Bill Barnwell, ESPN Staff WriterNov 20, 2023, 08:35 AM ET
With Thanksgiving fast approaching, we’re beginning to hear footsteps catching up on a few NFL coaches. Fans want to fire their coaches after every frustrating loss, but Sunday’s Week 11 games felt like a sequence of heartbreaking and/or ugly defeats for a group of embattled coaches across the league. Some were a product of bad decisions helping to influence an individual defeat; others were the same mistakes being made while producing similarly frustrating results.
Let’s run through five head coaches and two offensive coordinators who lost Sunday and detail what went wrong for them, how it aligns with what has happened this season and why their losses felt so damning. I don’t want to root for or predict that anybody gets fired, but I’ll try to lay out the case for why things need to improve if each of these coaches wants to return in 2024.
I’ll start in the nation’s capital, where the Commanders lost at home in ugly fashion to a team on its third-string quarterback:
I’m not sure there’s been a more ignominious two-game sweep by any team in NFL history. The Giants have now beaten the Commanders twice this season, outscoring them by 9.5 points per game. Against the rest of the league, the Giants are 1-8 and have been outscored by more than 16 points on average. Their starting quarterback on Sunday, Tommy DeVito, was averaging fewer than 5.0 yards per pass attempt and an anemic 1.8 adjusted net yards per pass across his first three pro appearances.
The one weakness on paper for the Commanders after trading away Montez Sweat and Chase Young at the trade deadline might have been their pass rush. They had produced just one sack on 92 dropbacks by opposing quarterbacks after the trade, suggesting the defense might be compromised without its two top edge rushers.
Well, the pass rush wasn’t the problem Sunday. The Commanders sacked DeVito nine times on 35 dropbacks, good for a sack rate of 25.7%. There’s an element of chicken-versus-the-egg here in terms of causation, but when defenses are able to create that sort of disruption, it almost always results in a victory. Since the turn of the century, teams that sacked the opposing quarterback nine or more times had gone 43-1.
That’s now 43-2, and Washington wasn’t really even very close. It turned the ball over six times, went down midway through the first quarter and never took a lead against a team that had trailed at least once in every single prior game this season. When DeVito wasn’t being sacked, he went 18-of-26 for 246 yards with three touchdowns. Saquon Barkley turned 19 touches into 140 yards from scrimmage and two scores. Reserve linebacker Isaiah Simmons tacked on a pick-six when the Commanders finally got within one score in the fourth quarter.
It’s no secret around the league that many people expect this to be Ron Rivera’s final season in Washington. Rivera, appointed in 2020, was the last head-coaching hire of the Daniel Snyder era, a safe pair of hands given football control at a moment when the franchise needed on-field stability amid off-field turmoil. New owners almost always hire a coach of their own choosing after taking over. The past six new NFL ownership groups to take over teams after sales all moved on from the coach they inherited within two seasons. One of those fired coaches was Rivera, who was fired by the Panthers in 2019 after coaching 28 games under team owner David Tepper.
Rivera is a well-respected coach and hasn’t always been given the best hand in Washington, but Sunday reinforced two key failings that will come to define his time in the nation’s capital. One is under center. The Commanders have continued to cycle through quarterbacks with little success.
Rivera gave Sam Howell a chance only after Heinicke urged the coach to start the 2022 fifth-round pick in Week 18 a year ago. After 19 passes in a blowout win over the Cowboys, Rivera saw enough to commit to Howell as his starter for this season. The Commanders brought in Jacoby Brissett over the offseason, but Brissett never landed a meaningful chance to win the starting job in camp.
Howell has exceeded expectations and shown he’s physically capable of making just about any throw the Commanders want at different times this season, but he’s the latest in a series of quarterbacks under Rivera who haven’t been able to play with any level of consistency. One week after throwing for 312 yards with three touchdowns against the Seahawks, he threw three picks on Sunday. The Washington offensive line didn’t offer much help, but even without pressure, he turned 37 pass attempts into just 229 passing yards.
The other concern is one that might feel more on Rivera than the issues at quarterback. While most of the attention directed toward his defense over the past few years has typically focused on the bevy of first-round picks along the line of scrimmage, the Commanders have struggled to field a secondary that can hold up behind those pass-rushers in coverage. Big free agent addition William Jackson washed out after two seasons in town, while 2023 first-round pick Emmanuel Forbes has been benched and ejected from a game at different points this season. He left Sunday’s loss with an elbow injury before returning, but Benjamin St-Juste, Jartavius Martin and first-round linebacker Jamin Davis were all found lacking on big plays against the Giants.
When they don’t get pressure this season, the Commanders have allowed 8.4 yards per dropback. Only the Broncos, Bengals and Buccaneers have been worse. On Sunday, in a game in which they were overwhelming a bad offense up front, their coverage defenders couldn’t hold up. The lowlight was a blown coverage on a two-man passing concept, when the Giants still managed to get Daniel Bellinger completely wide open to set up Barkley’s second touchdown of the day:
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a defense leave somebody this wide open on a two-man route concept before, but this was a special day for the Commanders. pic.twitter.com/Q0f4DXTXb7
This feels like a lame-duck November and December for the Commanders, who will have brighter days ahead with better ownership. It was also a day in which the limitations and carelessness of the old regime still reared its head, as neither team was able to take showers after the game because of an issue with the stadium’s hot water heater. Rivera might have deserved better, but it’s fair to point out the mistakes the Commanders have made in building around their few successes. Barring a dramatic turnaround from Howell over the final few weeks of 2023, it would be a surprise if Rivera returns in 2024.
In Week 9 a year ago, Dan Campbell and the Lions finally got to the game that turned around their franchise. Campbell had started his tenure in Detroit 4-19-1, and while his team was continuously in games, it was coming off five straight losses. On that day, buoyed by two red zone interceptions of Aaron Rodgers, the Lions upset the defending division champion Packers, 15-9. They have gone 14-4 since, putting a stranglehold on the NFC North in the process.
Eberflus came into Sunday’s game against the new division leaders with a 6-21 record as a head coach. The Bears haven’t had the breakout season many were hoping to see, but after showing signs of life with Tyson Bagent at quarterback, they were getting back 2021 first-round pick Justin Fields under center. Pulling off an upset would have given Chicago a jumping-off point as it attempts to get back into contention in the North.
For about three quarters, it felt like the Bears were about to win. Their defense forced four turnovers, with Jared Goff‘s third interception eliciting boos from the fans in Detroit. Fields ran for 104 yards and hit DJ Moore for a long touchdown pass. If you could have crafted a script for a season-altering Bears victory, it would have looked like the first 3½ quarters of this game.
With 4:20 to go, a Bears field goal put them up 26-14 and left them with a 98.2% chance of winning, per ESPN Stats & Information. The Lions needed everything to go their way from that point forward, and that’s exactly what happened: They scored a quick TD, forced a three-and-out and then marched 73 yards downfield for the game-winning score. A safety forced by an Aidan Hutchinson pressure only added insult to injury for Chicago, which gave up 17 unanswered points to lose its eighth game of the season.
For Eberflus, this was a double whammy. The Bears hired the 53-year-old from the Colts in 2022 after he built a series of solid defenses. He had his full complement of players on Sunday — including standout cornerback Jaylon Johnson, free agent addition Tremaine Edmunds and trade acquisition Montez Sweat — and got a solid performance from his defense for most of the game. The Bears seemed powerless to stop the Lions, though, on those final two drives of the game.
More disconcertingly, Eberflus helped the Lions back into the contest by managing the game like a coach who was afraid to lose. The Bears kicked four field goals in this game, leaving the door open for Detroit launch the exact sort of late comeback it did in the fourth quarter. Against a coach in Campbell who seems to relish taking shots (that almost always align with what the data suggests), Eberflus didn’t manage the big picture effectively and helped cost his team the game.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Eberflus made the wrong decision on three of the Bears’ four kicks, costing his team nearly 10 points of win expectancy in the process. On the most notable mistake — a fourth-and-1 from the Detroit 23-yard line with 14:15 to go — his decision cost the Bears 6.5 percentage points. It was a series of errors the Bears aren’t good enough to overcome.
That decision to kick hits at a couple of lies coaches tell themselves when they ignore the data. The field goal put the Bears up by two possessions in a game in which their defense had held the Lions at bay. As long as what had happened through the first three quarters kept happening in the fourth, a two-possession lead was going to be just fine for Eberflus & Co. The numbers said one thing, but they couldn’t appropriately appreciate the game the Bears and Lions were actually playing in reality. Taking the points felt like the smart call.
The overwhelming evidence we have over this season, though, suggests the Bears aren’t great on defense and the Lions have an excellent offense. And even given that Chicago forced another punt and kicked another field goal on the next drive, what had happened over the first three quarters didn’t matter in the final five minutes of the game. This feels like Eberflus fell subject to a version of the base rate fallacy, where the unique circumstances of what he had seen through 45 minutes convinced him to make a decision at odds with what the broader history of the NFL tells us about what to do with a yard to go up six points in the fourth quarter.
Fields and the Bears’ offense had converted two fourth-and-shorts earlier in the game, but we didn’t get to see what they could do with a chance to push the Lions to the brink. And as the game wore on, it felt like the coaching staff didn’t trust its young quarterback. With a first-and-10 on Detroit’s 26-yard line on the next drive, Chicago ran the ball three straight times, including a third-and-7 handoff to Roschon Johnson. It then kicked a field goal on fourth-and-5. When the Bears got the ball back after Detroit’s touchdown, they ran the ball two more times with Khalil Herbert. They let Fields throw on third down, but even with Moore coming open on a crosser off the field, Fields fired a pass deep to Tyler Scott, who seemed to lose the ball in the air and wasn’t able to bring it in.
This might have been the Bears’ chance. A win would have given them their first back-to-back victories of the Eberflus era. Their schedule from here on out is easy: Outside of a rematch against the Lions in Week 14, they have three games against teams with losing records and two against teams whose starting quarterbacks are out for the season. They should still be able to piece together a few wins and are still in position to land the top pick in next year’s draft via Carolina, but Sunday was a chance for them to beat the best team in their division.
A disappointing capitulation will raise questions about whether Eberflus should be the one coaching when Chicago does expect to compete next season. He hasn’t really had much time to work with a fully stocked defense and hasn’t had his starting quarterback for stretches in 2022 and 2023, but defensive-minded coaches in their 50s who aren’t producing meaningful results don’t typically have long leashes. Unless the Bears turn things around on defense over the remainder of the season and look to be on track to compete in 2024, general manager Ryan Poles might look to deflect criticism of what he has done by pursuing an offensive-minded coach to mentor Fields or a new quarterback from the 2024 draft.
This was an old-school sort of loss for the Chargers, the sort of defeat they routinely endured during the worst moments of the Norv Turner and Mike McCoy eras, when they toyed with inferior competition for most of the day before collapsing when things mattered most. Amid a nearly flawless day from quarterback Justin Herbert, who threw for 260 yards and ran for a team-high 73 more, they simply made too many mistakes around their best player to win.
Austin Ekeler fumbled away a carry inside the 5-yard line to take points off the board. Keenan Allen dropped a would-be touchdown pass and another third-down catch that would have given the Chargers no worse than a first-and-goal at the 2-yard line, forcing Cameron Dicker onto the field for two field goals. Donald Parham, starting at tight end for the injured Gerald Everett, dropped a fourth-and-4 conversion that would have extended an early drive. And at the very end, Herbert scrambled and found rookie first-rounder Quinton Johnston streaking downfield for what should have been the winning touchdown, only for Johnston to double-clutch and drop a beautiful throw. Those plays took a minimum of 10 points away from L.A.
Even with those mistakes, the Chargers were still in position to win. After Herbert found Allen for a 10-yard score with 5:29 to go, Los Angeles led by four points. Khalil Mack then strip-sacked Jordan Love on second-and-10, and while the Packers recovered, they were facing a third-and-20 from their own 15-yard line with four minutes to go. All L.A. needed was a third-and-long stop and a couple of first downs on offense to seal a much-needed road victory.
Instead, the Chargers fell apart in record time. Asante Samuel Jr. committed pass interference on the ensuing third-down play against Dontayvion Wicks, giving the Packers a new set of downs. Two plays later, Wicks caught a quick hitch, bounced off a woeful tackle attempt by Michael Davis, ran away from veteran linebacker Eric Kendricks and safety Alohi Gilman and turned what should have been a 5-yard completion into a 35-yard chunk play. Two plays after that, L.A. was late getting lined up at the snap versus an empty formation and was flat-footed as Romeo Doubs ran by quarters coverage for the winning touchdown.
In his postgame news conference, Staley testily responded to a question wondering whether he would stick as the team’s playcaller and rued the team’s defensive execution on plays that “hijacked their rhythm” while hoping that they would play “cleaner football” and criticizing his team’s fundamentals. The whole conversation feels disconnected, as if there’s another person running the Chargers whom Staley expects to resolve these issues in the coming weeks. He reiterated that he has full confidence in his ability to call plays and his staff’s ability to teach, but if his players are making fundamental mistakes in key moments, who does he expect to take the blame?
Brandon Staley passionately defends team in testy exchange with reporter
Coach Brandon Staley takes the blame for the Chargers’ loss to the Packers and backs up his team’s defense.
Nearly three years into Staley’s tenure, that remains the most damning criticism. This defense simply doesn’t play up to the talents of their key players week in and week out. He inherited a defense that ranked 18th in expected points added (EPA) per play. That same defense ranked 26th in 2021, 27th in 2022 and is 27th again through 11 weeks by the same metric this season. Staley and general manager Tom Telesco have had three offseasons to import the personnel the former Rams coordinator wants for his roster.
On Sunday, it was the team’s homegrown talent that was lacking. Samuel took a terrible angle on a Wicks end-around touchdown and drifted too far outside to make a play on a third-and-12 screen that produced 17 yards. Oft-frustrating 2020 first-round pick Kenneth Murray didn’t show enough awareness in coverage to latch onto an over route on second-and-15, which eventually produced a 29-yard gain, and couldn’t bring down Tucker Kraft in the flat on a 27-yard reception. Davis badly whiffed on a tackle in the open field against AJ Dillon. Ja’Sir Taylor wasn’t able to stay close enough to Jayden Reed to prevent a catch on third-and-12 for a first down. The Chargers repeatedly allowed the Packers to convert when they were behind schedule on offense, often out of sloppy or careless play.
The most important homegrown player on defense wasn’t around for most of the game and may not be back anytime soon. Star edge rusher Joey Bosa suffered a foot injury in the first quarter, left the sideline in tears on a cart and did not return. He was spotted later in a walking boot on the sideline, but there’s no word on his status. If he’s out for any extended period of time, it would deprive the Chargers of their most important non-Herbert player on the roster.
The failure to build even a competent defense is the strongest piece of evidence against Staley keeping his job into 2024. The arguments against his aggressiveness on fourth down weren’t borne out by the actual evidence in 2021 and are now only from people who aren’t paying attention, as he’s hardly one of the league’s more aggressive coaches. (Nobody mentions that aggressiveness when his team scores three touchdowns on three fourth-down calls, as it did a week ago.) His only aggressive decision on fourth down against the Packers was the early fourth-and-4 when Parham dropped what should have been an easy conversion.
If anything, Staley’s game management was too conservative Sunday. He punted on a fourth-and-1 from his own 19-yard line in the third quarter, and while that’s not an uncommon move for NFL coaches, the NFL Next Gen Stats model suggests he cost his team 4.3 percentage points of win expectancy with the punt. I don’t think that the punt caused what happened next, but if we apply the same logic of causation that typically gets applied when Staley does something that is perceived as too aggressive or analytical, consider that the Packers fielded that punt and scored a touchdown to take the lead in five plays.
At 4-6, the Chargers are in 13th place in the AFC. The only saving grace is something he mentioned in the news conference: All seven of their remaining games come against AFC opponents. The Chargers are going to need to get hot and start claiming some tiebreakers to have a shot at working their way into the postseason picture. Last season, a brutal blown lead in the wild-card round led the organization to fire offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and replace him with Kellen Moore. This season, if they don’t even make it into the wild-card round, there will be a real inquest into whether Staley’s inability to turn around the defense is holding back Herbert and the rest of the team.
Veteran coaches typically don’t get fired in their first season with a new organization. Owners usually want to surround their rookie quarterbacks with stability and security as they grow. Before a 2022 season where everything fell apart with the Colts, Reich had put together a résumé coaxing improved play out of Andrew Luck, Philip Rivers and even Carson Wentz relative to what they had shown before working with Reich in Indianapolis. The Panthers probably weren’t going to be great in 2023, but I certainly expected to see a competent, well-run team with smart solutions on offense for rookie No. 1 pick Bryce Young.
Instead, we’ve all witnessed a season that might cause Panthers owner David Tepper to break those first two rules I mentioned. There’s a reason Fox’s Jay Glazer reported that Reich already was on the hot seat before the defeat Sunday. Losing by 23 points to the Cowboys in a game that was close for most of the contest won’t make or break Reich’s future, but it was another example of how disorganized and underwhelming Carolina has looked on a weekly basis. On a day in which it was going to need to avoid mistakes and have a few bounces to break its way to overcome a talent deficit, this team was plagued by mental mistakes and sloppy football.
The Panthers committed eight penalties for 90 yards, but even that undersells how and when those penalties occurred. They should have come out of the first half in a tight game, but brutal defensive penalties forced them to fall behind.
Down by seven on the opening drive of the second quarter, the Panthers had the Cowboys behind schedule on second-and-13, only for Donte Jackson to commit a 28-yard pass interference penalty against CeeDee Lamb. Three plays later, on third-and-19, a checkdown to Brandin Cooks for 8 yards yielded a new set of downs when Xavier Woods was flagged for both a face mask and a horse collar on the same play. Cooks was near the sideline and Woods had plenty of help; there was absolutely no reason to make such an aggressive tackle outside of sheer carelessness. To be fair, the drive still ended in a field goal, but the Panthers were forced to defend several extra plays and lost time off the clock.
The next drive was even more infuriating. After a Carolina field goal got it back within a touchdown, the Cowboys drove into Carolina territory. Coordinator Ejiro Evero’s defense should have gotten off the field after stopping Dak Prescott for a 3-yard scramble on third-and-10, but an unnecessary roughness call on Amare Barno extended the drive. The Panthers then had the Cowboys backed up for a third-and-16 and allowed a 10-yard completion to Lamb, only for another personal foul on DeShawn Williams to extend the drive again. Prescott eventually found Lamb for a touchdown with 29 seconds to go, which both gifted the Cowboys a touchdown and prevented Carolina from having meaningful time to score before the break.
Jackson added a holding call in garbage time on a third-and-15 incompletion for good measure. The Panthers simply aren’t good enough to gift a good team extra opportunities to score and survive. It’s also not anything new: They commit an average of 8.5 penalties per game, the fourth-highest mark in football. If we isolate penalties that are typically the cause of sloppiness as opposed to being overwhelmed by the competition — like false starts, too many men on the field, ineligible player downfield and other similar penalties — they are committing nearly five such penalties per game, tying them for the league lead with the Texans.
When the Cardinals upset the Cowboys earlier this season, they didn’t play perfect football. What they did to compensate, though, was creative explosive plays on the offensive side of the ball. Joshua Dobbs‘ 44-yard run kicked it off for Arizona, which eventually produced five gains of more than 20 yards. That’s the most of any team in a game against Dallas this season.
The Panthers, as a rule, don’t really do explosive plays. They didn’t record a single gain of more than 20 yards against Sunday. They have just 18 gains of 20 yards or more all season, which ties them with the Patriots for the fewest of any team. They have the tiebreaker there by virtue of running 35 more plays than their fellow strugglers in New England.
Could Frank Reich be out after one year in Carolina?
Adam Schefter weighs in on Frank Reich’s job status during a tough year for the Panthers.
It might be fair to pin some of the blame for those personnel decisions on general manager Scott Fitterer as opposed to Reich, but the offense looks and feels broken. The early-down attack has been limited to tight window throws and an inconsistent run game, which has led the Panthers to face the seventh-longest average third down of any team. There, Young has looked utterly overwhelmed; the Panthers are 30th in yards per dropback on third down and Young has taken sacks on nearly 16% of his third-down dropbacks, which ranks 27th. The Cowboys sacked Young four times on 15 third downs.
Disconcertingly, Reich doesn’t appear to have many answers for what’s ailing his team. He turned over playcalling duties to offensive coordinator Thomas Brown, but without any discernible change in Carolina’s offensive success, he took them back over the bye before the Cowboys game. Without their first-round pick in the 2024 draft as a product of the Young trade, it also won’t be easy for the Panthers to add a difference-maker who can impact their offense.
Frankly, the biggest argument against firing Reich might be that it could be tough to attract top candidates for this job. Young has unquestionably struggled as a rookie, as has second-year left tackle Ikem Ekwonu. Edge rusher Brian Burns is a pending free agent and doesn’t appear close to a new deal with the team. Cornerback Jaycee Horn, the team’s other young defensive star, has struggled to stay healthy. It’s too early to count out Young, but the decision to trade up cost the Carolina wideout DJ Moore and what looks to be the top pick in next year’s draft. The decision to take Young ahead of C.J. Stroud looks to be a disaster after 11 weeks. Tepper has cycled through quarterbacks and would be hiring his fourth permanent coach in six seasons as team owner. Reich is struggling, but it might be tough to find a superior alternative.
A year ago, writing about the idea of the Titans firing Vrabel would have gotten me fired. They were perennial contenders in the AFC, coming off a season in which they had finished as the top seed in the conference and were comfortable favorites to retain the AFC South. In Week 11 of last season, they were manhandling the Packers on “Thursday Night Football” in a 27-17 win, taking their record to 7-3. Vrabel seemed like a Coach of the Year candidate.
What has happened since has been shocking. The Titans lost quarterback Ryan Tannehill to an ankle injury and didn’t win a single game the rest of the way in 2022, eventually losing the division to the Jaguars. Vrabel’s team has gone just 3-16 since that victory over Green Bay, including a 2-7 record in the same close games they seemed to pull out for fun before the last season. On Sunday, they were beaten handily by the Jaguars, who marched all over the field in a get-right spot after being blown out by the 49ers the prior week. Rookie Will Levis looked like a revelation in his pro debut in October, but he has posted a 27.3 QBR across three ensuing losses, including a 18.1 mark on Sunday.
Vrabel’s record before this brutal streak can’t be ignored, but there can’t be many coaches who go 3-16 over a given 19-game span and survive in the same job for years afterward. Tennessee ran a little hot in terms of its record in close games for most of Vrabel’s tenure, but the longtime NFL linebacker seemed to do an excellent job of bringing along young talent and getting more out of veteran free agents than what their prior coaches had done elsewhere.
You can’t really say that about this Titans team. Poor drafts and decision-making led to general manager Jon Robinson’s firing a year ago, and it’s difficult to find many players on this roster who are exceeding expectations in 2023. Defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons continues to play at a high level and caught a touchdown pass in Sunday’s loss, but so many of the key pieces that paced this team at its best are either gone or diminished. Tannehill, running back Derrick Henry and several others are free agents after the season. Imports including offensive tackle Andre Dillard and edge rusher Arden Key were better elsewhere than they have been in Nashville, while highly drafted young players including wideout Treylon Burks and cornerback Kristian Fulton have either been injured or ineffective.
What’s left isn’t pretty. The Titans have just an 0.2% chance of making it into the postseason, and while they get winnable games against the Panthers and Colts over the next two weeks, Vrabel’s team would need to sweep the Texans, beat the Jaguars and upset either the Dolphins or Seahawks to have a realistic chance of sneaking back into contention. Nothing about this team suggests it’s about to run the table, although nobody expected them to go winless from this point forward a year ago.
There’s one scenario that might seem interesting as an exit strategy for Vrabel and the Titans if they do want to launch a rebuild with a new coach. What about New England? If the Patriots do move on from Bill Belichick, Vrabel has been the most successful coach from his tree, albeit without ever coaching in New England and only being a player under Belichick. The Patriots don’t want to sacrifice picks, but if they have a head-coaching opening, would team owner Robert Kraft be willing to send a draft pick to Tennessee to bring Vrabel to New England?
That’s far-fetched, but Vrabel is still regarded around the league as an excellent coach, albeit with diminished results over the past two seasons. I’m inclined to agree. Firing Vrabel would be a major misstep for this organization, but losing wears on owners. If the Titans and GM Ran Carthon think it’s time to start over, that could include a new coaching staff.
It’s hard to leave Canada out of this conversation when his own players are actively questioning what happens on game day and behind the scenes. Running back Najee Harris went off after Sunday’s loss, joining the many who have publicly suggested the Steelers cannot play the way they’ve played on offense over the past three months and expect to continue winning football games. His criticism even took on the form of rhetorical questions, which is when you know a team is struggling. “Is it fixable?” Harris asked himself. “Yeah. Are we going to fix it? S—,” he told reporters after the game.
Harris isn’t wrong, but among the many problems with the Steelers’ offense is the reality that it’s simply better with another running back on the field. Jaylen Warren was the only effective player on offense Sunday, as he took a 74-yard run to the house early in the third quarter to amount for Pittsburgh’s only touchdown. Warren turned his 12 touches into 145 yards. The rest of the offense turned 29 touches into a total of 133 yards.
The Steelers drafted Harris in Round 1 in 2021 expecting to land a franchise back, but he hasn’t been that player. He was better in last week’s win over the Packers, but he has seven rush yards over expectation (RYOE) on 128 carries this season, for 0.1 RYOE/attempt. Warren has 164 RYOE on 80 carries, which is a full 2.05 RYOE per carry. Warren averages 1.9 yards per route run as a receiver, which is the second-best mark among backs with 100 routes or more. Harris averages 0.9 yards per route run, which ranks 27th.
Warren already has developed a reputation as a great pass-blocker, so that can’t be used as an excuse to get him off the field. The Steelers average minus-0.01 EPA per play with Warren on the field, which would be 17th in the NFL. With Harris taking snaps, they are down at minus -0.09 EPA per play, which would be 28th. This feels like an Austin Ekeler/Melvin Gordon situation, where the team seems dedicated to giving their first-round pick opportunity after opportunity, even though the less-heralded back is better across the board. The Steelers have expanded Warren’s role, but he needs to be playing as the lead back in this rotation as opposed to an even timeshare.
I will admit I don’t believe Harris’ comments about fixing things involved him sitting more often, but Canada’s offense has other flaws. The Steelers clearly don’t trust quarterback Kenny Pickett, who hasn’t given them much to believe in during what was supposed to be a second-year breakout. He was stuck playing an excellent Browns defense Sunday, but Canada and the Steelers basically ceded the middle of the field to attempt throws to the outside:
After the game, Pickett suggested he was surprised by what he was seeing from the Cleveland defense. He rightfully noted that the Browns typically play a lot of man coverage, but he noted that Cleveland played more zone coverage than usual on Sunday. He was correct: The Browns had played man coverage more than 55% of the time before Week 11 but played zone on just under 58% of their dropbacks against Pittsburgh, their second-highest zone rate of the season.
Every defense shows up with wrinkles and surprises for the other team to see on a weekly basis, but good offenses recognize what has changed and has counterpunches ready. Heck, you can’t even argue that the Steelers looked good when the Browns did play man coverage, because Pickett went 5-of-12 for 21 yards and two sacks when they lined up in man. The commentary from these players is pretty clearly that they don’t have solutions to solve their offensive problems, and as the chief offensive architect, that falls on Canada.
This offense is utterly reliant on players making magic happen on a weekly basis. Warren has to run for a 74-yard touchdown. George Pickens needs to make a highlight-reel catch or run away from a defender. The solutions Canada tries to dial up to make Pickett’s life easier almost never work. Take screens, as the average team gains about five yards per screen. Pickett is picking up 3.5 and has one first down on 22 attempts. His 9.1 QBR on screens ranks 30th.
What about play-action? Again, Pickett doesn’t really get much help. He’s completing more than 76% of his play-action attempts, but those throws are generating only 7.2 yards per attempt, which ranks 22nd. He’s solid when he gets the ball out quick, but when he’s asked to improvise, this offense doesn’t work together or seem to have a solid plan to create completions. His 29.3 QBR when he holds the ball for more than 2.5 seconds is 31st, ahead of only Daniel Jones among qualified passers.
Canada, who was appointed offensive coordinator in 2021, has seemingly been on the hot seat for the entirety of his run in Pittsburgh, taking over a job that has been thankless for the likes of Bruce Arians and Randy Fichtner before him. Mike Tomlin has stuck by his choice as coordinator, and Pittsburgh is not typically an organization that lets outside criticism do much to dictate its decisions.
Najee Harris opens up about frustration with Steelers’ offense
Steelers RB Najee Harris expresses his frustration with the Steelers’ season so far.
When the complaints are both public and inside the building, though, the rules might be different. Tomlin is not about to fire his coach because a struggling running back is complaining, but Pittsburgh’s players aren’t naive to their situation. This offense appears hopeless most weeks, spends entire halves of football seemingly incapable of moving the football and repeatedly has needed significant amounts of help from the defense to pull out victories. Playing complementary football is great, but needing to be carried to wins is not going to go over well for very long. The Steelers aren’t about to pull the plug on Pickett after 22 starts as their quarterback of the future, so if a major change is coming to this offense, it surely would have to be with the coach calling plays.
It was inevitable, wasn’t it? After weeks of blindly defending Zach Wilson‘s frustrating performances, Jets coach Robert Saleh finally made the call Sunday. He benched Wilson for backup Tim Boyle in the third quarter of a blowout loss to the Bills, and while it’s unclear whether Boyle or Wilson will start Friday when the Jets play the Dolphins, what is clear is that we’ve found Saleh’s limits.
In a normal organization, this would lead to serious questions about the future of the offensive playcaller. The Jets, of course, are not a normal organization. The team didn’t bring in Hackett to develop its third-year quarterback but instead to curry favor with Aaron Rodgers, who enjoyed working with Hackett during their time together in Green Bay. The Jets conducted their entire offseason around building a roster that surrounded Rodgers with things that made him happy in the past, and amid reports that they intend to try to acquire Davante Adams this offseason, that philosophy doesn’t appear likely to change. If Rodgers wants Hackett to stay, his job should be safe.
Given what we’ve seen from Hackett as a playcaller, it’s tough to believe he’s helping the cause. Hackett struggled calling plays in in his time in Buffalo, Jacksonville and last season when he was the Denver coach. Rodgers reportedly disliked the cut-block, quick-game concepts Hackett called twice on Rodgers’ only possession as a Jets player, including on the snap in which the future Hall of Famer took a sack and tore his Achilles.
And now, after half-season of football, it’s hard to put up a case that Hackett is making Wilson better than the quarterback was during a disastrous 2022 campaign. Wilson’s QBR has dropped by nearly eight points, from 38.5 to 30.7. His completion percentage is up, but he has gone from averaging a passable 7.0 yards per throw a year ago to a dreadful 6.1 yards per attempt this season. His sack rates and pressure rates are up, but even when he doesn’t get pressured, he doesn’t have answers. He actually posted a solid 75.3 QBR when unpressured a year ago; in 2023, that’s down below 50 at 49.6. From a clean pocket, he has averaged 6.7 yards per attempt and thrown five picks on 233 pass attempts. He plays about as well unpressured as Tua Tagovailoa does with someone in his face.
It’s reasonable to defend Hackett by suggesting that the personnel is lacking. The Jets have exactly one significant receiver in Garrett Wilson. Their offensive line has been riddled with subpar play and injuries, which extended even further Sunday when oft-injured tackle Mekhi Becton was carted to the locker room after eight snaps and did not return. Four of Gang Green’s five Week 1 starters up front were either injured before or during Sunday’s loss, with Laken Tomlinson the lone exception.
Then again, things weren’t exactly perfect last season. Becton missed the entire year through injury, while running back Breece Hall was sidelined for most of the season by a torn ACL. He has been present this season. This roster has Dalvin Cook, although the veteran back hasn’t been his usual self. Hackett has clearly tried to take as much of the load off Wilson as possible by giving him shorter, higher-percentage passes, but it hasn’t worked to unlock a passable offense. A Bills defense that has flailed without Matt Milano and Tre’Davious White looked dominant again for most of Sunday’s game, rushing Wilson at will for much of the contest.
The Jets have looked at Wilson through rose-colored glasses for much of the last two season, but even they recognized what was wrong Sunday. Boyle is arguably the least qualified pro quarterback in recent memory, but he’s another former Packers contributor who gains value by virtue of being adjacent to Rodgers in years past. Hackett’s presence might make the most important person in the Jets organization happy, but he doesn’t seem to be helping the rest of the team win football games.