PITTSBURGH — As a former NFL quarterback who has been an offensive coordinator and head coach in the league, Jason Garrett can dissect an offense the way a mechanic can take apart a six-cylinder engine.
He knows offensive concepts, how they are to be executed by the quarterback and how it is necessary to strive for balance, not just in the three phases of the team but within the offense itself.
And, right now, he doesn't see that balance with the Steelers. All he sees is an offense, unlike the defense, searching for an identity.
"Essentially, it's, 'What do we want to be and do we have the guys to do that?' " said Garrett, the former Dallas Cowboys head coach turned studio analyst for NBC's "Football Night in America." "And sometimes you want to be something, but you don't have the guys to do it, so you have to be the best you can be with the people you have and steer your offense that way. I think they're still trying to find what that is."
Garrett and the rest of the nation will get another look at the Steelers offense on Sunday night in Las Vegas when they face the Raiders (1-1). And, make no mistake, it hasn't been must-see TV.
The Steelers are last in the league in rushing and offensive touchdowns, second-to-last in total offense, and 30th in yards per play. They score points on 16% of their drives, lowest in the league. They needed two touchdowns from their defense to beat the Cleveland Browns on Monday night, and while it is unrealistic to expect that to happen often — it had been 13 years since the last time they had multiple defensive touchdowns in a game — it is more than reasonable to think the defense will have to shoulder a larger share of the burden going forward. At least until the offense can find its mojo.
"One of the things Pittsburgh can play to is their defense," Garrett was saying over the phone the other day. "They have elite players over there. T.J. Watt is something else. It seems every week he does something that impacts the game. They're going to have to win games a little bit like that for a while, while they continue to grow offensively.
"For me the biggest thing that was always so impressive about them is they have such a strong identity on defense. This goes back to 1969, Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin; I think about Dick LeBeau being there, they seem so aligned in their organization on what they want to be on defense and the kind of players they want to bring in. They consistently show up, and they showed up again the other night making the game-changing plays. To me, that always gives them a great chance to have success."
The question now, though, is: How much can be tolerated before it is time to change? And for how long?
Canada is two games into his third season as offensive coordinator, and since he replaced Randy Fichtner, the Steelers have averaged 19 points. They've averaged 1.7 touchdowns per game and scored more than 28 points just twice in 36 games.
"They're searching for that identity," said Garrett, who was head coach of the Dallas Cowboys from 2011-2019, the team's second-longest tenured head coach behind Tom Landry. "When you have a player like Ben Roethlisberger for so long, he can be a guy who kind of guides what you do offensively. They had different iterations when he was the quarterback — they ran it more some years, they ran it less other years — but toward the end of his time at quarterback and since then, it seems to me they're struggling to find their identity."
Garrett witnessed first-hand what a Steelers offense was like when Roethlisberger was the quarterback. In two career games against a Garrett-coached Cowboys team, Roethlisberger was a combined 61 of 86 (69.7%) for 747 yards and five touchdowns with one interception.
Those days are gone. Now the Steelers are hoping Pickett can continue to evolve and use what happened in the second half of last season as a springboard in his development. But after two games, he looks as though he has taken a step backward. Then again, so has Joe Burrow.
The Steelers are aware of one essential aspect: To be successful in 2023, two people have to have big seasons. Pickett is one. Canada is the other.
Garrett thinks that can happen. But only with some help. And patience.
"I really like the quarterback," said Garrett, who spent eight seasons in the NFL as a backup quarterback, seven with the Cowboys. He started nine games in his career and posted a 6-3 record. "And from what I've seen of Kenny Pickett, he has everything you want in a young quarterback. To me, just have patience with him and what they're trying to do.
"But I do think trying to establish an identity is a big part of this thing. If you can be a team that can run it and throw it and attack different ways, that's what the best offenses are. When I was a coordinator and head coach, when we played our best football, we were a balanced team. We could attack different ways. There wasn't an undue burden on any part of our offense. That's what they need to strive for. It's tough to play quarterback in the NFL. And any way you can alleviate some of that pressure on a young quarterback, any quarterback, that's going to help them play better. That's really what the goal should be."
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