The Steelers are 1-1, which is good, but their record is…it’s like a free ice cream cone. At first glance you’re like aww heck yeah, free ice cream cone, I needed this today but upon closer inspection you see the ice cream part is just a pulsating mound of spiders. Let’s plumb these depths together in the stock report.
Stock up – Charts
I went on a bit of a diatribe about analytics in an earlier post but sometimes math tells a story that words cannot. Look at this photograph:
In essence, what this chart communicates is that the Steelers offense is so woebegone, so categorically busted, that its mere existence is actually a net disservice to the overall team effort.
Now, let’s peruse some passing charts for three mystery quarterbacks.
This is Quarterback A, and this is a solid looking chart. Tons of green, good dispersion to different areas of the field (perhaps indicating solid offensive line play, or the quarterback feeling settled enough to go through their reads, or both), a pleasing mix of short- and mid-range throws with only a handful of passes at or behind the line of scrimmage and a pair of speculative deep looks. This quarterback’s team lost but judging from this chart they did very little to precipitate that outcome.
Yikes. This is Quarterback B, and his chart stands in direct contrast to that chart shown above. Virtually no action on the left side of the field, a tight nucleus of passes with an average depth of target less than 10 yards, a trio of interceptions. A true mosaic of ineptitude. Again, putting all other context aside, it would not be unreasonable to conclude that this quarterback played hurried, nervous football, rarely looking beyond their first read. Their team lost (duh).
This is Quarterback C. Somewhat similar to that one above, right? There’s a bit more action occurring on this quarterback’s blind side, which to an extent communicates that they went through some effort to go through their progressions, but still only totaled three completions. The middle of the field is a barren moonscape of inactivity (though this could be the result of the defense’s schematics) and most of this quarterback’s attempts are grouped in the same sort of vicinity as Quarterback B’s. What should stand out about this particular chart is the surfeit of passes at or behind the line of scrimmage—10, if my eyes are working correctly. Very gross.
Quarterback A is Josh Dobbs, a former Steelers castoff who the Cardinals are starting under center in their active and enthusiastic pursuit of USC’s Caleb Williams. Quarterback B is Zach Wilson, who was thrust back into starting action after Aaron Rodgers ruptured his Achilles in the first game of the season; and Quarterback C is Kenny Pickett. Dobbs played about as well as he could’ve considering that losing as many games as possible as respectably as possible is his team’s modus operandi. Wilson was terrible, but only part of that is due to his inherent inadequacies: the Cowboys, who Wilson and the Jets faced last Sunday, are in possession of what appears to be a historically dominant defense, spearheaded by what appears to be a historically dominant player in Micah Parsons. (For all the attention that’s paid to the T.J. Watt/Myles Garrett debate, neither side considers that Parsons is probably better than both. I welcome your opprobrium and scorn in the comments.) To wit, Dallas is likely going to make many quarterbacks look awfully bad this season, so as grim as Wilson’s passing chart looks, it’s at least partly attributable to how good the Cowboys defense is.
The full version of Pickett’s chart indicates that his completion percentage over expectation (CPOE%) was -12.5% against the Browns. Judging that figure in concert with the distribution of dots festooning his passing chart would suggest not only that Pickett and the Steelers played (and are playing) conservatively and predictably, but that Pickett simply missed (and is missing) throws that he should otherwise be completing. Two games is obviously an extremely small sample size, but Pickett misfiring on what should be easy reads is starting to become A Thing. The Raiders have given up the second-most passing touchdowns in the NFL this season and are allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete passes at an 81% clip, so if Pickett and the passing attacking are looking for a breakout opportunity, this Sunday might be it.
Stock down: The rushing attack
I didn’t intend for this to be a stats article, but the Steelers are ranked in the bottom five in the NFL in rushing yards (second-worst), yards per carry (fourth-worst), rushing touchdowns (they currently have 0, two less than the number of defensive touchdowns they’ve scored this season), and first downs gained by rushing (third-worst). HOWEVER, the Steelers are one of only eight teams with multiple rushes of 20 or more yards this season, which means that they’ve gained about 40% of their season rushing yardage total on two carries. This is deeply unserious football.
I have a theory that, upon assuming fatherhood, every person who identifies as male in Western Pennsylvania has a sleeper cell activated in their frontal lobe that turns them into their own father. I’m super guilty of this, as I spent my mid-to-late 20s advocating for an Air Raid offense (the year Ben Roethlisberger threw 12 touchdowns over the course of two weeks was the pinnacle of my fanhood in my 20s) and treating the run game as an afterthought and then I had kids and turned 30 and now I’m like Well I tell ya, they gawt tew run da baw!
Of course, runnin’ da daw is only a feasible strategy when the component parts that spur the action are working in concert. Najee Harris runs like me when I’m dreaming and he approaches running lanes like an awkward conversation with an old friend. Jaylen Warren seems marginally more adept at exploiting space and he’s certainly faster than Harris, but he was undrafted and Harris was a first-round pick, so there is no reality in which he supplants Harris entirely. As bad as Kenny Pickett has looked this season, there’s only so much he can do when the only time he’s throwing is on 3rd-and-8, and as bad as Matt Canada’s schematics have looked, he can’t clear out defenders or tell the back which hole to attack. The rushing attack is very much the fulcrum of this offense, and deficiencies here are going to portend issues everywhere else.
Stock up: Rookie integration
The Steelers did not draft Darnell Washington to permanently endow him with the thankless task of run blocking: they drafted him to use his 4.6 speed to leave off-ball linebackers in a trail of dust, to use his 270-pound body to barrel over cornerbacks, leaving them flayed and pretzeled in heaps of flesh, to use his 6-foot-7 frame to pluck errant passes from the ionosphere and tip-toe the back of the end-zone. The primary knock on Washington coming out of college was that he was incredibly raw, so the fact that he’s being entrusted to run block is an acknowledgement that the coaches want him out there in some capacity, so the hope is that production will follow. Keanu Benton is already producing and flashing his versatility by taking snaps at tackle and end, and Joey Porter Jr. had the coverage on the game-winning play against Cleveland. All three are trending in the direction to play bigger roles against the Raiders, and hopefully for the remainder of the season.
Broderick Jones, meanwhile, hasn’t yet found his way into the starting lineup. It’s fair to wonder if this is intentional, as Nick Bosa and Myles Garrett are the best pass rushers the Steelers will face this season, so perhaps holding Jones out of action the first two games was to avoid wrecking his confidence beyond repair. Raiders EDGE Maxx Crosby is no slouch, so if this is the week Jones gets thrust into extended action, it’ll be a big test.