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- 3-and-Out: Minkah Fitzpatrick’s value to the Steelers was on full display in their loss to Jacksonville
3-and-Out: Minkah Fitzpatrick’s value to the Steelers was on full display in their loss to Jacksonville
In the wake of Pittsburgh’s 20-10 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, this week’s 3 & Out column looks at Minkah Fitzpatrick’s value to the Steelers, the horrendous state of NFL officiating and the regression of the team’s offensive line.
Steelers’ fans didn’t need a sober reminder of how valuable Minkah Fitzpatrick is to the defense, but they got one on Sunday anyway. Fitzpatrick left the game in the 1st quarter with an apparent hamstring injury and the defense, which was already depleted in the secondary entering the contest, learned the hard way how much he means to them. While the unit kept the Steelers in the game by producing clutch turnovers in plus territory and bailing out another anemic performance by the offense, losing Fitzpatrick was a hurdle they couldn’t overcome.
Jacksonville capitalized in a variety of ways. They got running back Travis Etienne loose on outside zone runs that Fitzpatrick normally cleans up when he’s dropped down as a box defender. Etienne gained 79 yards on 24 carries — not a great average per carry — but he ran through several tackles at or near the line of scrimmage to earn valuable yards after contact. They also found tight end Evan Engram time and again for crucial completions. Fitzpatrick has been integral in Pittsburgh’s ability to limit the performance of opposing tight ends this season. But on Sunday, without him in the lineup, the Steelers had no answer. Engram had 10 catches on 10 targets for 88 yards, including a couple of back-breaking 3rd down conversions in the 4th quarter as the defense desperately tried to keep the game a one-score affair..
The Steelers attempted to compensate for Fitzpatrick’s absence by rotating their safeties and moving their secondary pieces around. Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee each dropped into the slot at times, as did Miles Killebrew. They worked Chandon Sullivan there as well. None of it was very effective. Kazee had a big interception in the end zone that thwarted a Jacksonville scoring drive, but he cost the team dearly by being too aggressive on the 56-yard touchdown pass to Etienne that put the Jags up 17-3 late in the 3rd quarter. Kazee seemed to anticipate a hitch route to Etienne, who was split wide like a receiver on the play, and allowed the ball to be thrown over his head when Etienne went vertical up the sideline. This was particularly poor judgement since Joey Porter Jr. was playing a trail technique on Etienne and was already in position to defend a shorter route:
— Travis Etienne Jr⁶𓅓 (@swaggy_t1) October 29, 2023
As for the others, Neal, as he’s done all season, struggled with his assignments when he dropped into the box. That forced the Steelers to play Killebrew there, who is not well-suited for the role. The result was a hodge-podge that never quite came together, allowing Engram, Etienne and the rest of the Jags’ offense to get the better of them.
Still, the defense battled. Inside linebackers Kwon Alexander, Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts stepped up in Fitzpatrick’s absence. The trio combined for 18 tackles. 1.5 sacks and a fumble recovery. Their play, and the typically stellar pass rushing of T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, allowed the Steelers to hang around longer than they should have. In the end they came up short, and the reason was Fitzpatrick. Pittsburgh may not have generated enough offense to win the game had Fitzpatrick stayed healthy. But when he was forced to leave, Jacksonville found the answers they needed to put the game away. Now it’s the Steelers who need answers, and fast. They host the Tennessee Titans on Thursday, a game for which Fitzpatrick has been ruled out.
The evidence is pretty clear at this point that NFL officials have no idea how to call the game anymore. The changes the league has implemented designed to make things safer have only made them more confusing. What’s roughing the passer? What’s pass interference? What constitutes a defenseless player? Ask five officials, or five of the hapless “rules interpreters” the league puts in a television booth each week to defend the ridiculous calls that take place on the field, and you’re likely to get five different answers.
Steelers’ fans are right to be rankled by the penalty that was called at the end of the first half on which the refs declared that right guard Isaac Seumalo lined up in the neutral zone on a field goal. That call took a 56-yard kick by Chris Boswell off the board despite the fact that replays showed no discernable offense. The calls that got to me, though, involved varying interpretations of roughing the passer, both of which were absurd. One was a call against Neal and the other a non-call on the Jags that knocked Steelers’ quarterback Kenny Pickett out of the game. Let’s examine each.
On the play involving Neal, shown below, the tackle is textbook. Neal hits quarterback Trevor Lawrence just as Lawrence is releasing the football. There are no extra steps involved, so you can’t make the argument he could have avoided contact. Neal also wraps Lawrence up around the waist, which eliminates the argument that he hit Lawrence too low or too high. Then, most crucially, Neal visibly puts his arms out to brace himself as he falls, thereby keeping him from landing with all his weight on Lawrence as the quarterback hits the ground. This is exactly what the league wants its defenders to do in this situation, and still it draws a flag:
IS THIS NOT TACKLE FOOTBALL ANYMORE. What is the defender meant to do here???
— MLFootball (@_MLFootball) October 29, 2023
Contrast that to the hit on Pickett, which was not deemed a penalty. On that play, the defender does take an extra step before making the hit. He then purposefully drives Pickett into the ground with force before landing squarely on top of him with his upper body, causing the exact type of injury the league says it’s trying to avoid. At the time of this writing, Pickett is labeled a game-time decision for Thursday against the Titans. But it would not surprise me if he is out:
THIS WAS NOT CALLED ROUGHING THE PASSER.
ARE YOU KIDDING ME REFS???#Steelers
— PickensBurgh (Tino) (@PickensBurgh) October 29, 2023
Why was one a penalty and not the other? Who knows! The league sure doesn’t. Listening to the CBS announcers scramble to explain why the hit on Pickett was legal was as pathetic as the call itself. Clearly they’ve been instructed not to criticize these calls, or in this case, to find justification for them. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, and I don’t believe the league operates on fixes. But I do believe there is a mandate to the referees to protect its marquee players. Trevor Lawrence evidently qualifies. Kenny Pickett does not.
So, Pickett suffers an injury on a clear foul that is not flagged, and the Jags are awarded 15 yards on a clean hit that was. Just another example of officiating incompetence in the increasingly unwatchable NFL.
Lost amidst the injuries and the officiating was the fact that the offense was awful yet again. We’ve been over the issues with Matt Canada ad nauseum, and he again failed to generate anything resembling an effective game plan. As evidence, the Steelers gained nine total yards on 12 plays over their first four drives. Not all of that was on Canada, as Diontae Johnson failed to catch what would have been a big gain on the first play from scrimmage and Pickett missed on some makeable throws. But the fact remains that the Steelers are simply awful on offense in the first half, and only marginally better thereafter.
Aside from Canada, the biggest reason might be the play of the offensive line. The unit was expected to be much improved in 2023 after the Steelers spent the off-season upgrading it through free agency and the draft. They jettisoned incumbent right guard Kevin Dotson, deemed a weak spot last year, and brought in the highly regarded Seumalo from the Eagles. Adding massive University of Georgia tackle Broderick Jones with their #1 pick seemed like icing on the cake. The sense was Pittsburgh would use the line to dominate defenses with the run game, thereby easing the pressure on Pickett and making the passing game more effective, too.
None of that has happened. Pittsburgh is near the bottom of the league in rushing, and they managed just 70 yards on Sunday, with 38 of those coming on quarterback scrambles and jet sweeps to receivers. Tailbacks Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren combined for 32 yards on 12 carries, an average of less than three yards per run. It’s easy to blame the backs for their lack of production, but when you watch them take handoffs, the question that comes to mind is, where should they go? Harris occasionally misses a cut or stutters and stops in a hole instead of plowing through it. But it’s not like he’s leaving dozens of yards on the field. The truth is, there are very few yards to be made. The line isn’t getting a push, isn’t opening holes and isn’t communicating or working together particularly well. When you combine that with the fact their pass protection has been a liability to the already skittish Pickett, it’s easy to see why this offense is going nowhere.
Why has the line regressed? That would require a deep dive I haven’t mustered the courage yet to take. Whatever the case, it stands to reason the team needs to consider making some personnel or scheme changes. Either that or they’d better figure out what ails them, pronto. The offense won’t improve until there is improvement up front. How quickly they can make that improvement, and in what form, may ultimately determine the outcome of the season.
It took Chris Boswell being robbed of that 56-yard field goal on Sunday, which forced him to try unsuccessfully from 61 yards in rainy conditions, for the dependable veteran to miss his first kick of the season. Boswell is now 12-13 on field goals and 9-9 on extra points. Those numbers speak both to how good he is, and how poorly the offense is performing. Any time a kicker has more field goals than extra points this far into the season suggests an offense in serious need of improvement.