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It will be an indictment of Mike Tomlin if the Steelers passing attack is bad

Based on the videos and word out of Steelers training camp at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe (Unity Twp.) Pa., the passing game looks pretty damn good.

Kenny Pickett, the second-year quarterback from the University of Pittsburgh, is said to be dropping dimes regularly.

There’s only so much you can glean from training camp practices, but the daily reports are somewhat encouraging if you’re a Steelers fan.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the Steelers will allow Pickett and Co. to try and be more explosive in 2023, but it better mean that.

If not, head coach Mike Tomlin needs to be held accountable. What does being held accountable mean? You know what it means because you’ve probably been saying it since 2011. I have defended Tomlin for over a decade because I think he’s done an incredible job keeping the Steelers relevant after their second Super Bowl era. That’s not an easy feat considering most teams fall off a cliff the moment any lengthy championship run comes to an end.

Anyone who thinks the Steelers could have done more between 2011-2021 doesn’t want to see the political and financial side of the situation. Pittsburgh had a franchise quarterback it tried to rebuild its team around in the 2010s–the same one that helped it win two more Lombardi trophies–but Ben Roethlisberger was entering his prime and deserved to be paid the going rate for the top passers in the league, and he was.

That came at the expense of a spacious salary cap.

Roethlisberger also prevented the rebuilding Steelers from ever being bad enough to draft anywhere near the top 10.

At the end of the day, I wouldn’t trade those years for anything, because they were filled with some great memories and great times. Besides, what were the Steelers going to do? They couldn’t gut the roster right in the middle of Roethlisberger’s prime years. They couldn’t bring in a possible successor to “sit and learn” during the Killer Bs era. Art II and Co. had to do what they could to win, even if it was considerably harder with a franchise quarterback and his price tag.

It’s like what Terry Bradshaw once said: “You might lose with me, but you’ll never win without me.”

I don’t believe anyone in the history of the NFL has ever put it better when describing just how important a franchise quarterback is to success.

Tomlin did the best he could during those years. He managed a lot of things–including the major influence and power his franchise quarterback had gained within the organization.

Having said all of that, if there was ever a time to truly start keeping an eye on Tomlin and the job he was doing as head coach, it began in 2022–the first year after Roethlisberger’s retirement. Tomlin already had a strong Hall of Fame resume prior to last season, but even Hall of Fame coaches often lose their touch over time.

How would Tomlin and the entire Steelers brain trust approach life without Roethlisberger for the first time in nearly two decades? By doing their due diligence as it pertained to the quarterback spot. Everyone from Art Rooney II to Steely McBeam attended pre-draft events that involved the quarterback class of 2022.

Tomlin was obviously at the forefront of the quarterback research, as was Kevin Colbert, the outgoing general manager.

There were mixed reviews about the quarterback class of 2022 leading up to the draft, but Pickett figured to be gone by the time Pittsburgh’s time on the clock started with the 20th pick of the first round. Malik Willis was supposed to be gone, too, maybe even before Pickett. Surprisingly, Pickett, Willis and every other quarterback was still available when it came time for the Steelers to make their selection in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft.

Pickett was the pick.

If it were me, I would have thrown Pickett into the fire right away, but the Steelers had already signed veteran Mitch Trubisky at the onset of the 2022 free-agent frenzy.

This allowed Tomlin to do what most head coaches are hardwired to do: Proceed with caution.

Trubisky won the starting job out of training camp (not that there was ever much of a competition) and ideally would have remained in that role for all of 2022. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh’s offense was far from ideal through the first three-and-a-half games, and when the Steelers found themselves trailing the Jets at home in Week 4, Tomlin did what most head coaches are hardwired to do: He didn’t think beyond trying to win “right now” and inserted Pickett into the lineup in the second half.

Thus began the Kenny Pickett era.

To say Pickett’s first season was a mixed bag would be an understatement.

The offensive scheme was unimaginative. The passing attack was frustratingly conservative.

Pickett averaged 6.1 yards per passing attempt and rarely attacked the middle of the field. If that all looked familiar to you, it was because Trubisky played it the same way through his first four starts. Roethlisberger also utilized that plan of attack over his final two seasons.

I’ll be damned if I remember how to attack the middle of the field with the passing game because I haven’t seen that sort of thing since maybe 2018 and Antonio Brown’s last season with the Steelers.

I’m willing to give Tomlin the benefit of the doubt as it pertained to Roethlisberger’s final two seasons–the old gunslinger’s arm was shot. I’ll also excuse Tomlin for his conservative approach to the passing game in 2022–he really, really wanted to try and win with running and defense in his first season without the old gunslinger.

But I’m not willing to give Tomlin the benefit of the doubt in 2023, not if he is hellbent on utilizing running and defense once more. This isn’t to say those two components won’t be vital to Pittsburgh’s success, but, damn it, they’re not going to be nearly as vital as Pickett.

The Steelers may lose with Pickett, but they’ll never win unless he develops into a franchise quarterback.

This is the year Tomlin must let Pickett take control of his football team. He must put his trust in Pickett’s right arm and gloved hand.

When I say the Steelers must attack more with the passing game, I don’t necessarily mean they should pass more. Pickett attempted 389 passes in 2022–or nearly 100 more than Roethlisberger did as a rookie in 2004 (295). The NFL is a different world now than it was in 2004. Every team passes more than they did nearly two decades ago.

I’m talking about attacking with purpose. I mentioned Pickett’s 6.1 yards per attempt in 2022. That was nearly three yards less than Roethlisberger averaged per passing attempt as a rookie (8.9).

You know what a true passing attack looks like when you see it. Go back and review what Jalen Hurts did to the Steelers’ defense in a blowout loss in Philadelphia just before the bye if you want to see what attacking an opponent with your arm looks like. Hurts completed 19 of 28 passes for 285 yards and four touchdowns in that game. He averaged 10.2 yards per attempt–or 5.2 yards more than Pickett, who threw zero touchdowns and one interception on the day.

But, again, Pickett was a rookie in 2022, and I can understand why Tomlin went about things the way he did. However, if he thinks that the same approach is going to work in 2023, he should be fired right now.

Hurts finished third in yards per attempt a season ago. Patrick Mahomes, whose Chiefs defeated Hurts and the Eagles in the Super Bowl, finished second. Pickett finished 32nd.

I’m certainly not expecting Pickett to be Mahomes or Hurts in 2023, but I damn sure want to see him progressing toward that echelon of NFL quarterbacks.

Otherwise, why did Tomlin and Co. do so much due diligence on quarterbacks in the months leading up to the 2022 NFL Draft? Why select a quarterback in the first round if you don’t intend on making him the most important component of your franchise?

Kudos to Tomlin and Co. for identifying the importance of the quarterback position and acting accordingly–something I don’t think the organization did in the ’80s after Bradshaw retired.

But now that think they’ve found their man, they have to let him try and be THE MAN.

The Steelers really do need to see if Pickett can be that guy for them. The clock started ticking the moment he entered that game vs. the Jets.

After Pickett’s third season (2024), the Steelers are going to have to decide if he’s worthy of his fifth-year option. After that, they’re going to have to determine whether or not Pickett is worth the money even quarterbacks like Daniel Jones are making in 2023.

The sooner the Steelers find out about Pickett, the better. They’re not going to know much more about him with another season full of two-yard passes and contested catches by George Pickens near the sideline.

We can place a lot of the blame on Matt Canada, sure, but if Tomlin brought Canada back as offensive coordinator knowing he simply didn’t have the chops to devise a modern NFL passing attack, that’s on the former.

Tomlin will be the first to tell you that the buck ultimately stops with him.

If we see no true attempt to attack opposing defenses down the middle of the field and in that 15-20-yard range–where great quarterbacks reside–nobody will be more accountable for that than Tomlin.

Finally, even though I’ve always been an adamant defender of his, if we see the same pedestrian offense in 2023 that we witnessed in 2022, 2021, 2020, etc., I’ll be the first one to sign the petition to have Mike Tomlin fired as the head coach of your Pittsburgh Steelers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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