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What happened on the Steelers three and out drives against the Browns?

When the Steelers offense needed to answer the Browns as well as keep their own defense off the field, they failed to come through.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 regular season is underway. In their third game, the Steelers offense struggled to maintain drives in the second half particularly three-straight three and out’s through the third and fourth quarters. So what went wrong on these nine plays? This is the subject for this week’s Steelers Vertex.

Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.

Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.

Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

To set up the three-straight drives where the Steelers went three and out in the third and fourth quarter, their first drive of the half lasted 5:27, was 10 plays, and moved the ball 43 yards. Ultimately, the drive was officially 38 yards as the Steelers intentionally took a delay of game to give their punter more room. On the drive the Steelers had both their only negative play on first down of -4 yards as well as a huge pass play to Jaylen Warren called back on a penalty.

On the Steelers next drive they possessed the ball for 1:27 where they gained 7 yards on three plays. All 7 yards were on rushing attempts as Najee Harris gained 1 yard on first down and Mitch Trubisky ran for 6 yards on second down. On the third down play, a deep pass to Diontae Johnson fell incomplete. The second drive the Steelers possessed the ball for 0:57 and had -5 yards on the drive as the Steelers had a rush for no gain, two incomplete passes, and a false start penalty on third down.

The third drive began at the Steelers 6-yard line as compared to the first two drivers which began at their 25. The Steelers possessed the ball for 1:11 and gained 4 yards. The Steelers gained 7 yards on first time on a pass to Chase Claypool followed by an incompletion. On third down Mitch Trubisky was sacked the only time of the game for -3 yards.

During those 3 drives in the third and fourth quarter, The Steelers ran 9 offensive plays and gained a total of 6 yards. The Steelers had 7 yards in rushing on 3 carries, 4 yards in passing on one completion on five passes as well as a sack, and 5 yards in penalties.

Let’s check out the film on these drives. Since this a little different this week, I’m going to throw a few notes on some of the clips.

The Film Line:

After the Steelers first drive of the second half stalled at midfield, the Browns answered with a field goal to take a two-point lead. The Steelers offense then had the chance to take the lead back.

Steelers at Browns, 3rd quarter, 2:31, First and 10

Najee Harris is the running back.

On a day the Steelers offensive line was playing pretty well, this play struggles when defensive end Isaac Rochell (#98) crashes inside and disrupts what looks like an attempted combo block from Pat Freiermuith and Zach Gentry. Gentry can’t get over to help and Rochell is too much for Freiermuth to block one on one. The first play of the drive gains one yard.

Dave’s Notes: Look at Connor Heyward all the way to the left of the screen. I don’t know if he was supposed to take that block himself of if Gentry was to help, but he can’t slow down the crash down by #42 who makes the play.

Steelers at Browns, 3rd quarter, 1:54, Second and 9

Pat Freiermuth is the tight end to the left side of the screen.

On second down the Steelers throw out an option run with multiple choices for Trubisky. His first read is Myles Garrett. If Garrett stays wide, he gives the ball to Najee Harris. He sees Myles Garrett crashing inside and pulls the ball to take it outside of Garrett.

After that it’s Trubisky and Pat Freiermuth. I love Freiermuth’s part of this play. He looks like he is coming to put a backside block on Myles Garrett, and fakes that he will block, but slips past and into the flat. #44 is far enough outside for Trubisky to turn up field, and the play gains 6 yards.

The Steelers have run this play a few times, but it has mostly been a handoff to Harris. Garrett bites on the run this time, so Matt Canada and Mitchell Trubisky make him pay for it.

Steelers at Browns, 3rd quarter, 1:23, Third and 3

Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

The important read for Trubisky here is the safeties. With the middle of the field so open, if the safeties both stay deep his throw is to Chase Claypool on his slant from the slot. The safeties don’t stay in 2-high, and Trubisky attacks the single-high coverage with this throw to Diontae Johnson.

Johnson can’t secure the catch, and with Najee Harris and Dan Moore Jr. failing to block Myles Garrett, Trubisky takes a shot to go with the drop, and it’s time to punt.

A long pass to Amari Cooper led to a Nick Chubb touchdown for the Browns and the Steelers offense came out needing to put points on the board to stay in the game in their first drive of the fourth quarter.

Steelers at Browns, 4th quarter, 9:29, First and 10

Najee Harris is the running back.

This slanted attack from the Browns defensive line gave the Steelers problems on both of these first downs. It is something the Steelers are going to have to figure out how to counter, because teams are going to see what the Browns are seeing. Whether it is a tell giving away the run play or a predictable formation, whatever it is, the Steelers need to deal with it. They don’t have it figured out yet here, and it leads to 2nd and 10.

Dave’s Notes: Who made the tackle on this play? It looks to me that Najee Harris stumbled on his cut and fell in front of the defender. Looking at it from a side view during the game, he likely gains a few yards if not for the stumble.

Steelers at Browns, 4th quarter, 8:52, Second and 10

Chase Claypool is the slot receiver.

Chase Claypool can’t haul in this pass in traffic. It’s tempting to say the other receivers were open, but the deep safety only commits after the throw is in the air. It is likely that Trubisky would have a shot at George Pickens deep, but Diontae Johnson is only open after the deep safety sees the throw to Claypool and reacts.

The problem on this play is Trubisky can’t hit Claypool in the small window he has available. Look at the play from a different angle.

The timing of Trubisky’s throw has two defenders on Claypool when the ball gets there. It’s also clear that Trubisky was reading Claypool’s route the entire time. He saw the defense, knew where his window was, and it still ended up in a tight spot.

This is where you want Claypool to be catching the ball. That’s how tight window’s are in the NFL. To be a really good quarterback you have to be able to hit that window, and that is why before the draft teams obsess about things like processing speed, throw mechanics and arm strength. Because every tenth of a second matters.

Trubisky can’t get it into that window. His processing is a hair too late, his release a bit too slow. That gives Chase Claypool a tough contested catch to make, and the ball gets knocked away from him.

Steelers at Browns, 4th quarter, 8:46, Third and 15

Pat Freiermuth is the tight end.

After a false start it’s third and 15, and Trubisky overthrows Pat Freiermuth on a ten-yard curl.

The overthrow is a problem, but even if he hits Freiermuth in the chest this isn’t likely to be a conversion. The previous clip was an example of a route running through a window, on this play, the ball is late and instead of that causing the ball to be thrown toward defenders, it allows the defenders time to better defend the pass. This is a throw the quarterback needs to make before the receiver makes his break. You can see Freiermuth get his head around before his body, he does that so he can locate a ball already in the air.

Compare these two moments:

When Freiermuth breaks off his route to stop, the defense sees and immediately starts to collapse on him. That’s why you want the ball to arrive as soon as the receiver makes his break. If the ball arrives at this point Pat Freiermuth has a chance to split the defenders and pick up the first down. The Steelers have been victimized by several throws like this that were in rhythm and on target and the tight end turned and picked up the first. Freiermuth likely does that on this play if the ball in on time and accurate.

Even if this throw is accurate, Freiermuth is going to be hit as soon as he makes the catch and is highly unlikely to convert this. While the first three and out saw good play by Trubisky wasted, the second three and out saw Trubisky’s shortcomings stall the drive out.

This time the Steelers defense would hold, and get the ball back to the offense with five and a half minutes left needing two scores to take the lead.

Steelers at Browns, 4th quarter, 5:29, First and 10

Chase Claypool is the slot receiver to the bottom of the screen.

The Steelers go to one of Trubisky’s strengths to try and get something going here, rolling him out and attacking one side of the defense with multiple layers of receivers. The space the defense is giving Chase Claypool makes this an easy decision and throw to bring up Second and 3.

Steelers at Browns, 4th quarter, 5:10, Second and 3

Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the top of the screen.

This throw to Diontae Johnson is underthrown and falls incomplete. You can see Myles Garrett throws Dan Moore Jr. to the ground to put pressure on Trubisky, and if you look closely, you can see he is leaning back when he makes this throw.

Mitchell Trubisky has a bad habit of throwing off his back foot when he’s moving or under pressure. That lean back pulls the ball short and outside. It’s unfortunate, but third and 3 isn’t a terrible situation.

Steelers at Browns, 4th quarter, 5:04, Third and 3

Chase Claypool is the slot receiver to the top of the screen.

As this play breaks down you can see Chase Claypool move to get open and raise his arm. Mitchell Trubisky isn’t able to get him the ball and takes a sack to bring up fourth down and a third straight drive without a first down.

First watch the blocking to the right side of the line. The Steelers pick up rushers from the outside in under Pat Meyer, and the running back takes the middle. Here both Chukwuma Okorafor (#76) and James Daniels (#78) are expecting a normal rush. But #98 drops and the inside linebacker blitzes, and that gives the Browns a 4-man rush with Najee Harris blocking instead of James Daniels. It’s a good plan for the Browns as Harris continues to struggle in pass protection and they get a sack for their effort.

Beyond that watch Mitchell Trubisky’s eyes on this play. He’s trying to get the ball to George Pickens to his right on a deep route. Looking that way as he runs out of the pocket causes him to miss Chase Claypool open for what would have been a first down. By the time he sees Claypool it is too late to make a throw and the drive is over.

The Point:

The Steelers offense was in a rhythm and doing well in the second quarter and the first drive of the second half, but a few things going wrong in the second drive of the half brought out the bad parts of Mitchell Trubisky’s game. That and Myles Garrett stepping up to make a few plays in key spots helped doom the Steelers in the second half.

The Steelers defense isn’t going to be as dominant with T.J. Watt out, and the offense needs to score points and control the ball more if this team is going to win even a single game before T.J. Watt returns. The Steelers need better play across the board from the offense, but especially from their quarterback.