps, they are going to have to get better results out of the passing game.
And that’s really where this team finds themselves. The offensive line is playing well, the run game is coming around, the receivers are being treated by the team as the key to the offense, but the passing game is abysmal. The Steelers rank 27th in yards per game, 31st in yards per attempt, 28th in touchdown percentage and 26th in passer rating.
Right now the Steelers are continuing to treat Trubisky as the answer at quarterback, but if results don’t drastically improve even from his improved play in Week 3, the team is going to have to consider making a change or be resigned to just throw away this season altogether.
The Steelers adapted to the loss of T.J. Watt with some creative personnel groupings in Week 2 and continued to experiment and adapt in Week 3. The Steelers again played the outside linebackers less than the usual 2 per snap, this time at 1.8 per snap. The Steelers played more inside linebackers in this game with 2.1 per snap. That follows trends of Brian Flores in the past to play extra inside linebackers, often lined up outside like an edge rusher. That alignment didn’t come from the inside backers this game, but from Terrell Edmunds who has moved around a lot this season.
Edmunds didn’t play 100% of snaps for the first time this season, missing four snaps this week, but he continued to play many roles in the Steelers defense. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Edmunds has lined up as a deep safety 68 times, in the slot 71 times, in the box 66 times, as an outside corner 11 times and on the line of scrimmage, like an edge rusher, 20 times.
He has been used to rush the quarterback, as a primary run defender, in various zone assignments and as a man cover specialist on anyone from tight ends to the opposing team’s best receiver.
The team has also been playing defensive lineman on the edge to help mitigate the loss of T.J. Watt, but while in Week 2 they used rookie DeMarvin Leal in that role the most, in Week 3 it was Cameron Heyward playing on the edge more.
The Steelers defense has been creative in addressing the loss of Watt, and in addressing their run defense struggles, but while they are showing they are open to trying different things, so far the success has been limited.