The Pittsburgh Steelers offense attempted four deep passes on Sunday, completing one of them—the 23-yard connection to George Pickens at the end of the first half. That’s not a lot when you’re attempting around 35 passes per game, and that success rate leaves much to be desired, as well.
As head coach Mike Tomlin said after the game, however, the opportunities to throw the ball deep aren’t always about the play selection. It’s about what the defense is set up to do, and the New England Patriots basically confirmed it was their intention.
“They had some things set up, but I thought we did a great job taking it away even some of the checkdowns to Najee Harris”, longtime veteran safety Devin McCourty told reporters about Pittsburgh’s deep passing strategy.
“There were a couple plays where they had [Diontae] Johnson trying to go split the safeties, but we did a good job marrying up pass coverage”, he added. “They had a shot call that is going to take more time and our guys did a good job trying to get to the quarterback”.
Sometimes the best throw is the one you don’t make, and attempting a deep pass that has a higher percentage of resulting in a turnover than a catch is not good strategy. Head coach Bill Belichick actually offered some praise for Mitch Trubisky in this regard.
“Mitch did a great job of taking Najee on some of those check-downs”, he said. “And they had some gains there. He read the defense well. We were back there, and he dropped it off. So, you’d have to ask them, you know, exactly what they were reading and that kind of thing”.
Harris did finish the game with five receptions for 40 yards, a solid day’s work for a running back as a pass catcher. Especially when you consider that the only other player with more than 26 receiving yards was Diontae Johnson, going six for 57 on 10 yargets.
“They had some positive plays checking it down to Harris and him making plays”, McCourty acknowledged. “I think that with every team we play, there is going to be an element of dangerous players. We got to do a better job of that in the back end and I think our front has to make them pay for trying to buy time to create an opportunity to throw the ball downfield”.
The Steelers certainly didn’t do that enough. This is an offense still figuring out how to scheme open the deep ball—and how to pass protect long enough to be able to make that throw. There is a lot of work to do, to say the least.