HOUSTON — The Pittsburgh Steelers offense sputtered and stalled once again Sunday.
A Kenny Pickett interception on Pittsburgh’s first offensive series set the tone for a first half that featured a pair of three-and-outs, no first downs through the air, four punts and just 53 yards of offense.
WE SEE YOU 21 😤 pic.twitter.com/HksuKXQEnQ
— Houston Texans (@HoustonTexans) October 1, 2023
Just when it looked like things couldn’t get any worse, they did.
On 4th-and-1 in the closing minutes of the third quarter, the Steelers opted to go for it. Pickett took the snap in the shotgun and tried to spin out of the pocket. As he did, Texans defensive end Jonathan Greenard got free from Steelers left tackle Broderick Jones and took down the quarterback.
“I just remember seeing (Pickett) grab his knee,” Jones said. “Just praying for him. Hopefully, it’s not too serious. Hopefully, we can get him back as soon as possible.”
After the Steelers’ medical team examined Pickett in the blue tent, he limped into the locker room under his own power, ending his day. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin had no further details following the 30-6 loss other than to say Pickett will need to continue to be evaluated.
Now, as the Steelers wait for answers on Pickett’s knee, they’re left with a big question: Where does the offense go from here?
The truth is, their issues have been festering for years. After scoring 26.6 points per game in Ben Roethlisberger’s penultimate season, the Steelers hired Matt Canada. The offensive coordinator’s first and only season with Roethlisberger, the Steelers scored a touchdown less than they did the previous season, producing 20.2 points per game.
When Roethlisberger’s retired, the optimistic view was the change would allow Canada to open up his entire playbook with a young, mobile quarterback. Instead, the Steelers slid even further, finishing 26th in scoring (18.1) last year. But the excuse that time was the Steelers were breaking in a rookie quarterback who was thrust into action in the middle of the season. This year was supposed to be the year they turned a corner. Just wait.
Well, after Sunday’s dismal performance, the Steelers are averaging just 12 points per game. Only the Cincinnati Bengals (10.5 offensive points per game) have had a harder time putting up points.
Scoring so few points is never excusable. But it was somewhat understandable when the Steelers’ offense spun its wheels in Week 1 against the San Francisco 49ers, who boasted the league’s top defense in 2022, and in Week 2 against a much-improved Browns defense that’s currently sixth-best.
But the Houston Texans were a three-win team last year. Before playing the Steelers, they were the league’s 11th-worst scoring defense, allowing 24.3 points per game. The Steelers made them look like the ’85 Bears.
“It’s a multitude of things,” backup quarterback Mitch Trubisky said. “No. 1: Whenever the play call comes in, you’ve got to execute it. All 11 guys got to be on the same page. For me, what I’ve been seeing from the sideline is we’ve got to stay ahead of the chains, stay out of those third-and-long situations. And when you’re getting in the red zone, score.”
Now, it would be a shock if the Steelers chose to move on from Canada within the season, given how loyal the organization has historically been to its coaches. Right or wrong, that’s the way the Steelers do business.
So for now, it seems like their only choice is to regroup and deal with the possibility of playing without Pickett.
“That’s why they brought me back here, to be ready to go at a moment’s notice,” said backup quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who signed an extension this offseason through the 2025 season. “We’ve just got to have a good week of practice. Whatever happens, happens.”
Stepping in for Pickett is something Trubisky has done before, with mixed results.
Last season, after losing the starting job to Pickett in the middle of Week 4, Trubisky appeared in three games in relief. Looking back, those games might help create the road map for how to get the offense back on track and weather the absence of Pickett.
Back in Week 6, Trubisky stepped in and completed 9-of-12 passes for 144 yards and a touchdown in the Steelers’ 20-18 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
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In Week 13, the Steelers and Trubisky took a much more aggressive approach, airing the ball out 30 times, with three interceptions, against the Baltimore Ravens in a 16-14 loss. After that loss, the Steelers doubled down on their ground attack, which improved considerably as the season unfolded last year. The following week in Carolina, Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren combined for 35 carries for 124 yards and two rushing touchdowns.
Those numbers and the winning results with a ground-based attack last year should only reinforce what’s already been shown this season: The Steelers are at their best when they establish the run early, take the pressure off of their quarterback and set up play-action shots downfield. That’s the formula that worked in Las Vegas in Week 3, the only time this season the offense has looked competent.
The same was true on Sunday. When Harris began running angry in the second half, the Steelers finally started moving the ball.
“It sucks the way it happened, but that’s the Naj we all know,” Warren said. “I’m glad it showed today.”
And it will have to continue to show. While the offensive coordinator will get the heaviest dose of blame this week and the Steelers faithful hold their breath for good news on the quarterback, perhaps the attention should be on the running backs, as the Steelers prepare for an AFC North showdown with the Ravens.
(Top photo: Carmen Mandato / Getty Images)
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