Former Pittsburgh Steelers safety, Ryan Clark joined The PM Team w/Poni & Mueller on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the current state of the 2022 team. The Steelers are preparing to play the New York Jets at 1pm ET on Sunday in the biggest game of the season thus far. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Kevin Dotson and Ahkello Witherspoon are all questionable for this week’s showdown and that could be devastating for a team that may not be prepared to lean on their offense.
Clark was signed as a free agent in 2006 and played in two Super Bowls for the Steelers. He spent eight years in the black and gold and he has spent the last few years as an analyst for ESPN. When he joined the show on Tuesday, he wasn’t holding anything back:
“They suck,” Clark said succinctly. “Oh, you wanted more like analysis. It’s so crazy, like the last game against Cleveland was the best Mitchell Trubisky looked. The run got going a little bit better, Najee [Harris] and Jaylen [Warren] could truly be a very good 1-2 punch. Jaylen Warren has a little more burst right away and is able to get to some holes Najee can’t, but he is still obviously the number one.”
Clark, who made one Pro Bowl in his career, played on the best Steelers teams of the 21st century. He is prone to hyperbole and often lambasted the Steelers defense last season on ESPN when they were struggling against the run. He was especially hard on quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, often referring to him as a washed-up player who could not throw downfield.
“When you look at the skill set players, it’s underachieving,” Clark continues. “Line ’em up, George Pickens, Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, [Pat] Freiermuth and Najee Harris, this should be an offense that produces explosive plays and gains first downs and scoring. They are not, whether that is Matt Canada, the offensive line or Mitchell Trubisky, you can’t be sure. I don’t think Coach Tomlin can be sure either and that’s what makes it hard to fix.”
Clark is the co-host of The Pivot Podcast with Fred Taylor and Channing Crowder. He was an extremely vocal critic of Matt Canada when he was the offensive coordinator for his alma mater from 2016 to 2018. Surprisingly, despite his previous criticism of Canada, he put very little blame on the coordinator last season, but seems to be shifting his opinion on the 2022 season:
“I like him as a person [Matt Canada]. When you look at LSU, it was just different,” Clark observes. “He had certain players that didn’t fit what he wanted to do and an attitude that was just different. There is some good stuff, we applaud Mike McDaniel, Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay for his lateral movement. Getting people running laterally and then hitting the seams, all those things are beautiful, but it’s what you’re going to do after that. When are you going to use the middle of the field?”
It has been two seasons with Canada at the helm, and while Clark is evolving on the performance of the embattled coordinator, he seems more comfortable putting the blame on the current quarterback. He is critical of the play-calling, but thinks it is on Trubisky to give his playmakers more opportunities to make plays. Lesser talented quarterbacks need to rely on coordinators to scheme people open. The coaches above do more than just put players in motion and rely on beating the defense to the edge.
“Do you believe the throw to Nelson Agholor on Ahkello Witherspoon was open? No, he had a one on one and he gave his guy a chance,” Clark expounds. “Our three guys in Pittsburgh are better than that dude. But he gave him a chance and he made a play, and that was the difference in the game. You have to do that as a quarterback, you have to have the freedom to do that. It needs to happen, when you have a tight end who is as talented as Freiermuth, why aren’t you using shots in the seam?”
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Clark is correct that Pittsburgh has one of the best groups of playmakers in the league. It is all for naught if you don’t exploit the talent. 50/50 balls are a good start, but your offense can’t be based on that alone. The Steelers are religiously running on first down. Early play-action passes with short runs to pick up second and third downs in short yardage would be a great start. Canada can’t make Trubisky throw it over the middle, but he can encourage it. That isn’t happening.
“When you’re George Pickens, you are open when you’re covered,” Clark observes. “If there is only one dude out here, then I’m actually not covered because I’m better than him and he proved that with the one-hand grab. You don’t get these questions if there is a play like that and the team is playing really well.”
Wide receivers are always open. Just ask them. But when you watch the offense closely, Trubisky has a primary target (often Johnson) and maybe a check down in mind, but his eyes don’t rotate across the field. This limits his options and frustrates players on the opposite side of the field. Typically, the issue with rolling a quarterback out is you cut the field in half, but if it helps with his vision to give him two downfield options and a check down by design, it will be more than they are getting now. Pickens has been open a lot, but when your job is on the line, in your mind, you are going with a proven playmaker.
“You watch some of Mitch and it’s really good,” the former Pro Bowler says. “Then he is under pressure and is so risk adverse that he doesn’t allow you to put up the points you need to win in this league. I know you love Kenny Pickett, but I think you don’t put him in a bad situation. Kind of a treacherous row of games coming up, but also you want to make sure he’s in a position to succeed.”
The one big difference from watching preseason Pickett and regular season Trubisky is that the rookie anticipated his throws and was decisive. The veteran seems reluctant to throw to a spot or throw people open. Clark has a salient point that throwing Pickett in during this five-game stretch barring injury is a bad idea. Buffalo, Tampa Bay, Miami and Philadelphia all have excellent defenses that would likely bait and embarrass a rookie signal-caller.
If the Steelers defense was at full strength, it might be worth a shot, but with the health of the current group in serious question, it is better to see if Trubisky can muster a win against the New York Jets and then find a way to win one more game before the bye week. If the Steelers are 3-4 and T.J. Watt is returning to the field at home against the New Orleans Saints, then it may be time to pull the trigger and give the rookie the last 10 games and see what happens.
What do you think, Steeler Nation? Do you agree with Ryan Clark that they need to pick their spot with Pickett? Please comment below or on my Twitter @thebubbasq.