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Steelers film room: What went wrong vs. the Patriots?

The offense is diseased but not quite dead

NFL: New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Despite laying a pair of eggs the past two games against two of the worst teams in the NFL, the Pittsburgh Steelers find themselves still in the thick of the playoff mix. Currently clinging to a wild card slot, the Steelers will again go with Mitch Trubisky at quarterback while Kenny Pickett’s ankle heals. Let’s take a look at how the Steelers came up short at the end of the Patriots game in week 14 and see if there was any silver lining to that dark cloud.

The Steelers were trailing by a 21-18 score and would have a first-and-10 at the 41 with about two and a half minutes to go. From the shotgun, Trubisky would fire a pass over the head of Diontae Johnson about 15 yards up the right sideline. This is one of those plays that has so much going on that it’s hard to tell where things went wrong. Only Johnson’s feet are visible in this clip at the top of the screen until he cuts to the inside at the Patriot 45. By that time the pass has left Trubisky’s hand headed to the outside. Pat Freiermuth starts the play in the slot to the right of the offensive line. He heads up the field and works around his man to the outside, taking him and his coverage toward Johnson. Perhaps Johnson ran the wrong route or maybe Freiermuth’s outside move to get around coverage caused the congestion, and perhaps Trubisky saw the clutter and air-mailed the pass to throw it away.

Look back at that clip again and see that from the left slot Allen Robinson has cleared his man by the Steeler 45 and has plenty of green in front of him if Trubisky gets him the ball. George Pickens is running down the sideline to the bottom and with his coverage not letting him get open deep and Robinson’s man undercutting a potential back shoulder throw, Trubisky opts for a pass to Johnson.

The next clip is the end zone view where we see Trubisky look to the middle, then left towards the Pickens-Robinson side, before turning right and firing the pass. Was he thinking back shoulder to Pickens but saw the undercut? He certainly wasn’t looking at the wide-open Robinson. He also has to duck on his follow-through to avoid the outstretched arm of a Patriot pass rusher. He could have avoided that arm had he moved up in the pocket. Stepping up into the pocket isn’t just a shortcoming for Pickett.

Here is a better look at the Patriot defender working around Broderick Jones to get near Trubisky. The play resulted in an incompletion and brought up second and 10.

On second down the Steelers would call a run-pass-option. The offensive linemen are pushing across the line of scrimmage to run block. Trubisky reads the off-coverage in front of Johnson at the top of the screen. He will turn to fake the handoff to Najee Harris and rip a dart to Johnson before those linemen get too far down the field and draw a penalty flag. Johnson snags it, gets what he can, and gets out of bounds. Those 8 yards to set up a third-and-short came very easy, or did they?

This next clip shows a slightly off-target snap from Mason Cole has Trubisky reaching to his left to get the football. Possibly caused by that extra twist to get the snap, Trubisky’s left knee will contact Harris’s left knee. Trubisky was able to hit his mark as it was just a quick, short throw.

Zooming in closer, it also looks as if Trubisky and Harris touch cleats mid-throw.

While Trubisky overcoming an off snap and a bump with Harris may not be exactly praiseworthy, compare it to Kenny Pickett’s off-target flare passes to Jaylen Warren against the Bengals in Week 12 and again against the Cardinals in this clip that we showed in the Week 13 Film Room article. On both of those, Warren had to do a 360 to adjust to the pass and head up the field.

Back to the Patriot game, the Steelers now have a third-and-2 from the 49 after the RPO to Johnson. On this play, Pickens is at the top of the screen and will run what initially looks like a slant to the inside while Johnson runs a short out to the flat. The Patriots will only send two rushers and drop nine into coverage. All but the single deep safety will play for short routes that the Steelers could use to get those two yards. Pickens turns at the 42 but the pass misses him high. His odd body twisting led me to believe that this pass was tipped. I couldn’t find any angles that clearly showed a tipped ball and defensive end Keion White was not credited with any for the game. A closer look at the route shows Pickens started to slant his route at the 47 but then flattened it to more of an in-cut at the 43.

From the end zone we see the pass miss out in front of Pickens at about the spot he would’ve been had he not flattened his route. I always lean to the quarterback or the veteran being correct when I see a hiccup like this. Trubisky is both in this case. We also see the two-man rush of the Patriots. James Daniels initially helps Broderick Jones block White but then leaves him to triple-team the only other pass rusher while Dan Moore is left with nobody to block. Did White affect the pass? If so, he easily could have been neutralized with a double-team.

It’s a shame they didn’t make the connection here as there again is plenty of green in front of the receiver. If Pickens continues along the angle of the slant there’s plenty of space to drop a throw with only one out-of-position defender to beat.

Now for the final meaningful play for the Steelers. It’s fourth-and-2 with just over two minutes left. Just need to grab a quick two yards and use the last two minutes of the game to work for the go-ahead touchdown or game-tying field goal. Instead, Trubisky launched a 40-yard deep shot down the left sideline that wasn’t even close enough for Diontae Johnson to get a hand on. It left millions of Black and Gold fans yelling “What the Mitch was that?” at the TV. Watching film on the Steelers it’s become obvious that a foundation of the Matt Canada offense has been to take these shots when you see one-on-one coverage and a single deep safety. Kenny Pickett talked about it when he took a similar shot and hit Pickens for the game-winner against the Ravens in Week 5. Different scenario there as the game was tied and it wasn’t fourth down.

Another all-too-common sight when watching film is the Steelers, despite struggling with pass protection most of the time, do what they did here—send receivers on slow-developing routes. Pickens will run a go route up along the right sideline with the safety shaded to his side of the field. Johnson runs his to the bottom along the left sideline and has an outside position on his coverage. Freiermuth is covered on his 10-yard route up the hash marks, leaving Robinson from the right slot as the only short route. There’s a window to throw it to Robinson between defenders, but by the time he turns to look for a pass the launch sequence had already been initiated.

Below we see the ball is placed to the inside where the defender is a shield, preventing any chance for a completion. A ball placed between Johnson and the sideline might have had a shot. On TV it looked like a throw into double coverage, but we can see that the safety coming from the opposite side of the field had no chance for a play on Johnson.

The next clip is a little blurry as some of the definition was lost when I blew it up, but I wanted to highlight Trubisky’s footwork. If you ever need to throw something 50 yards, I suggest NOT leaning backward and lifting your plant foot as you throw.

The Steeler coaching staff has a mini-bye to try and work out some kinks after that Thursday night game against New England. When they looked at the tape they had to be frustrated at all the mistakes that it took to lose by only three. These final four plays had enough for an entire game. Not seeing Allen Robinson running free down the numbers from the left slot, Pat Freiermuth and Diontae Johnson running routes that had them close enough for a tickle fight, pass protection issues even against a two-man rush, George Pickens not getting the ball after he clears 10 of 11 defenders and has that one out of position, and poor mechanics and ball placement by Mitch Trubisky all add up to one ugly loss to a terrible team. If the extra time off before playing the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday can fix just a couple of issues, snapping this two-game skid doesn’t seem as impossible as it did just a week ago.