Chargers, Steelers, & Patriots: Who Will Survive?
NFL Week 4 - The Los Angeles Chargers, Pittsburgh Steelers, and New England Patriots are already fighting for their 2022 lives due to injuries and offensive ineptitude. These are their stories.
Los Angeles Chargers: The Fate of Justin Herbert
(Somewhere in Los Angeles, Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert tries to make himself comfortable at an urgent care facility.)
JUSTIN HERBERT: Gosh, what a rough start to the season. I'm all banged up. Rashawn Slater is out for the year. Keenan Allen can't get healthy. We're 1-2. And I have no idea what they are pumping into this IV. Painkillers? Super soldier serum? My doctor had a Fisher-Price stethoscope, so that wasn't exactly reassuring.
Sigh. What's a Chargers quarterback to do?
PHILIP RIVERS: (Bursting through the door.) Don't despair young man!
HERBERT: Why, it's Chargers—and Colts, I guess—legend Philip Rivers! Did you come with an important life lesson for me?
RIVERS: Yes! Everything is going to be just fine. All you need to do is produce two highlights per game.
HERBERT: Two highlights per game? But I thought my job was to lead the Chargers to the Super Bowl!
RIVERS: Don't be silly. We're Chargers quarterbacks. We don't produce championships, just highlights, stats, and debates about how underappreciated we are.
DAN FOUTS: He's right.
HERBERT: Dan Fouts? When did you get here?
FOUTS: I have always been here. Don't you see? No one really pays any attention to the Chargers. We're always the late-afternoon regional "C" telecast, even when we are playing well. Do you really think most fans have any idea what actually happened in your 38-10 loss to the Jaguars in Week 3?
HERBERT: They must have followed the game: my touchdown pass to Jalen Guyton went viral!
RIVERS: Bingo. One admittedly remarkable play, which didn't represent the nature of the game at all. Your job is to produce fantasy points and be the quarterback everyone just assumes is awesome based on his sizzle reel.
HERBERT: That can't be true. I AM awesome. And so were you two!
JOHN HADL: I was pretty darn awesome too.
HERBERT: Ummm … Jim Hart?
HADL: Eh, close enough. I led my leagues in passing yards three times. Now, I am just some bold-faced type on Pro Football Reference and a few half-hearted Hall of Fame arguments.
RIVERS: That's my future too!
HERBERT: I reject all of this! Yes, I know I have had Twitter Teflon for my entire young career; my accomplishments are over-celebrated and my failures are just handwaved away, and that won't last forever. And maybe the 2022 Chargers season is already lost. But I am NOT doomed to live out my career as a stat-compiler and playoff also-ran. I WILL lead the Chargers to a Super Bowl!
FOUTS: C'mon, lad. Look at me. "Stat compiler and playoff also-ran" can be a recipe for immortality if you are truly great enough. And there are worse alternatives.
HERBERT: Name one.
FOUTS: You could end up a young superstar who gets worn down by early injuries, signs a big contract, discovers his team can't afford to surround him with talent as a result, battles heroically through the pain and incompetence for a few years, then discovers it's just not worth it.
ANDREW LUCK: (Poofing into existence.) Hey Justin. You got a minute?
HERBERT: Will someone please lock that door?
Pittsburgh Steelers: Why Mitch Trubisky Still Matters
Mitch Trubisky cannot throw over the middle of the field. That should not matter, because the Pittsburgh Steelers shouldn't matter. But it does matter.
Remember when Trubisky couldn't throw to his left? He's experiencing "meme drift," a narrative low-pressure system that floats all over the field based on sample sizes and recency bias.
Eventually, "Mitch Trubisky can't throw to the left" and "Mitch Trubisky can't throw to the middle" will merge into "Mitch Trubisky can't throw." There's a degree of truth to that, and many folks are already there. But really, he throws about as well as any bottom-quartile NFL starter or top backup. He just keeps finding himself starting for high-profile teams and flailing in the very public eye.
Much was made of Trubisky's passing chart in last Thursday night's 29-17 Steelers loss to the Cleveland Browns. Yes, Trubisky is barely attempting passes over the middle this year, let alone completing them. Per Sports Info Solutions, Trubisky is just 4-of-6 for 28 yards on passes over the middle of the field through three games. For comparison's sake Jordan Love completed three passes over the middle for 40 yards during his brief end-of-game Week 1 mop-up job.
Trubisky's over-the-middle statistics require a little bit of context, however. Trubisky has thrown a league-high-by-a-wide-margin 31 passes from outside the pocket this season. Kyler Murray is second with 25 passes from outside the pocket. But Trubisky has thrown 103 passes to Murray's 141. So Trubisky is outside the pocket on 30% of his attempts. No wonder he isn't throwing over the middle much. You don't want a quarterback on the run throwing to the middle of the field—although, terrifyingly, Trubisky still does so now and then.
Trubisky is out of the pocket a lot because a) his offensive line is made out of popsicle sticks; and b) Matt Canada's offense emphasizes rollout passing. Here are some Trubisky breakdowns, as always courtesy of Sports Info Solutions:
- designed rollout right: 5-of-8, 37 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs
- designed rollout left: 6-of-8, 35 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs
- other outside of pocket: 10-of-16, 178 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs.
So Trubisky is ineffective when rolling right, when rolling left, and when standing in the pocket and throwing over the middle. Egads. Yet the Steelers offense is 16th in DVOA because:
- their running game isn't bad;
- as shown above, Trubisky has made some plays on the run;
- have you watched the Colts, Saints, Bears, Panthers, and so forth?
That last bullet point brings us around to why all of this matters:
The Steelers remain a viable playoff team. The Steelers have a 21.7% chance of making the playoffs, according to our projection system. Those projections factor Mac Jones' injury into the Patriots' chances, as well as a small Chargers nerf for the Rashawn Slater injury. They also reflect the Steelers' schedule from Week 5 through Week 8 of—uh-oh—at Bills, Buccaneers, at Dolphins, at Eagles. Still, the Steelers host the Jets this week. If they can scratch out a win while the Patriots offense flatlines and the Chargers keep doing Chargers stuff, they can hover at the bottom of the wild-card pack until T.J. Watt returns.
It's an ugly scenario, and it's dependent on a semi-functional passing game.
Trubisky versus Canada versus joy. The Steelers offensive coordinator has enjoyed a relative reprieve from criticism this season; Trubisky is a much more entertaining punching bag. But Matt Canada is in his second season of producing more chicken-or-egg arguments about his offense's problems than points. That's not a great place for a coach with no NFL track record before 2020 to be.
Canada wants to build the Steelers out of rollout passes. That's a yellow flag, because rollout-heavy offenses are designed to make reads and throws easier for the quarterback, which in turn makes life easier for the defense by cutting the field in half. Rollout-intensive game plans are often a collegiate we're-outmatched tactic, not something a coach purpose-builds unless he works for the medical school in the power conference.
Rollouts also slow down the pass rush—the Steelers can roll away from top edge rushers or disrupt their angles by running towards them—so such tactics tend to limit sacks at the expense of big plays. Canada's system makes the Steelers offensive line look adequate but makes it hard to get all of the playmakers involved: Pat Freiermuth and Najee Harris often block or serve as decoys on rollouts, backup tight end Zach Gentry takes snaps away, from George Pickens, and so on.
It's hard to pin the rollout woes illustrated by the figures listed above on Trubisky: an undrafted rookie should be able to crack 4.5 yards per rollout attempt just by farting the ball to tight ends in the flat. If the Steelers can get even league-average production from their rollout game, they could enjoy a little offensive bump. And that bump, again, could be enough to make them a team that still matters.
One last thought on Canada: his game plans draw attention to themselves. If Trubisky took lots of seven-step drops and just got sacked or ejected the ball, he and the line would bear the brunt of the blame. Canada's system may not be NFL-worthy, but at least he's not doing the same old thing and hoping his quarterbacks bail him out.
The Kenny Pickett Factor. Of course, the Steelers do have one potential quick fix at their disposal. Everyone is clamoring for the debut of Kenny Pickett!
No, that's not quite true. Very few people are really clamoring for Pickett. Everyone is just clamoring for Other Quarterback. He could be Bailey Zappe, Taylor Heinicke, or Gardner Minshew. The crowd just wants some drama and a fresh face
Pickett, with his powerful Kirk Cousins is My Absolute Ceiling vibes, might be an immediate upgrade over Trubisky, but Mike Tomlin does not think so. Tomlin is not some job-preservation-obsessed ninny like Adam Gase or Matt Nagy. Tomlin has earned some benefit of the doubt that he has a better handle on Pickett's readiness than someone who watched highlights from a preseason game.
Also, take a look at that future schedule again: at Bills, Buccaneers, at Dolphins, at Eagles. That's a Murderer's Row for a rookie's reputation and confidence. Stopgaps such as Trubisky make their living shepherding teams through stretches like that.
If the Steelers are 3-6 or 2-7 at their bye, then perhaps it's Pickett time. But what if they are 4-5 with a win over the Jets plus one upset? What if the Chargers and Patriots have collapsed, and the Raiders and Bengals never quite pull themselves together? Well, maybe it's still Pickett time. But if Tomlin makes the hook and the Steelers go 3-6 or 2-7 with Pickett? Turning back to Trubisky then still won't help.
Trubisky will eventually complete some passes in the middle of the field. He'll probably get a few productive plays off rollouts, too. He will never be great. He will struggle on his best day to approach good. But with other quarterbacks and teams falling by the wayside, his mediocrity still matters.
New England Patriots: No Exit
(Meanwhile, in Foxborough…)
JOE JUDGE: Snoochie Boochies everyone. We have Sunday's game plan against the Green Bay Packers all drawn up. Right Silent Matt?
MATT PATRICIA: (Wearing a backwards baseball cap and a Bruins jersey.) (Nods.)
JUDGE: We're going to emphasize outside zone rushing. Also, we're installing a new West Coast offensive package this week, plus some Air Raid, and make sure you review all the quarterback sneaks I designed. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a wheelbarrow full of notes to deliver to the punt teams.
(J.J. and Silent Matt leave.)
MAC JONES: (Adjusting the wrap on his sprained knee.) Good luck, Brian. We've only really got about six plays, and the defense sees all of them coming a mile away.
BRIAN HOYER: Oh, don't worry about me. (Reaches behind a chair, blows dust off an old binder.)
JONES: OMG, is that last year's playbook?
HOYER: It's the 2019 edition. When Patricia ordered everything burned, I made sure to stash one where he was too lazy to look for it. Which was literally anywhere.
JONES: Can you run those plays?
HOYER: C'mon Mac. I can barely run on a treadmill. But this little baby is my ticket to freedom. Once folks see me flaring short passes to Damien Harris to avoid sacks, they'll figure out that I am calling my own plays. And then, presto! Instant Houston Texans offensive coordinator job!
JONES: Golly, I wish you were my offensive coordinator.
HOYER: In many ways, I already am. And everything will be just fine. You'll see. I know Coach Belichick. He's mortified by all of this. He'll call Nick Saban right after the College Football Playoff and beg to bring Bill O'Brien back. O'Brien's a wackadoodle, but he's not working out of a Barnes & Noble Football Strategy for Dummies guide like these two.
JONES: That's reassuring. But what if that doesn't happen?
HOYER: Well, I suppose you'll eventually sign a big contract, since you have already been anointed the heir apparent. But I'm afraid the organization no longer knows how to identify and obtain quality offensive talent. You'll battle heroically against injuries and incompetence for a few years, then discover it's just not worth it.
ANDREW LUCK: (Poofing into existence.) Hey Mac. Got a minute?
JONES: What, are you the Quarterback Grim Reaper now or something?
LUCK: Sure am. Let's make this brief, shall we? I'm playing golf this afternoon with Dak Prescott.