Three signs of progress for the Steelers' offense, and three things that must improve

PITTSBURGH -- Chase Claypool paused as he considered the question.

Three games into the 2022 season, do the Pittsburgh Steelers have an offensive identity?

“Um, we've got playmakers, but, uh, I don't know if we have an identity,” Claypool said Monday afternoon. “I think we're still figuring that out.”

Sitting at 1-2 after back-to-back losses to the New England Patriots and Cleveland Browns, the Steelers' offense hasn’t found cohesion or an identity. Both the run and pass game rank in the bottom half of the league, and they’ve scored just four offensive touchdowns in three games.

While Claypool said Monday it was too early to be frustrated with the offense, there were hints of discontent oozing out of the locker room in Cleveland on Thursday night.

“I couldn't really tell you,” Diontae Johnson said when asked what the issues were keeping the offense from coming together. “It could be anything when it comes to them. When I say them, the coaches. Not throwing them under the bus or whatever, but, you know, we can only do what they tell us to do and make plays, and that's about it.”

Still, the Steelers feel like they’re close to putting it all together.

“The frustration is just knowing how good you can be,” guard Kevin Dotson said. “And potential is one of those things, it's a good thing and it can drag you down. ... I feel like we just know how good we can be. And that's the thing that’s frustrating us, that we are not clicking how we could be.”

Signs of progress

No-huddle scoring drives

For the second game in a row, the Steelers found success when they went to their tempo offense. On four of seven plays in the Steelers’ first scoring drive against the Browns, the team used no huddle and moved the ball 75 yards in three minutes. On the second scoring drive, the Steelers went no-huddle on just three of 10 plays, but two of those plays picked up first downs.

“We did pretty good with the tempo,” Claypool said. “We might be able to go back to that if, uh, our offense is stalling a little bit, maybe we add some tempo to switch up the momentum or the flow of the game.”

The same issue plagued the Steelers a year ago, and the Ben Roethlisberger-led offense also seemed to find a better rhythm when they mixed tempo in -- but Roethlisberger said early in the season that his once-large menu of tempo plays shrunk to only a handful. In 2021, the Steelers primarily used the change-of-pace offense in the second half, so it’s somewhat encouraging that offensive coordinator Matt Canada deployed it earlier against the Browns in Week 3. But in the second half, the Steelers ran just five no-huddle plays before their final drive, during which they used it four times on seven plays en route to a field goal.

“I think tempo is always good,” center Mason Cole said. “I’ve played in some different offenses where tempo can be a serious weapon. It's just finding the right time to use that tempo. I think we used it well in the first half of this past game, but for whatever reason in the second half we didn't use it as much.”

First-half deep balls

Against the Patriots and Bengals, Mitch Trubisky averaged just 5.1 yards per passing attempt, but against the Browns, Trubisky averaged 6.5 yards per attempt. His average was even better in the first half (8.4).

The Steelers even had their longest pass play of the season in the first half, when Trubisky hit rookie George Pickens for a 36-yard gain.

After losing to the Patriots, Trubisky said the key to getting the downfield passing game going was calling concepts to get receivers there, and then, when coverage dictates, get them the ball. Both of those things happened in the first half, showing that the offense is capable of getting the ball down the field.

“We can be a really fun offense,” Claypool said after the game. “We got a lot of young playmakers, so as long as we keep being put in positions to make plays, and it might be trending toward that, then we'll be alright.”

But in the second half on Thursday night, Trubisky regressed to the mark of his previous two games (averaging 5.2 yards per attempt), and in some cases, receivers couldn't secure the ball on Trubisky’s deep attempts.

“It was good but I think we didn’t connect on the ones that we needed to,” Trubisky said of the downfield passing. “We took some shots downfield, and we just needed to come down with it. I can throw a better ball, they made some great catches and we can make some more.”

Ground game

The Steelers’ ground game isn’t totally there yet, but Jaylen Warren continues to emerge as a complementary piece to Najee Harris. Against the Browns, the Steelers had a 88-79 rushing yards edge at halftime and averaged 5.5 yards per carry in the first half.

“Definitely in the last game, I'll say run-blocking,” Dotson said of the area where the offensive line has improved the most.

But there’s still even more room for growth. Warren fumbled in the first half, and Harris still hasn’t broken 100 rushing yards in a game. Even so, the ground game’s steady improvement is a silver lining in a bumpy offensive start.

Things that must improve

Targeting the middle of the field

Trubisky launched the ball farther down the field with more success than he had the first two weeks, but there’s still a noticeable absence of passes targeting the middle of the field. Trubisky had only two attempts between the hashes against the Browns. On his final drive of the game, Trubisky finally connected with tight end Pat Freiermuth -- who wasn’t targeted until the fourth quarter -- over the middle for two intermediate completions. But by that point, the Steelers trailed by two scores.

“That's where me and Pat are, so we would love to target the middle of the field more,” Claypool said Monday. “I think there's been an emphasis on that and we know what we need to do with our weaknesses and that's one of 'em. So hopefully we keep working on that.”

Third downs and time of possession

The Steelers converted on just 1 of 9 third-down opportunities against the Browns. Through three weeks, the offense has converted on just 33.3% of attempts -- good for 24th in the league. On Thursday, the Steelers had four three-and-outs in a row.

With the poor conversion rate, the Steelers' offense isn’t staying on the field very long, putting even more pressure on the defense. The Browns had the edge in time of possession (36:09-23:51), and for the season, the Steelers are last in the league, averaging 24:15 -- five minutes less than their average a year ago.

“We’ve gotta help our defense out,” Cole said. “Consecutive three-and-outs for us are not good and it kills our defense. They had a 10-play drive, and we went out and got three-and-out and the defense got right back on the field. That's brutal.

"We can't do that to our defense. A lot of people will say our defense needs to play the run better, but we need to help our defense out. It's important for us to possess the ball -- and have those possession downs be won."