To get an idea of how simplified the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense was in its first year without QB Ben Roethlisberger, the offense didn’t even have hot routes. And that’s not hyperbole. It’s what TE Pat Freiermuth revealed during last week’s live show of Ben Roethlisberger’s Footbahlin’ podcast, noting the offense lacked the checks they had under Roethlisberger.
Freiermuth served as one of Roethlisberger’s guests on a special live show and was asked how the offense changed going from Roethlisberger to Mitch Trubisky and Kenny Pickett.
“I tell Kenny this all the time. It’s so different because we didn’t have hots. With you, how many times did we have a concept and you looked at [WR Diontae Johnson] and give a signal and it’d be a 12-yard completion. We didn’t have that this year.”
As Freiermuth referred to giving a “signal” he pointed to his head, meaning non-verbal cues to indicate a change in the route. Hot routes are the best way to beat the blitz, changing a singular route on the fly in order to get the ball out quickly. Most commonly, they’re done when the offense doesn’t have the right protection to defend a blitz or potential blitz look. If an offense has five to protect and the defense is threatening to bring six, the ball has to come out “hot,” meaning it must be thrown immediately.
Those subtle cues are effective ways to alert a receiver to a change without giving it away to the defense. Roethlisberger, like any veteran quarterback, had many of them. One of his favorite was grabbing his facemask to signal a hot throw on a run play, his way to check out without a clear and vocal audible that could cause the defense to check out of its playcall. He did it for years with Antonio Brown and here’s a 2020 example with James Washington, though miscommunication caused the pass to be incomplete.
Here’s another example from nearly a decade ago, a quick tug on the facemask that might not look like anything to the defense but alerted Brown of the quick screen.
Freiermuth said on the snap of the ball this year, it was eyes forward.
“Instead of looking at you the whole time, we were looking at the coverage. Like, I know what I’m supposed to do. It was almost too slow at first because you weren’t anticipating. With [Ben], we could see Cover Zero and you’d give us a Ram or something.”
To a degree, the simplified offense was expected, transitioning from a face of the franchise like Roethlisberger to a newcomer in Trubisky and rookie in Pickett. Still, a lack of hots and checks in the offense got this group into trouble quit a bit, especially in empty sets and empty protection. Throughout the year, we discussed their issues with Mug/Double A blitz looks that led unblocked defensive ends pressure the quarterback without any hots or sight adjustments.
Here’s one such issue against the Indianapolis Colts. The ball needs to be thrown hot but RB Anthony McFarland is on an angle route that takes too long to develop and leads to Pickett being sacked.
The Steelers had this issue throughout the year and failed to come up with proper receiver hots/adjustments to counter these blitz looks, leading to negative outcomes, including Pickett being concussed in Week 14’s loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
It’s more evidence for why Matt Canada’s system has faced so much criticism for being overly simplified. Expecting Trubisky or Pickett to have the same freedom as Roethlisberger is irresponsible but for the Steelers to evidently have zero (or very few) hots and adjustments doesn’t put a quarterback in position to succeed. Having simple hots and hand signals aren’t difficult concepts a veteran quarterback like Trubisky or smart, “pro-ready” rookie like Pickett couldn’t add to their game.
But Pittsburgh’s philosophy was to keep the offense as simple as possible. Reduce every risk of a turnover, a miscommunication, any error that could cost the game. The plan worked the second half of the season but for the Steelers’ offense to truly take a big step forward, they’ll have to open the playbook up. If Pickett is going to be the team’s franchise quarterback, he needs to be given the tools franchise quarterbacks get.
Check out the entire live show with special guests Bob Pompeani and Andrew McCutchen by clicking below.