Following each game this season, I’m writing an article that takes one play, or a small sequence of plays, and examines how it became the “turning point” in each Steelers contest. This week, the focus is on a pair of mistakes the Steelers made in the 3rd quarter that killed drives on offense and swung momentum towards Cleveland in a 29-17 Browns victory.
Heading into Thursday night’s contest at Cleveland in Week 3, the Steelers had two major concerns. The first was they needed to improve their anemic offense and score some points. The second was they had to find a way to slow down Cleveland’s league-leading rushing attack, which would be no small feat given the absence of T.J. Watt and the struggles the Steelers were experiencing in that department that had carried over from 2021. These two issues were intertwined, as one of the best ways for Pittsburgh to limit the Cleveland run game was to possess the ball on offense, score points and keep the defense, which had played more snaps than any unit in the NFL so far in 2022, off the field as much as possible.
For one half on Thursday, the Steelers did just that. Over the first 30 minutes, their offense looked like the one many fans had envisioned when Matt Canada became its coordinator. Canada came to Pittsburgh with a reputation as an architect of creative play designs, deceptive shifts and motions, quarterback runs and pocket movement. Through his first 20 games as play-caller, however, little of those features, other than some bells and whistles in the shifts-and-motions department, had been on display.
Then, suddenly, on a short week, all that seemed to change. Pittsburgh gained 209 yards on 30 plays in the 1st half against Cleveland. They scored two touchdowns, or as many as they’d amassed in the previous two games combined, and had moved into field goal range on another drive that ended in a missed attempt by Chris Boswell. They used deception well, running a series of bootlegs off of jet motion that fooled the Cleveland defense. They blocked well up front in both the run and pass game. And they pushed the football down the field, showing a willingness to throw deep that they’d avoided the first two weeks. On one such deep ball, rookie receiver George Pickens made one of the great catches in recent memory, doing his best Odell Beckham Jr. impersonation by reaching behind him with one hand to make this near-impossible snare:
The Steelers finished that drive by pounding the ball into the end zone on three straight runs, the first two from Jaylen Warren and the finisher by Najee Harris. Both backs ran angry, looked for contact and punished Cleveland defenders when it came. Pittsburgh led 14-13 at the half, had zero three-and-outs, and was protecting the defense with their offense. Their performance inspired hope.
Then came the second half. The Steelers could not match their early success, as a series of mistakes doomed their possessions in the 3rd and early-4th quarters. An opening drive that started well was derailed by a huge penalty and ended with a punt. Then, on three straight series, they went three-and-out, amassing a total of 6 yards on 9 plays. Those possessions used a combined 3:35 of game clock. By giving the ball back to Cleveland so quickly, the Browns were able to get their run game going, wear down Pittsburgh’s defensive front and take control of the contest. They asserted their will on consecutive drives, running 25 plays for 150 yards and holding the ball for 13:37 of game clock. Their 14-13 deficit became a 23-14 advantage, and the Steelers were toast.
How did Pittsburgh’s promising 1st half on offense fall apart after the break? The answer is simple: self-inflicted wounds. For the second week in a row, the contest turned in favor of an opponent as the Steelers shot themselves in the foot. Last week, against New England, it was a dropped interception followed by a mental error on special teams that resulted in having ten men on the field for a Patriots’ punt that ended in a turnover and a quick New England touchdown. Against Cleveland, the mistakes were on the offensive side of the ball. In both games, they allowed the opponent to seize momentum and then salt the game away by pounding the football at Pittsburgh’s shaky run defense. The Steelers aren’t good enough to overcome their own errors. The last two weeks have proven that in the cruelest of ways.
Pittsburgh’s first self-inflicted wound against the Browns came on its opening drive of the 2nd half. Initially, it looked like they would pick up where they’d left off. They mixed the run and the pass, moved Trubisky about the pocket and varied their tempo to advance the ball from their own 16-yard line into Cleveland territory. On 1st and 10 from the Browns’ 46-yard line, a screen pass to Harris lost four yards. Facing 2nd and 14 from the 50, the Steelers ran a nicely executed shovel pass to Warren that hit big. The rookie back caught the inside toss from Trubisky and did what he’s been doing since the early stages of training camp: he ran hard, broke tackles and finished aggressively:
Warren’s run was aided by the play of the offensive line, who executed their assignments well. Right guard James Daniels, who played physically all game, wiped out the defensive tackle to his side of the ball. Center Mason Cole sealed the backside tackle, and left guard Kevin Dotson pulled and wrapped around to run interference. With Cleveland’s left defensive end so far upfield in pursuit of Trubisky, Warren had ample room to run once he caught the pitch.
But right tackle Chuks Okorafor drew a penalty for being illegally downfield before the ball was released. At the point Trubisky pitched it, Okorafor was two yards beyond the line of scrimmage. You can see him circled in the photo below, working up to the linebacker level as Trubisky let the ball go:
The league rule on an illegal downfield pass states that a player is ineligible if he is covered by an outside player and is more than one yard down the field before the pass is released. Technically, the officials made the right call here. In most instances, however, this is not enforced. Informally, and especially given the leniency the league allows on RPO-type passes, penalties of this nature are only called if an ineligible player is at least three yards beyond the line of scrimmage. The “three yard zone” is the bane of the existence of many defensive coordinators, who see it as another protection for the offense by a league that bends the rules in their favor to appease fans who prefer high-scoring games (that’s a direct quote from a former NFL defensive coordinator I spoke with who, to put it mildly, hates the way the game is officiated these days).
Unfortunately for the Steelers, Thursday night’s crew enforced the rule to the letter of its law. Okorafor got flagged, and a 35-yard gain that would have set the Steelers up in the red zone was wiped out. Two plays later, Pittsburgh punted. Cleveland proceeded to drive 70 yards and kick a field goal to give them a lead they would not relinquish.
On the Steelers’ next possession, a more egregious unforced error doomed them. On 3rd and 3 from their own 32, Trubisky read press cover-1 from Cleveland with a five-man pressure and a “rat” sitting in the high hole to disrupt slants and crossing routes. The Steelers aligned in an 11 personnel empty set with Harris and tight end Pat Freiermuth on the wings, but kept both in to chip Cleveland’s edge rushers before they released into the pattern. Meanwhile, slot receiver Chase Claypool ran a slant, which was bracketed by the alley defender and the rat, and Pickens and Diontae Johnson went vertical outside the numbers.
Trubisky made the smart play by choosing one of the verticals. While he essentially threw up a 50/50 ball, it was the right decision given the coverage Cleveland presented. It was also a good choice considering Myles Garrett, who was coming off the edge to Trubisky’s left, beat both the chip by Harris and the block of left tackle Dan Moore to apply near-immediate pressure. Trubisky stood his ground and absorbed the hit, but not before lofting a perfect ball 30 yards down field to Johnson, who promptly dropped it:
At first glance it looked like cornerback Denzel Ward had gotten a piece of the throw to break it up. But from the angle below, you can see it was a clear drop. Trubisky could not have walked the ball down the field and handed it to Johnson in a better spot. Johnson was just late in tracking it, and got his elbows too far away from his body, allowing the throw to escape him. Pittsburgh was forced to punt, and Cleveland again drove the field, this time scoring a touchdown to extend their lead and essentially put the game away.
Trubisky has received a fair amount of criticism for his play so far this season, and much of it is justified. But it is hard to pinpoint him as the culprit for Pittsburgh’s failures in the second half against Cleveland. Blame him if you want, but it’s an act of confirmation bias. The truth is this: had the Steelers avoided their unforced errors on either of their first two drives, they would have been set up nicely with 1st downs inside Cleveland’s 20 and 30-yard lines, respectively. Who knows what would have happened from there, but points on one or both possessions would have changed the game in their favor. That, and the fact they couldn’t get a stop on defense, were the true culprits, not Trubisky.
One more note about Johnson’s drop, which bothers me for reasons beyond the obvious. Earlier in the game, Johnson displayed his frustration with a throw Trubisky made just before halftime that sailed over the heads of both Johnson and Claypool along the sideline. Johnson was open, and Trubisky, who was fleeing pressure, appeared to heave the ball out of bounds to take an incompletion. Johnson threw up his hands, which, while it may not be an overt way to show up a quarterback, has that effect.
A player who is willing to call out what he perceives are the shortcomings of his teammates needs to pick those teammates up when they do make plays, like Trubisky did with his throw on the vertical route. That drop by Johnson, and a lazy illegal shift penalty he took near the end of the game when he failed to get set quickly as the Steelers ran their hurry-up tempo, were both costly. The former squandered a big-play opportunity and the latter wiped out a pass interference call in the end zone against Cleveland that would have given the Steelers possession at the 1-yard line. They were down 23-14 at the time, so a touchdown there, instead of the field goal for which they ultimately settled, would not have changed the outcome. Still, by not displaying the proper sense of urgency in getting lined up, Johnson made a mental error that could have been costly. The criticism of Trubisky he showed by throwing up his hands in front of the cameras was not warranted considering his own shortcomings.
For the second week in a row, the Steelers coughed up a winnable football game by making crucial mistakes in the second half that handed their opponents opportunities on which they capitalized. Hopefully, this doesn’t become a theme for the 2022 Steelers. If it does, it will be a long season for the black-and-gold.