Salvaging Saquon Barkley and the Mitch Trubisky Trio

Pittsburgh Steelers QBs Mitchell Trubisky & Mason Rudolph
Pittsburgh Steelers QBs Mitchell Trubisky & Mason Rudolph
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Offseason - What could possibly be more boring than the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback competition between Mitch Trubisky, Mason Rudolph, and Kenny Pickett?

How about a non-competition between Trubisky, Rudolph, and Pickett?

Mike Tomlin and the Steelers don't do quarterback controversies. It's hard to even imagine Tomlin at a podium patiently providing daily updates and parsing 7-on-7 results. So it sounds like Tomlin plans to take the "please disperse, nothing to see here" route.

Per Mark Kaboly of The Athletic, Trubisky took all of the reps with the first-team receivers during OTAs, Rudolph all the reps with the second team, and Pickett, the first-round pick and theoretical quarterback of the future, all the third-team reps. There's nothing unusual about the hierarchy, but most coaches would mix things up by, say, giving the rookie an honorary 7-on-7 series or two with the starters.

"I think Coach has been very clear that Mitch is No. 1, working with the ones and doing a really good job with that," offensive coordinator Matt Canada said last week, per Kaboly. "Mason is No. 2, and Kenny is No. 3. And we are working that way based on experience, based on résumé. We have been clear that this has been a laid-out plan of how we are going to evolve and who our quarterback is going to be for the 2022 season."

Ah, so the situation is expected to evolve. The Steelers are just starting from extremely, rigidly fixed initial conditions, as befits a team that has gone through just three coaches in over half a century.

Superficially, this is a dull competition between a reclamation project few believe in, an incumbent few take seriously, and a rookie prospect few are all that thrilled about. Dig a little deeper, however, and it's still rather dull:

  • Trubisky's upside is probably 2018 Trubisky: somewhere between 3,000 and 3,500 yards, 24 touchdowns, 19th in DVOA, 17th in DYAR, a performance just good enough to make the Steelers a wild card also-ran thanks to their pass rush and offensive playmakers.
     
  • Pickett's upside as a rookie is probably 2017 Trubisky: 2,000 to 2,500 yards and seven touchdowns in a half-season in a childproof offense, 29th in DVOA and DYAR. He could lead the Steelers to some victories as a student driver, again due to the surrounding talent. More on that in a moment.
     
  • Rudolph is only in the mix as a reward for four years of coffee and donut runs for the quarterback room. If the organization had any stake in him, they would not have signed Trubisky and drafted Pickett.

In some ways, the Steelers quarterback competition is like the dreary Denver Broncos competitions of 2016-to-February, with meh prospects, extra-meh veterans, and journeyman hangers-on competing to see who might be able to generate 19 offensive points on Sundays so the defense can win a few games.

The Trubisky Trio may not have spent OTAs jockeying for starter's reps, but they did get lots of time to soak up Canada's scheme. Apparently, Canada runs what is described as a motion-based offense, with lots of rollouts and play-action. Who knew? If Ben Roethlisberger tried to roll out last year, the Steelers would have needed to call three EMTs and an earth mover to roll him back in.

Rollout-heavy offenses are generally used to protect quarterbacks with quick feet but noodly arms. Such systems are also typically designed for iffy decision-makers because they limit the reads to half the field. It sounds like the Steelers are going from last year's 7-on-7 youth league flag football offense to something closer to junior varsity in 2022.

I'm reserving judgment on Canada, whom many Steelers fans wanted to burn in effigy last year. (The reasoning was that Pappy Roethlisberger could still sling it, but Canada wouldn't let him. Steelers fans don't handle change well.) But if Canada manages to foist second-division ACC tactics on the NFL, then parlay even the most modest success into decades of job security, well, I admire his chutzpah. I can imagine pulling up Canada's file before his sixth stop as an NFL coordinator in 2037 and reading, "Canada helped the Steelers reach the playoffs in Ben Roethlisberger's final season, then coached Mitch Trubiksy to a 3,500-yard season in 2022, then joined Josh McCown's staff in Houston and taught Davis Mills the tarantella*." But maybe Canada is an undiscovered genius just waiting for his quarterback.

* (I grew up hearing this word pronounced as "DOT-n-dell" and expect you to read it in your heads as such.)

What the Steelers are doing with the Trubisky Trio is not unusual. They are just taking a more structured approach to a tried-and-true method for keeping a quarterback controversy in an icewater bath. Assuming all goes according to plan, Pickett will move past Rudolph in camp, with Trubisky in the EZ Pass lane to becoming the opening day starter. It's easy to be cynical about such a plan—the Bears tried something similar last year, with disastrous results—but Tomlin doesn't have to rely on save-his-job tactics. The Steelers are moving slowly because that's their default organizational speed.

Tomlin and the Steelers may also realize that their ability to reach the playoffs despite poor quarterback play thanks to sacks 'n' YAC can be a double-edged sword. It's easy to get a false read on a quarterback who's winning games by final scores like 15-10 and 19-13. If that quarterback's a rookie, he becomes a folk hero, which brings a fresh set of thorny little problems. If Trubisky soaks up a few wins like those, fewer people will be fooled, and Pickett can enjoy the rare luxury of extra developmental time.

So don't expect many headlines or fireworks from the Steelers quarterback competition.

And try not to think about how much fun a "motion offense" would sound if Malik Willis had been given a chance to run it.

Salvaging Saquon Barkley

New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley will be deployed in more creative ways this season than he was in years past, per Ralph Vacchiano of SNY.

"There's no telling which direction Saquon Barkley will be headed anymore," Vacchiano wrote last week. "One play, he's a running back, the next he's a slot receiver, then he'll split out wide or maybe go in motion from wherever he starts."

Vacchiano's report sounds suspiciously like the sort of thing we have heard every year out of East Rutherford. In fact, I wrote about Barkley being used as a receiver during a visit to Giants training camp way back before his rookie 2018 season. The Joe Judge regime may not have deployed Barkley as a receiver very often, because Judge thought of offense in general as something between a precursor to an awesome punt and a convenient receptacle for blame. But surely Barkley was used in the slot or as a wide receiver during the more blandly professional Pat Shurmur era, right?

Let's find out. Here are Barkley's targets and receiving figures when lined up at a position other than running back for his entire NFL career, per Sports Info Solutions:

Saquon Barkley, Lined up as a Non-RB
Year Targets Rec Yards
2018 7 4 63
2019 7 5 66
2020 4 2 14
2021 11 5 63

Barkley played just two games in 2020. It appears that Judge and Jason Garrett planned to use him as an all-purpose threat that year before he got hurt. I ran through Barkley's snap counts at various positions and they align with his target rates: he lined up in the slot or wide a few times per game—particularly late last season, when the Giants were out of both receivers and ideas—but he would never be mistaken for Christian McCaffrey.

As a control, I grabbed Derrick Henry's non-running back receiving stats, because Henry isn't the type of running back who should line up all over the formation. Henry has two catches for 19 yards on five targets from non-RB positions since 2018. For further contrast, Austin Ekeler has been targeted 66 times for 48 catches and 562 yards from the slot or split wide since 2018. Barkley is more of a Henry than an Ekeler, but it does appear that the Giants could find more creative ways to use him.

The Giants targeted any running back aligned at a receiver's position 19 times last season, netting 12 catches for 105 yards. Those are middle-of-the-pack figures. The Falcons led the NFL with 55 targets, but Cordarrelle Patterson is not really a running back. Here are the teams with the most targets of running backs in the slot or wide:

Most RB Targets, Slot or Wide, 2021
Team Targets Rec Yards
ATL 55 37 410
CLE 30 25 232
WAS 29 20 186
IND 29 20 146
DAL 28 20 123

Here are the teams with the fewest targets of running backs in non-RB positions:

Fewest RB Targets, Slot or Wide, 2021
Team Targets Rec Yards
KC 5 5 86
SEA 5 2 4
CAR 6 5 35
NE 7 6 41
DEN 8 6 63
SF 8 7 55

Some of the most creative coaches in the NFL are on the "fewest" list, so it's important to not conflate moving a running back around the formation with "innovation" or "unpredictability." The 49ers' slash player happens to be listed as a receiver, for example, while the Falcons' version was listed at running back. Still, it's fun to look at the Seahawks, with their small battalion of running backs and thin receiving corps, and chuckle at Shane Waldron's inability to have a lightbulb moment, or see that Matt Rhule's staff responded to McCaffrey's absence by just surrendering.

Anyway, most of the teams with high target totals employed designated third-down specialists or had dueling featured backs, or both. Among teams with unquestioned RB1s, Aaron Jones was targeted 23 times from non-RB positions last season, Najee Harris 20 times. So it's possible to carve out an all-purpose role for a featured running back who doesn't look like the traditional McCaffrey/Ekeler type. Twenty targets from the slot or wide are as likely to get the needle to flicker on Barkley's career as anything else. And heaven knows the Giants don't have anything better to do.

The only folks for whom Barkley's receiving stats will matter are the Giants fans who remain ultra-invested in him (we know you are still out there) and fantasy gamers in search of reclamation bargains. Barkley is hanging around No. 23 overall in the way-too-early ADP numbers at Fantasy Pros. That's probably where he belongs, by virtue of getting force-fed touches and opportunities for an awful team. But at least the new Giants regime is thinking about the best way to use him instead of, say, trading him for a conditional sixth-round pick. That should provide fantasy drafters with a little peace of mind.

Comments

36 comments, Last at 20 Jun 2022, 10:33pm

1 Tomlin and the Steelers may…

Tomlin and the Steelers may also realize that their ability to reach the playoffs despite poor quarterback play thanks to sacks 'n' YAC can be a double-edged sword.

The Steelers had an entire heartbreak dynasty in the latter-Noll/early-Cowher era where they went to four AFCCGs and one SB with a revolving door of fungible QBs (also described as the Great Bradshaw-Roethlisberger Basin). Bettis is in the HOF for more than being from Detroit, you know?

The Steelers are unafraid to do it again.

2 not to Trubisky Stan

I am a fan of Trubisky since he is wearing black and gold, but I am skeptical, have been since he was taken way overrated as No 2 ahead of, well, superstar QBs.

BUT - those giving a pass to Fields for his subpar rookie season because he had Matt Nagy as a coach, and crappy wideouts, but ignoring that Biscuit had the exact same conditions during his entire tenure with the Bears with better results every year, should maybe not assume that his PEAK expectations are the same as his best year yet under the conditions which hamstrung Fields (albeit with better defense). Allen Robinson was his only legit receiver, and he is, well overrated is harsh, but never has played up to his reputation.

So with potentially better coaching (jury out on Canada, agreed...) and considerably better skills guys, his peak MAY be higher than 2018. His potential peak is definitely higher. I guess that's too ways of saying the same thing, I digress...

14 yes, very true

Fields numbers weren't just "sub-par" they were historically bad. 

But after Josh Allen maybe we all just give up on trying to evaluate/predict QBs.

Overall though, very rare for someone to be unplayably horrendously bad and then turn out to not just be... bad. And seems even less likely now (compared to like Troy Aikman in 1989) given the much greater similarity between HS/NCAA/NFL offenses and greater athlete specialization and early performance we now see across the board. 

15 Sort of fascinating how so…

In reply to by JoelBarlow

Sort of fascinating how so many QBs of the 90s were utterly unplayable in their rookie years.

It wasn't just Aikman; Young was horrendous in 1985, too. He was basically Josh Allen before Josh Allen.

23 Heck, check out Elway. https…

Heck, check out Elway.
https://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/E/ElwaJo00.htm

QB basically get a mulligan for the rookie year. Not sure how that era adjusts however. 

Even Ryan Leaf (who it turns out...actual was bad) Got 3 seasons. 
https://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/L/LeafRy00.htm
Guys who don't improve to playable till after the third season are pretty rare IIRC.(partly bc nobody wants to wait that long). 

19 Goff sort of broke the mould…

In reply to by JoelBarlow

Goff sort of broke the mould. But it turned out he was just a mediocre QB, who went from historically bad offensive coaching in Fisher, to historically good offensive coaching in McVay. Even still I think he ends up as “uninspiring starter,” as opposed to outright bad.

20 Historically bad?? How the…

In reply to by JoelBarlow

Historically bad?? How the heck can it be historically bad when a guy the same year (Zach Wilson) was almost indistinguishably bad? Historically bad's gotta have some amount of time between appearances. Even if for some reason you think Wilson was better (... oookay) both Rosen in '18 and Goff in '16 were absolutely worse.

And seems even less likely now

A guy who played worse than Fields his first year literally just won the Super Bowl, sooo....

Goff was also hide-your-eyes bad, and while he's not like, great, he's not bad. And my God, if anyone deserves "historically bad" it's Goff's first year. And Josh Allen's first year passing was basically just as bad as Fields, too (although QBR strangely rates it much higher).

22 I think the odds are many of these guys are/will be bad

But fair point on Goff. Although that cuts both ways.

Fields was 32nd in DYAR last year. I suppose that might not be historically bad. But it's bad. And yes, as MT pointed out, there have been good starters that had rookie seasons like that. There have also been just many many many bad QBs. 

I can't stand Mac Jones stans. Find the Wilson pick baffling. Think Tua is done. Have no idea if Lawrence can play (was his coaching situation any better?) etc. Bad QBs exist and aren't all the fault of meme-able coaches. 

 

34 Of course it's bad. All…

Of course it's bad. All rookies are bad compared to where they end up. Even Herbert was significantly worse in Y1 to Y2.

Bad QBs exist and aren't all the fault of meme-able coaches. 

I have my doubts on Fields too but I don't think there's much to be gotten from year 1. If you just go "QB X sucks" you'll be right over half the time, so picking QBs who are going to fail is easy.

3 "I grew up hearing this word…

"I grew up hearing this word pronounced as 'DOT-n-dell'..."

What? How? How do you get "DOT" out of "tar" or "tara"? I mean, accents are weird (I grew up in Pittsburgh), but that seems odd even given that.

4 Jersey/Philly/Noo Yawk

Same way you get something that sounds like 'gobba-gool" from capicola.  Or "pruh-shoot" from prosciutto.  I'm only an 'honorary' New Jerseyan from living there for a few decades, but the rule seems to be 'drop the final vowel entirely, then transmute the consonants into something.  It might have something to do with Neapolitan accents in the old country. 

 

9 Very true

My grandfather said it was because the immigration authorities were afraid of the competition, but that they figured an illiterate Italian was about equal to a literate American.

29 Also worth noting that as…

Also worth noting that as late as the mid-20th century, fewer than half the people in Italy spoke Italian. Instead, they spoke regional languages like Sardinian, Sicilian, Tuscan, etc. that were mutually unintelligible. Italy after all was less than a century old as a country/ It took a lot of work by the national government to develop something approaching a common language taught in all schools -- and regional languages are still visible and vibrant today.

36 It's more than that - what…

Just one extra bit - what is now called "Italian" really is Tuscan.  Here's a link: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/how-capicola-became-gabagool-the-italian-new-jersey-accent-explained

Basically, most Italian-Americans' ancestors came from southern Italy, so they really spoke Neapolitan, Calabrian, or Sicilian.  Sicilian, in particular, had a combination of influences from Greek and Arabic combined with the old Vulgar Latin, and has a few characteristics that have stuck around in America in a way that they haven't in Italy, where there's been a lot of standardization of how Italian is taught and spoken.

- "K" sounds are pronounced more like "G" sounds

- "P" sounds are pronounced more like "B" sounds

- The ending vowel tends to get dropped

Hence, capicola turns into "gabagool."

The upshot is that Italian-Americans who have retained some ability to speak "Italian," really are speaking an old Southern Italian dialect/language and to most Italians, sound like they're 80+ years old, even if they're not.

6 Because it's not an English …

Because it's not an English 'r', and flapped r's are closer to a 'd' or 't' than an English 'r'. It's still a weird pronunciation to me (sounds more like Spanish, but still weird). Although Italian accents near New York/Jersey are really weird, so...

5 LOL

"If Ben Roethlisberger tried to roll out last year, the Steelers would have needed to call three EMTs and an earth mover to roll him back in."  I literally did laugh out loud when I read that line!

 

8 Trubisky's big advantage is…

Trubisky's big advantage is his floor, not his ceiling. He's literally never been the worst QB by DVOA on his team (with last year coming out only because he doesn't qualify for anything). You can look at his '17 and say "bad" but Glennon was worse. '18 was good, and way better than Daniel. '19 was bad, but again, Daniel was worse, and even in '20 he wasn't good, but Foles was worse.

So, I mean, the only really surprising thing there is that Pickett's going to have to earn the backup role, and that's not exactly surprising.

25 Pickett needs to earn the backup role?

When was the last 1st round QB picked that was a 3rd stringer?  When was the last QB picked in the 1st round that would be considered a worse option than Mason Rudolph before taking an NFL snap?

Despite this, I know that the Steelers know what they are doing.  What odds can I get on the Steelers going 8-8-1 or better?  Nah, I must take the under on this one.

 

 

35 It's just the difference…

It's just the difference between long-term and short-term planning. If Trubisky gets hurt in game you might see Rudolph come in. But then next week Pickett likely would start. Trying to rush Pickett to the point where he can step in in the middle of a game's entirely pointless. College to the NFL's a huge jump, regardless of what we see from guys like Herbert and Jones who make it look effortless.

Plus it also just depends on how the Steelers run their practices. Sometimes 3rd string's better for a rookie since there's less focus on the defense trying to disrupt the plays. It's not about Pickett getting familiar with receivers, he has to get familiar with the offense first. It's friggin' minicamp.

30 2020

Jordan Love was 3rd string his rookie year of 2020. Tim Boyle was the 2nd stringer. Even without the missing off-season that was still likely going to be the case. Of course that may have all just been so the Packers FO could add insult to injury over the pick to the fans.

It's not completely wacky though if you know you aren't going to start a rookie to just let them sit and be the 3rd stringer of you already have another QB under contract who knows the system. 

I'm not saying it's smart, or dumb, it's likely very situational. But it's hardly unprecedented.

10 Mike really hates QBase1

Eitherway, Trubisky is just a waste of reps for him. Contracts aren't forever.

11 Wasn't Pickett the pro-ready…

Wasn't Pickett the pro-ready Mac Jones style pick?

Still, wouldn't surprise me if they are doing it this way to avoid the dreaded "controversy" and they could change over during the year depending on how stuff goes. 

12 The Pats also brought in a…

The Pats also brought in a veteran reclamation project and Jones didn't open camp getting starter reps.

The Steelers are less likely to send Trubisky to Ohio "for treatment" in order to gin up a covid quarantine-based reason for demoting him.

24 Hope springs eternal

That's probably where he belongs, by virtue of getting force-fed touches and opportunities for an awful team.

I doubt my Giants will be awful this year. I figure we'll end up around the 10th to 11th draft slot. Mediocre at best, pretty bad at worst, with the expectation closer to the latter than the former. But comfortably above awful.

I'm laying down a marker. It's a bold one, I know. Despite the potential for bias and a blind spot, I risk the ridicule and assert the Giants will at worst escape deserving the "awful" designation. There was a pretty big gap between the best fits for Garrett's scheme and the skillset of the roster, some bad injury luck, and a bottom three line. At least two of three of these, and possibly all three, should be somewhat better this year, or at least the odds are above 50%. We can definitely scrape above "awful."

Mark it down. Not awful.

Please.

[Edited to add] I didn't even mention how the head coaching will definitely be better than last year, with a clear 51% or better probability. This is because even Mara cannot make the wrong choice that many times in a row, because that would indicate he's just not good at this. Meanwhile, everyone knows that isn't the case and he's just unlucky. This is the time, because if you've flipped tails 7 times in a row, it's bound to be heads, proven mathematics be damned. So three of FOUR key things will be better, probably, maybe even all four. Not awful.

31 SF lines up FB Juszczyk all…

SF lines up FB Juszczyk all over the place. Unclear if the charts reflect this, or maybe just consider him a tight end and not a "RB". 

Trubisky has gotten so much circlejerk bullshit just because he isn't Mahomes and Chicago bs. Predicting a nice low double-digits DVOA winning season next year.

32 Still taking shots

 . . . at Roethlisberger I see despite the retirement. A porous O-Line, a surgically repaired elbow and receivers with stone hands to deal with. I think he did all right the last 2 years considering. 

33 Are you just baiting me at this point? ;-)

Those dreary Broncos QB battles, huh? Wtf couldnt Tebow have been the QB of those teams, because when he knew nothing with a mediocre defense, he still generated at least 10 points and got them a playoff win (passing!). Yet people like you went so hard at him it became untenable for any NFL team to employ him in any capacity except for unquestioned starter. “C’mon dude, it’s 2022, there’s plenty of QBs now”. Really? Denver traded for Seattle’s QB, who has no QB. The Panthers have no QB and essentially the Browns have no QB. In a league where Baker Mayfield & Tua & Darnold are high draft picks, don’t tell me they know what they're doing at the QB position. #Brady #199