PITTSBURGH — Mitch Trubisky won the starting quarterback job in Pittsburgh during training camp basically by not losing it.
He did not turn the ball over during preseason and earned praise from the coaching staff for his decision-making.
However, that same pragmatic approach isn’t working as well now that games count. And Trubisky knows it.
The Steelers (1-1) have had two touchdown drives in two games going into Thursday’s visit to Cleveland (1-1), a ratio that must change if Pittsburgh is to be a factor in what looks like a wide-open AFC. North.
“We just have to add more points”, Trubisky said Tuesday. “So however we do that, that has to be our mindset.”
Therein lies the question. Pittsburgh’s biggest moves this offseason were aimed at trying to jumpstart an offense that finished in the bottom third of the league in most major offensive categories.
The Steelers signed Trubisky and recruited eventual franchise quarterback Kenny Pickett, revamped the offensive line and added 6-foot-3 wide receiver George Pickens who stretches out over the field to a wide receiver room that already featured the professional bowling Diontae Johnson and the 6-4 conundrum Chase Claypool.
For nine quarters, however, the deep passing game is non-existent. Trubisky ranks 32nd in the league in yards per attempt. His two longest completions have come to tight ends Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry on plays in which Freiermuth and Gentry’s legs did most of the work as they converted short throws into 30-plus yard gains and Pickens, a standout during camp, he has been basically invisible while catching two passes for 23 yards.
Coach Mike Tomlin declined to blame a specific person, but added that both the quarterback and the game plan could be more aggressive. Trubisky insists that he doesn’t need to be told twice.
“I think every quarterback likes to throw the ball as far down the football field as they can and watch their playmakers come up and catch it.” he said.
Trubisky’s midfielders are waiting. Johnson was demonstrably upset at one point during last Sunday’s 17-14 loss to New England after Trubisky went elsewhere with the ball on a play that Johnson felt he had an advantage in the matchup.
Pickens estimates that it was open “90%” of time against the Patriots, a percentage more symbolic of Pickens’ confidence than reality, a perception that’s just fine for his head coach.
“We’ve got playmakers, young playmakers, really talented guys, guys that want to be the reasons we’re successful.” Sad Tomlin. “I’d rather say ‘whoa’ than ‘sic’em.’ I think that’s just a general attitude that we have, as competitors in a competitive soccer team in a competitive organization.”
It’s an attitude Trubisky insists on sharing, though he’s also quick to point out that he doesn’t need to start channeling Kansas City star Patrick Mahomes and throwing the ball all over the field. A little boldness could go a long way with a defense that looks significantly improved from last year’s group that finished last in the league against the run.
“There is a very fine line between protecting the ball and (wanting) to be aggressive,” Trubisky said. “So you want to be aggressive at quarterback. But when you have a great defense (like we have), you also want to protect the ball because they will always keep us in games.”
Maybe, but the Steelers are currently without All-Pro outside linebacker TJ Watt, who is out indefinitely with a left pectoral injury. Pittsburgh didn’t have a sack against the Patriots and produced just one turnover after racking up five in Week 1 at Cincinnati.
If Pittsburgh wants to do more than stay afloat in Watt’s absence, the offense needs to improve. The Steelers got off to a similar slow start last season and bounced back to make the playoffs.
It’s too early to panic, especially in a season that now stretches well past the New Year and the offense is incredibly young. Pittsburgh’s longest-tenured offensive starter is right tackle Chuks Okorafor, who is in his fifth season. Trubisky has been in offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s system for a few months. All starting skill position players have been in the NFL for four years or less.
Canada used the words “growing up” either “increase” multiple times on Tuesday, essentially saying the Steelers need to trust the process. It’s a sentiment shared by the 21-year-old Pickens, who has only been a professional since May, but understands how quickly perceptions and production can change.
“Someone could catch a 90-yard bomb (Thursday),” Picken said. “And now everyone is excited again. So it can happen at any time.”
The sooner the better in Pittsburgh.
NOTES: LB Devin Bush (foot) practiced Tuesday and is expected to play in Cleveland. … The Steelers signed WR Jaquarii Roberson to the practice squad and released CB Mark Gilbert.
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