Once again, the Pittsburgh Steelers' season is in peril. For a third straight season, Mike Tomlin's team is entering the season's final month with a possible playoff spot hanging in in the balance.
Things are much different this year, though. In fact, you could say that the sky is falling in Pittsburgh and it wouldn't be an understatement. That's what happens when you become the first team in NFL history to have a winning record and lose consecutive games to teams that are at least eight games under .500. In doing so, the Steelers went from 7-4 to 7-6 and on the outside of the AFC playoff picture.
Fortunately, the Steelers have three winnable games on the horizon: at 7-5 Indianapolis, at home against 6-6 (and Joe Burrow-less) Cincinnati and on the road against 6-6 Seattle. Pittsburgh ends the year with a daunting road game against 9-3 Baltimore, but that game may not determine the Steelers' playoff fate if they can handle business over the next three weeks.
Can the Steelers do that? While the last two weeks would suggest otherwise, Pittsburgh can right the ship while savaging its season. Here's three things the black and gold can do to improve its odds at turning things around just in the nick of time.
1. Refine the offense
With nine days in between games, the Steelers have time to refine an offensive game plan that is sorely in need of one. They won't be able to overhaul it, but the Steelers' offensive brass can make adjustments to the game plan while eliminating some of the plays that have held the unit back so far.
Horizontal plays, for instance, should be largely banned from the offense. They've mostly resulted in negative plays that have too often put the Steelers in obvious passing situations on third down. Eliminate those and replace them with plays that have a higher chance of working.
The trick plays also need to be either revised or taken out of the game plan. They had success on a Calvin Austin III reverse against the Patriots, but a similar play resulted in a big loss when Pittsburgh ran it later in the game (Mitch Trubisky was one of the lead blockers on both plays ... I don't think I need to say much else). The Steelers got lucky when another trick play near the goal line -- a pass by tight end Connor Heyward -- wasn't but could have easily been picked off.
Speaking of plays not working, interim play caller Mike Sullivan needs to scratch plays that just aren't working. Twice, he called horizontal running plans Thursday night that featured rookie tight end Darnell Washington as the lead blocker. On both plays, Washington was beaten badly by Patriots linebacker Anfernee Jennings, who made two tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
Pittsburgh has had a lot of success off of shotgun runs. That needs to continue to be an integral part of the game plan. Mike Tomlin admitted that Pittsburgh got away from its running game during the team's Week 11 loss to Cleveland. It somewhat happened again during Thursday night's loss to New England, although a 21-3 first-half deficit likely had something to do with it. Sullivan and Co. need to make sure it doesn't happen again.
2. Tailor the offense around Trubisky
This isn't Kenny Pickett's offense anymore, at least until the Steelers' starting quarterback returns from his ankle injury. Until then, Pittsburgh needs to adjust the play-calling to complement the things Trubisky does best while eliminating the things he struggles with.
Trubisky, like a lot of passers, is a rhythm quarterback. That was on display Thursday night; after a slow start, Trubisky got into a rhythm while directing two drives that ended in the Patriots' end zone.
It's paramount to get Trubisky into a rhythm early. That will likely lead to early points while also setting the table for Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren and the running game. This was basically what happened when the Steelers got their most recent win against the Bengals back in Week 12. Pickett had early success, the Steelers scored on their opening drive, and Pittsburgh had perfect synergy between its passing and running games.
How can the Steelers get Trubisky into an early rhythm? By giving him quick, easy passes that he feels comfortable making. That should include short passes to Harris and Warren, who are both capable pass-catchers out of the backfield (Harris caught 74 passes his rookie season; Warren is currently second on the team with 42 catches).
Trubisky does better with quick passes that don't require a lot of reads. Curls, or comeback routes, are typically his bread and butter. His two-point conversion completion Thursday night to tight end Pat Freiermuth was an example of a play that highlights what Trubisky does well.
Speaking of Freiermuth, he is one of Pittsburgh's skill players that needs the ball in hands hands more. Ditto for George Pickens, whose lack of involvement has been well documented. Getting those two more involved goes hand-in-hand with getting Trubisky into an early rhythm.
In general, the Steelers would benefit from spreading the wealth and forcing defenses to spread out while respecting the entire field. If Freiermuth is more involved, for example, that will undoubtedly lead to more opportunities for Pickens to make plays, especially downfield. The Steelers have the players to make this happen, they just need to do so.
As far as Trubisky's mindset is concerned, the Steelers need to tell him that it's OK to take the safe option (i.e. check down) more often. Since being benched last season (largely for being too conservative), Trubisky has made it a point to be more aggressive. While that has times resulted in good things (like he touchdown pass to Diontae Johnson on Thursday night), it has more often than not led to turnovers and other drive-killing plays, such as his fourth-down incompletion to Johnson that essentially ended Thursday night's game.
Trubisky's aggressiveness isn't a bad thing. But it needs to be reigned in.
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3. Be willing to make personnel changes
Tomlin said after the loss to Cleveland that he is willing to turn over every stone in order to win games. He's made some changes (most notably Matt Canada's firing), but the Steelers haven't turned over every stone. The time to do so is now.
Defensive captain Cameron Heyward said it himself after Thursday night's loss. Heyward said the Steelers need to replace anyone who isn't getting the job done, himself included. Heyward certainly doesn't need to be benched, but a few of his teammates can't say the same.
Mason Cole, for example, had several costly low snaps over the past week that included one that contributed to the Steelers having to settle for a field goal on their opening drive against the Patriots. Nate Herbig, one of the team's free agent pickups this offseason, should replace Cole if Cole's issues persist. The same can be said of Chukwuma Okorafor, who committed a pre-snap penalty Thursday night five days after Pittsburgh had to burn a timeout because he came onto the field late. Dylan Cook, who is behind Okorafor on the depth chart, would have been a better option in hindsight.
Replacing players shouldn't just be about performance, though this could come at the expense of winning, which would only exacerbate Pittsburgh's current situation. But you can't argue that Tomlin benching Pickens and Johnson for their lack of effort on running plays in recent weeks wouldn't send a strong message to the locker room.
Regarding Pickens, his frustration is understandable. He's a talented player who desperately wants to make plays that can make a difference in the game. But he also needs to learn how to harness his frustrations while not allowing it to come out in the form of tantrums and taking plays off.
Trubisky's job shouldn't be considered safe, either. No, Trubisky shouldn't have a short leash; he showed last season that his performance drops off when he's in those situations. But Tomlin should give Mason Rudolph more reps in practice so that he is better suited to come into a game at a moment's notice.
Changing personnel isn't solely reserved for the offense. Backup strong safety Trenton Thompson, who had a pick in Pittsburgh's win over Cincinnati, should be a candidate for more even more playing time moving forward, especially after Damontae Kazee's's struggles in pass coverage against New England.
Tomlin has already made changes to the starting lineup; he replaced Okorafor with rookie Broderick Jones at RT, and Pittsburgh's offense has been better for it. Tomlin should continue to be open to making changes if it improves his team's chances at winning.