Predicting next NFL QBs to get benched: Why Steelers were first

Sunday wasn't a great day to be a struggling NFL quarterback. Several of the passers who flailed through the first three weeks of the season didn't turn things around in Week 4. One appears to have paid for it with his job, as Mitch Trubisky was benched at halftime for the Steelers, who turned to rookie first-round pick Kenny Pickett. Unfortunately for coach Mike Tomlin's team, Pickett then threw three interceptions in an eventual 24-20 loss to the Jets.

With just under a quarter of the season in the books (thanks, 17-game schedule), this is about the time in which teams have enough game tape to start seriously reevaluating their offseason decisions. Teams desperate to turn things around after slow starts are going to make adjustments. Some of those can be schematic. We can see teams rotate players in different ways or even make changes to less visible parts of their roster.

Making a change at quarterback, though, is the biggest decision a coach can make. Think about how it transformed the Titans in 2019, when Ryan Tannehill took over a 2-4 team and helped get it to the AFC Championship Game. The same move can tear a team apart and get a coach fired, as Doug Pederson found out with the Eagles when he benched Carson Wentz for Jalen Hurts in 2020.

It's no fun rooting for quarterbacks to get benched, but it would be naive to ignore what's happening or wonder about what teams might do to kick-start their offenses in the weeks to come. Let's talk about the Pittsburgh situation and then get to a few other quarterback jobs around the NFL where the current starter might be in danger. It's risky to make a move too early, but I wonder whether the Steelers might have made their move too late:

Jump to a team with bad QB play:
Atlanta | Carolina | Houston
New Orleans | Pittsburgh | Washington

Pittsburgh Steelers

Tomlin is one of football's best coaches. I don't like disagreeing with the 50-year-old Steelers leader, because he has more than earned whatever benefit of the doubt he needs over the past 15-plus seasons. I might take issue with some of his game management decisions at times, but just because I don't think he's necessarily the most analytics-focused coach in the league doesn't mean he can't be aggressive at times or make wise choices. You don't go 15 years without a losing record by not being a smart operator.

With that being said, I'm not sure I understand how and why Tomlin made the choices he has made over the past two weeks at quarterback. After Trubisky struggled for the third straight week in a 29-17 loss to the Browns in Week 3, Tomlin publicly refused to even consider the possibility of changing his quarterback in advance of Sunday's game against the Jets. After suggestions earlier in September that the Steelers might keep Pickett on the bench for the entire season, it seemed as if Tomlin wasn't close to making any sort of change.

And then, down 10-6 at halftime Sunday, he suddenly changed his mind. Trubisky came out, Pickett went in. With Tomlin saying he felt like the team "needed a spark," Pickett might have burned too hot. The rookie went 10-of-13 for 120 yards and scored two rushing touchdowns in his debut, but he threw three interceptions, including a pick on a Hail Mary to end the contest.

It's fair enough for Tomlin to say the team needed a spark. I just have one follow-up question: What changed? The Steelers won the opener against Cincinnati, but it required five takeaways, a blocked extra point and an injured long-snapper. Trubisky wasn't a meaningful part of the offense. In Week 2, they scored 14 points on nine drives in a loss to the Patriots. Four days later, Trubisky & Co. scored 17 points on 10 meaningful drives in their loss to the Browns. Didn't they need a spark then, too? Wasn't it clear they would need a spark against the Jets before the game began?