With his first start in just under two years now out of the way, Mitch Trubisky is ready to take the next step and start making more plays – particularly on third downs.
The Steelers were just 4 of 15 on third down conversions in last Sunday's 23-20 overtime win over the Cincinnati Bengals at Paycor Stadium, a figure Trubisky wants to improve upon when the team hosts the New England Patriots in its home opener Sunday at Acrisure Stadium.
To do that, the Steelers' quarterback knows he has to do better than the 6 completions he had in 12 passing attempts that resulted in 45 yards and three first downs when the team was facing third downs.
"We're looking to get better," Trubisky admitted Wednesday at the UPMC-Rooney Sports Complex. "We won the game, but there's a lot we can improve on, specifically on third down, just our overall execution. I like the calls we were in. We've just got to go out and execute them more and keep our defense off the field. We're looking to be better on third downs this week."
That won't necessarily be a simple task against the Patriots.
Sunday's game will mark the first time since the 1998 season a Steelers-Patriots game won't feature either Ben Roethlisberger or Tom Brady. The two teams have met 16 times since then, but Trubisky is looking forward to opening a new chapter in the rivalry.
"It's really cool," he said. "Always growing up you watch the legends of the game play this game. Great quarterback play has been a big part of this game. I'm just grateful to be in Pittsburgh and am looking forward to playing again this weekend."
Trubisky is well-versed in dealing with Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and his defenses.
He started one game against New England prior to Sunday's meeting, throwing for 333 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions in a 38-31 shootout loss while he was with the Bears in 2018. Trubisky also prepared to face the Patriots three times last season while the backup with the Bills, who saw New England twice during the regular season and then again in the playoffs.
He's quite familiar with them.
"I followed them a lot last year," Trubisky said of the Patriots. "We broke down every single game and we studied them a lot. That definitely helps preparing for this week. I'm looking at things I saw last year and seeing what I can carry into this year."
And if he still has any questions beyond that, he can walk down the hall and ask Steelers Senior Defensive Assistant Coach/Linebackers Brian Flores for insight. Flores was an assistant coach with the Patriots for more than a decade and was the team's defensive play caller for that 2018 matchup Trubisky started against them while with the Bears.
"Not just this week, but every week. Having Coach Flo in our meetings and having him to talk about defense and what he sees from his perspective has been huge," Trubisky said. "I've been talking to him throughout training camp and OTAs, just to get his perspective on defenses. What's hard to cover, what I see from a quarterback perspective.
"I think him being there gives us good insight into what they may be talking about and how they may be game planning for us. If we keep those things in mind and have a good work week, I think it could be a good advantage for us."
But he knows he and the offense have to play better, too.
The Steelers forced five turnovers in the win over the Bengals and didn't turn it over themselves. Trubisky threw for 194 yards and one touchdown, but he knows he can and will play better as he grows more accustomed to working with a new set of receivers.
"I think it might be first-game stuff," Trubisky said. "Continuing to build chemistry with the wideouts and receivers, getting on the same page. It's different when you're practicing it in practice, and you get in the game and everything is a little bit faster. You're going against a defense that is either playing you a little bit differently or you're seeing a receiver differently. You get those different looks. We'll continue to work on it and get that timing down in practice."
It's something that was to be expected, according to Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. He saw progress from the offense from the team's first road preseason game in Jacksonville against the Jaguars to the win over the Bengals.
"It's no secret that we're transitioning and gaining cohesion in that group, whether, again, it's young players or players that are new to us," Tomlin said. "I thought we did some good things considering the variables. I thought that we were better than we were in Jacksonville, and this was our second opportunity with this collective to go into a road venue. Obviously, a regular season environment is more intense than a preseason one, and so for us to be better and substantially better, it was encouraging."
Now, Trubisky wants to take that next step with the offense. He wants the team to be better on third downs. He wants to turn turnovers into touchdowns. And he wants to hit some big plays down the field.
Trubisky attempted several downfield shots against the Bengals. He connected on deeper throws to tight end Pat Freiermuth twice and also had a completion to wide receiver Diontae Johnson in overtime, as well, for a 25-yard gain.
But there were some misses, too, most notably on passes early in the game to Miles Boykin and George Pickens.
Trubisky wants to hit on some of those deeper balls early, perhaps opening things up for the running game.
"We've just got to hit those. We hit those in practice. We hit a couple of those in the preseason," he said. "The one early to Boykin, I think if we hit that one, it opens up a lot of things for us. Maybe it's a different story on third downs, or a different feel about the offense. We're going to continue to take those shots, continue to work the timing in practice. We would like to come up with those big plays.
"We've got to have that aggressive mentality to take teams out of the game and not just let them keep it close. I was proud of the way we took care of the football, but you've got to have that aggressive mentality to score points. It's not just the calls. It's got to be everybody on the field's mindset."