The Steelers in 2021 were not a good offense. They ranked 24th in points per drive, 28th in yards per play, 29th in rushing, and 24th in passer rating. They were bottom ten in most categories, the one important category they did well in was turnovers, posting the 8th lowest rate of turnovers in the NFL. Ben Roethlisberger protected the football with a sub-2% interception rate, but the offense didn’t move the ball or score well. Last season BTSC readers voted the offensive line the biggest culprit, with offensive coordinator and quarterback play splitting the rest of the votes.
In 2022 the Steelers changed two of their starting linemen, the offensive line coach, their quarterback, and four of their top five wide receivers by snap count. With all that change on the offense the Steelers finished 23rd in points per drive, 28th in yards per play, 16th in rushing and 30th in passer rating. The brightest spot on their offense was in turnovers, where the Steelers posted the 6th lowest rate of turnovers in the NFL.
“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
When your passing game is bad, it’s never just one thing going wrong. Plenty of people made mistakes, and there’s no obvious glaring reason. In order to sort through the issues I’m going to go through and make the case for each of the key suspects. It’s your task to look past your preconceived notions, look at the evidence and vote for who was most to blame for the Steelers struggles in the passing game.
1 - The Quarterbacks
The Steelers moved on from Ben Roethlisberger and many people thought that everything would be fixed. Instead the Steelers poor passing game got even worse. Mitch Trubisky wasn’t the answer to anything but “who do you most trust to avoid completing a significant passing play” in 2022. Kenny Pickett and his tiny baby hands was drafted in the first round, and while the Steelers focused on trying to get Trubisky ready to play, they still ditched him and went with Kenny Pickett halfway through the Week 4. Pickett proceeded to throw 8 interceptions in his first 165 passes, a ridiculous 4.8% interception percentage.
The rookie wasn’t ready, the veteran wasn’t good. You can blame the Steelers for building the roster, but with Trubisky and Pickett the season was over before the bye week. After the bye week the Steelers run game and defense fueled a 7-2 run that the quarterbacks didn’t sabotage, except for when they did, like Mitch Trubisky and his three interceptions thrown in a two-point loss.
When fans and analysts complain about the overly simple passing schemes, it’s pretty important to remember the interceptions and near-interceptions Mitch Trubisky threw over the middle of the field and also Kenny Pickett saying one of the strengths of his relationship with Matt Canada was Canada would ask Pickett what routes and plays Pickett was comfortable with and run them. The offensive coordinator called the passing offense the Steelers quarterbacks could handle.
The Steelers won with defense and a run game, but they often loss because of quarterback play.
2 - The Coordinator
Bruce Arians and Todd Haley were hated in their time leading the Steelers offense, but both now look like geniuses compared to Matt Canada. Heck, even Randy Fichtner looks good compared to Canada’s passing schemes. Sure the run game took off and the Steelers won late in the season, but the passing game was a nightmare for the second straight season, and Canada is one of the few names that was there for both.
No matter what you think of the quarterbacks and how capable they were to lead an NFL offense this season, or how limited the receivers were, it’s the offensive coordinator’s offense.
3 - The Offensive Line
Pat Meyer took over the offensive line coaching duties for the Steelers 2022 season, and while the line improved over the course of the season, it would have taken a miracle for it to not have. It’s hard to imagine a worse offensive line than the one the Steelers started the 2022 season with. miscommunications galore and individual failings all over doomed the Steelers quarterbacks to throwing while running from pressure far too much of the season. Even as the line improved and the run game took off, the passing game lagged far behind, and the pressure still came on most plays. Developing a rookie quarterback in season is hard enough, but asking a rookie to help your team win while he’s scrambling for his life. The Steelers went from Ben Roethlisberger who couldn’t move well anymore to two mobile quarterbacks who both showed talent for evading pressure and the sack rate for Steelers actually went up, from 5.4% in 2021 to 6.2% in 2022.
4 - The Receivers
Diontae Johnson followed his 95th out of 152 receivers in yards per target in 2021 by ranking 117th out of 139 receivers in yards per target in 2022. He was the only holdover from the 2021 season, and led both teams in targets by a good margin, finishing 3rd in targets in the NFL in 2021 and 8th in 2022. Johnson’s inefficiency and knack for drawing all the targets his way made him the #1 reason for the Steelers passing game spending two years near the bottom of the NFL. The Steelers revamped the room around Johnson, drafting George Pickens in the 2nd round and trading Chase Claypool half-way through the season. George Pickens was exciting as a rookie, especially for his contested catch ability, but he’s not the first to impress the fan base that way, James Washington led the Steelers in receiving yards in 2019 with 735 with more yards per game and more yards per reception than George Pickens’ rookie season. Both were great at coming down with contested catches, but both were also not good route runners, and consistently at the bottom of the rankings for creating separation. Furthermore, while people complain about the oversimplified offense, how much of that was because of the Steelers rookie receiver and his lack of a route tree. Pickens is electric, but if he doesn’t expand his route tree he might earn the “one-trick pony” designation another young explosive Steeler receiver received.
With the trade of Claypool the Steelers didn’t even have a third receiver they could play very much the second half of the season, splitting snaps between Gunner Olszewski and Steven Sims, Olszewski ran the ball more times than he was targeted in the passing game, and Steven Sims was one of the few players to actually post a worse yards per target than Diontae Johnson, and that’s not an easy feat.
It doesn’t matter who the quarterback is or what the play design is if the receivers can’t get open, catch the ball and make plays.
Those are the leading suspects for sabotaging the Steelers passing game, and the evidence against them. Now it is up to you, our resident Steelers detectives to solve the case and let us know which one of them was most responsible for the demise of the Steelers passing game.
Let us know your vote and then share your thoughts in the comments.
Which was the biggest problem for the Steelers passing game last year?
This poll is closed
The quarterbacks without a clue
The offensive coordinator with the lousy scheme
The offensive line that couldn’t protect
The receivers that didn’t make plays