When the Patriots selected Mac Jones with the 15th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, they thought they were finding a solution to life after Tom Brady.
The following year, the Steelers selected Kenny Pickett 20th overall as the franchise's Ben Roethlisberger replacement.
Neither has yet proven his worth. Neither is expected to play when the Patriots face the Steelers Thursday night in Pittsburgh.
Pickett has been ruled out following ankle surgery. The Steelers are 7-5, and every game feels existential at this point. They'll turn this game over to Mitch Trubisky, who led a touchdown drive in place of Pickett last week, but Pittsburgh's crushing home loss to Arizona -- one of the worst in the Mike Tomlin era -- has heightened the tension in Steeltown.
Speaking of tension, the Patriots' QB situation has turned downright ugly. Jones was benched last week against the Chargers, but his replacement, Bailey Zappe, didn't fare any better. The Patriots were shut out Sunday for the second time this season at home. Bill Belichick and his staff have been grasping at straws all season.
It's not clear who will start for New England, but Zappe is the assumption. Malik Cunningham, who has taken snaps at receiver and quarterback this season, was active last week but did not play. Jones might also be an option.
The Patriots, who will be officially eliminated from the playoffs for a second straight year with a loss, are not in the same position as the Steelers -- they're gunning for better draft position, not the playoffs -- and can do whatever they want. Almost everything else they've tried offensively this season has not worked in the franchise's worst season in decades.
This might be a matchup of future Hall of Fame coaches, but these are two offenses that are in tough shape right now.
Here are four things to watch for when the Patriots visit the Steelers on Thursday night on Prime Video:
1) Mitch Trubisky should be able to keep the trains moving on time. If there's a team that can survive a QB injury now, it might be the Steelers. Trubisky has started five games for Pittsburgh, appeared in five more for them and started 57 NFL games (two in the postseason). He's not a franchise QB, but his teams have a winning record with him starting. Trubisky's athleticism is an underrated element of his game, as he once ran for 81 yards and a score against Belichick's Patriots in 2018. But the next time he faced them, with the Steelers last season, New England played more zone and also spied Trubisky, limiting his scrambling chances. They were happy to let him pick away underneath, too, taking away the deep part of the field. Trubisky was 5 of 12 for 74 yards and a pick when throwing the ball 10-plus yards downfield in that game. New play caller Mike Sullivan has been more aggressive than predecessor Matt Canada in terms of attacking downfield, but we'll have to see if he takes this approach from the outset on Thursday.
2) Patriots must find a way to generate offense. Although the bulk of the 2023 season has been a grueling one offensively, the Patriots might find themselves at their low point now. They've scored six, seven and zero points the last three games. Jones struggled (five INTs in his past four games) before being benched. Zappe, who threw a bizarre pick late in the London loss to the Colts, replaced Jones and did little last week (13 of 25 passing, 141 yards, five sacks). The Patriots' offensive line has failed, the top two running backs are beat up and the WR room has also been chewed up and ineffective. With Rhamondre Stevenson (ankle) unable to go, it figures to be an Ezekiel Elliott game -- and he's dealt with a thigh injury. Stevenson also leads the team in receptions. Wideout Demario Douglas (concussion) is also out for this game. Whoever quarterbacks will need some help from somewhere. TE Hunter Henry needs to step up. Maybe Tyquan Thornton, who had a 39-yard run last week, can break off a big play. DeVante Parker (knee; questionable) had 64 yards receiving last week, but on nine targets. Perhaps Kayshon Boutte or Jalen Reagor can show something. But no matter how you spin it, the cupboard looks mighty bare.
3) Pittsburgh's defense, other playmakers must step up. Tomlin won't want to put the entire game on Trubisky, so you can bet he'll be expecting a lot from his defense and run game. Linebacker Elandon Roberts (groin) could return to give his position a lift, facing his former squad. Cameron Heyward is back and improving after his own groin injury, and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick also has returned from being sidelined. T.J. Watt, despite being banged up, and Alex Highsmith continue to be game-wreckers. The secondary is shaky at times, but that's less of a worry against the Patriots' passing game. Offensively, the Steelers can lean heavily on their RB duo of Najee Harris (knee; questionable) and Jaylen Warren. This might be more of a Warren game, as the Patriots generally have shut down opponents' run games recently, so getting Warren more involved as a receiver makes sense even if he hasn't had more than 25 receiving yards in a game since October. WRs George Pickens and Diontae Johnson have delivered as much drama as they have consistent big plays, but the recent return of TE Pat Freiermuth (who grew up a big Patriots fan) has helped. The Steelers need to play complementary football around their backup QB, and getting a slew of players back from injury on both sides of the ball recently figures to help.
4) Can New England's defense keep this game close? If there's a saving grace to the Patriots' horrific offensive struggles, it's that the defense largely has given them a chance to win games. Despite the 2-10 record and injuries to LB Matthew Judon and CBs Christian Gonzalez and Marcus Jones, New England's defense has largely been good -- especially in recent games. The Patriots have allowed only 725 yards and 26 points the past three games, even if they lost all three. There was some luck against the Chargers, with a spate of dropped passes, but the Patriots still know how to play defense. It's been good but not good enough. The Patriots need to force more turnovers (11 this season, two in the past three games) and probably score on defense to have a chance. This season, they have one safety (by Judon, who is out) and zero defensive TDs. In 2022, they had seven defensive scores, but it has been over a year since the Patriots scored on defense. Some of their better defensively players recently include DT Christian Barmore, LB Jahlani Tavai and S Jabrill Peppers, but can any of them make a game-changing turnover? Trubisky will take some sacks and has been turnover-prone at times.