PITTSBURGH -- Trailing by two scores and facing third down from just outside the red zone in the third quarter of Sunday's loss, Mitch Trubisky dropped back and rifled a pass toward tight end Connor Heyward, threading it between converging Arizona Cardinals defenders as the blitz bared down on the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback.
Heyward couldn't corral the pass, and it hit the turf just a few inches to the right of the second-year player, who was steps away from the end zone when the ball arrived.
The pass, which traveled 23.9 air yards, had just a 28.3% probability to be completed, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. But the play -- the incomplete pass notwithstanding -- offered a glimpse into the kind of quarterback play the Steelers can expect from Trubisky as he prepares for his first uninterrupted stretch of multigame starts since the start of the 2022 season. Quarterback Kenny Pickett is expected to be sidelined for three to four weeks following TightRope surgery on a right high ankle sprain, ushering Trubisky back into the spotlight.
While the Steelers are unanimous that Trubisky's inclusion won't affect the overall offensive approach, the 2017 first-round pick's confidence and mentality might be the jolt the offense needs.
"I think he enjoys shot plays," interim offensive coordinator Eddie Faulkner said. "We're calling shots to take 'em, and so when you got guys like 14 [George Pickens] or 18 [Diontae Johnson] and guys that can make plays down the field, down the grass, for you, you want to take those shots. There is a personality there for him that's different than 8 [Pickett] just because they're different people. But from a game-plan perspective, we're going to have the same approach."
Once handcuffed by a conservative offensive plan and the threat of a first-round pick waiting in the wings, Trubisky, one of the league's highest-paid backup quarterbacks, steps into a situation on Thursday night against the New England Patriots where he has little to lose and everything to gain. A solid showing could not only invigorate a sputtering offense, but also put Trubisky back on the path to being a starting quarterback in the NFL after serving as a mentor and insurance policy for the majority of the past three seasons.
"I know I've got to take care of the football," Trubisky said Tuesday. "I'm just looking to be more efficient this week and execute well all together. But I like to be aggressive, push the ball downfield, and we got to find ways to score points.
"I'm trying to be that catalyst."
A season ago, coach Mike Tomlin used similar language to explain why he benched Trubisky at halftime of a Week 4 loss in favor of Pickett, citing a need for a "spark." To that point, Trubisky hadn't given the offense much of one, averaging 5.8 yards per attempt with two touchdown throws to two interceptions.
Later in the 2022 season, though, Trubisky got back on the field on three separate occasions, finishing two games for an injured Pickett and starting one. In those outings, the Steelers went 2-1 and Trubisky broke out of the conservative play narrative, averaging 9.4 yards per attempt, and 12.5 yards per completion for 599 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions.
This season, Trubisky has finished three games for Pickett, completing 59.2% of his attempts for 273 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
"The one thing I've noticed about Mitch is he hasn't flinched at all," Faulkner said. "Going back to last year, he comes in every day, has his hard hat on to go to work. That makes you feel good as a coach because he's preparing himself the proper way."
Though he's averaging 5.6 yards per attempt this season, he averaged 6.9 against the Cardinals and completed 64.7% of attempts.
And, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, Trubisky has thrown deep on 13.5% of his pass attempts since 2022, ranking fourth among quarterbacks who've thrown at least 200 attempts.
"We're trying to score points," Trubisky said, when asked whether he's more aggressive now than he was in his early starts last season. "I'm going to be aggressive. I'm going to take care of the football and we got to play better as an offense. We're going against a good defense this week, well-coached. So, we just got to do our job, execute well, play all of them together and we want to be an aggressive offense. So, whatever that means, taking care of the football, we got to find ways to score points. That's the bottom line."
Three weeks ago, the Steelers fired offensive coordinator Matt Canada in pursuit of a more fluid offense capable of scoring more points, but in two games with quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan calling plays, the offense is averaging 13 points per outing -- three points below their 28th-ranked season average of 16 points per game. Pickett, meanwhile, hasn't shown consistent improvement in his second season, and his 38.1 QBR ranks 26th out of 29 qualified quarterbacks this season.
While the Steelers haven't given any indication they plan to move on from Pickett in the near future, Trubisky could offer better quarterback play than what Pickett has provided in 12 starts: 62% of pass attempts completed, six touchdowns and four interceptions.
"I'm just trying to have a good mindset when I go in to do my job and help the team score," Trubisky said. "... I know I'm a lot more calm when I know I'm starting. So, I don't have to worry about when I'm going in. I know I'm starting the game and can control it from there. I'm looking forward to it."
Of course, Trubisky isn't talking about starts beyond Thursday night or what a good outing against a stout Patriots defense could do for his future. And maybe it's foolish to even consider those long-term implications when the Steelers have lost all three games in which Trubisky took over for an injured Pickett.
But Trubisky has had success previously when put in similar positions.
With six touchdowns and three interceptions to start Chicago's 2020 season, Trubisky was benched for Nick Foles after three games, only to regain the starting job for the final six games of the season and help the Bears to a playoff berth.
And last year, with Pickett sidelined because of a concussion, Trubisky started the Week 15 game against the Carolina Panthers. The Steelers won that game 24-16, and Trubisky was steady and efficient, completing 17 of 22 attempts for 179 yards as he helped engineer three long touchdown drives of at least 10 plays and 65 yards. That game kicked off a final four-game win streak for the Steelers, who finished just shy of the 2022 playoffs after a 2-6 start.
This time around, Trubisky will start for a team that's second in its division and currently owns the top wild card spot in a tight AFC.
"He's been a franchise quarterback before," Tomlin said of Trubisky. "He's comfortable in those shoes. He doesn't behave like a backup being elevated, and I think those are things that make him attractive."
While Pickett is the quarterback handpicked by the organization to be its future, Trubisky's performance will go a long way to dictating the immediate path forward for the Steelers and both quarterbacks. Starting with a solid, mistake-free outing Thursday night, Trubisky could both save the Steelers' season and reestablish his own career as a starter-capable quarterback in the league.