The offense has looked horrible and Mitch hasn't exactly inspired confidence in anyone, but hear me out.
Over the past five years or so, the Steelers’ offense has been abysmal, consistently ranking in the bottom third of the league and worsening to the "eye test" each season. As it’s gotten worse, the playcalling has grown more and more conservative. Coach Tomlin has made clear the team is going to win by running hard, playing good defense, and limiting turnovers, an anomaly in the current pass-heavy offense-driven league.
Conservative playcalling is oft-criticized, and for good reason- you could probably argue it compounded issues for an already overmatched offensive unit. In theory, purposely putting a lid on your offense keeps opponents in games longer and kills whatever offensive momentum your struggling unit might build. In practice, we've seen it lead to more than a few dud losses and close calls. It is also just incredibly frustrating to watch, not only for fans, but also for the defenders trying to catch their breath on the sideline.
On the flip side, it also wasn't the worst strategy- when this trend started, the defense was ascending, the offensive line was aging, QB play was declining, and a couple key weapons were departing. It made sense. More often than not, the coaching staff could afford to call a "don’t-lose" game script and let the defense carry them across the finish line. It wasn’t pretty, but they didn’t have a losing season.
Last year was where the wheels started falling off. After shedding several veteran starters from an already struggling offensive line, the front office decided not to invest high picks or significant cap space to fixing the unit. The 2020 group had very little draft pedigree and was one of the lowest paid in the league. Unsurprisingly, OL play fell off a cliff. I’ve never seen more hurried throws and stuffed runs. At the same time, QB play declined as well. With little pocket time, no mobility, and diminished arm strength, Ben didn’t look himself, and got by on HOF savvy alone. These two issues were further compounded because defenses adjusted to conservative tendencies. If you don't challenge downfield for a couple weeks, you're going to start seeing a lot more stacked boxes. When you go run-run-short pass in every neutral game script, you're going to see a lot of TFLs and DBs sitting on routes. It wasn't a pretty thing to watch. That offense sucked, and I was sure that was rock-bottom for the Steelers offense.
Enter this year. The FO acquired some new faces at QB, as well as a couple cheap upside vets to block for them. Plus, they returned almost all the starters from last year’s sensational defense. The team’s weak spot is still offensive line, which again is the lowest paid and did not add a single player in the draft. Coming in close second is QB, which for the first time in 20 years, is a massive question mark. Together, this new offensive group has been horrible. People blame the QB, the OC, and the line (in that order) for the failures of the unit, but who's actually at fault?
Through three games, here’s what we've seen.
1. The offensive line isn’t as bad as advertised. Although they are pretty terrible in the run game, they’ve actually been good in pass pro. Obviously their pass pro stats are a little inflated by a passing game predicated on quick throws, but they’ve also held their own against some good pass rushers.
2. The defense is as good as advertised, but won’t be for long if they have to play 2/3 of the snaps. It’s no coincidence that the defense has looked worse every game, fades from quarter to quarter, and has injuries starting to pile up. Pretty much every fourth quarters you can see guys with their hands on their knees. This team is last in the league in time of possession, and it's taking a toll on the defense. They are only going to get worse with all this wear and tear, both health-wise and performance-wise.
3. Mitch can actually make plays when they let him. Through three games, the offense has really only looked good in two-minute drills, tempo no-huddles, and the two or three drives to open the Cleveland game where they dialed up downfield, early-down passes. The Cleveland game was by far the offense's best, and it's because they opened up the playbook. It forced the Browns defense to reckon with a more versatile attack, which meant spreading out, playing deeper coverages, and opening up running lanes. The rush offense looked better because they were willing to challenge downfield in the passing game.
To me, it seems obvious that this team should just open up the offense and "let Mitch cook." Something needs to change ASAP, but it's clear they're not going to fire Canada or bench Trubisky. This is the only real change they can make without doing either of those things. It's a risky move, but this team isn't anywhere close to a contender, so stakes are pretty low. Plus, on a drive by drive basis, the worst case scenario isn't even that bad. With this team going 3 and out like clockwork, is it really going to be that bad if Trubisky throws a couple 40yd picks instead of 50yd punts? It'd be one thing if the team was running effectively and dominating TOP, but they're not. If there's hardly anything to conserve, there's no reason to call a conservative game. We've seen downfield passing gain yards and open up running lanes, why shouldn't we commit to it more often?
Moreover, I think the best part about the strategy of "chucking it" is that we'll learn a lot about our personnel, whether rostered or staffed. It's near impossible to evaluate an NFL QB if you never ask him to throw the ball more than 10 yards. It's even harder to judge an OC's abilities when your HC only has him call two runs up the middle and a TE dig every drive. I'm not saying Tomlin is a bad coach, but all the talk of "not living in our fears" is a little rich from the guy at the helm of the league's most risk-averse offense five years running. There is nothing to be afraid of this season. You're playing with house money. Throw it downfield, evaluate your players, and regroup next year when (hopefully) you have some decent run blockers, a healthy defense, and a QB who's actually ready to take the reins.
I don't think this is a novel or foolish idea. I think it would probably pay off for this offense, and if not, the "bad outcomes" are pretty mild: (1) turning it over instead of punting; (2) having to bench a bridge QB; (3) losing a couple extra games and picking higher after a non-contending season. If they stay the course, there are some actually serious risks, like losing the team, increasing injuries on defense, finishing with a historically bad offense, etc.
What do you think????