Shall we start with the good or bad news first? The bad news is that the Pittsburgh Steelers lost their third straight game, leaving them staring at a 1-3 record. The good news is that during their loss to the New York Jets, the Steelers were finally able to get their second round draft pick George Pickens involved on offense.
In an article last week regarding how the Steelers can turn things around, I highlighted the need to get one of their most talented players the football more and the Steelers seemed to agree. In Week 4, Pickens set career highs in targets, receptions and receiving yards.
Pickens was far more productive in week four than he had been in the three weeks prior, so what changed? Well, there was a quarterback change at halftime and that was clearly part of it as Pickens received four targets from newly promoted starting quarterback Kenny Pickett. Perhaps the most obvious change came in the way that Pickens was being deployed, with the Steelers diversifying his route tree throughout the game.
In previous weeks, it became painfully obvious that Pickens route tree was being overly simplified, for one reason or another, and it wasn't producing fruitful results. Aligning primarily as the Pittsburgh's Z receiver, Pickens route tree was almost exclusively consisted of go or fade routes with curls mixed in between.
These are often either alerts or decoys in this system.
Through the first three weeks, only two NFL receivers ran more fly patterns or fade routes combined (32) than Pickens. In Week 4, that number dipped substantially to just five total plays where he ran those specific routes and his productivity saw a massive spike as a result.
The first play we'll go over is an incompletion but it's still something new that the Steelers put on film for really the first time.
2nd and 4 with the Steelers lining up in 12 personnel, Mitch Trubisky carries out a play action fake with max protection. This is a designed shot play for Pickens to run a deep post from the slot, giving him a free runway to pick up speed heading downfield.
Trubisky's ball is on target but the free safety makes a great play to break up what would have been a huge completion. The thought process and execution was good but defensive players get paid to make plays too.
This is a different way to take a vertical shot than simply lining him up outside and making him win one on one with a boundary corner.
The next target was also something we've seen very little of this season as the RPO passing game has been largely abandoned this season under Matt Canada.
The Steelers are trying to manipulate the second level defenders with the run action while running Pickens immediately behind them on the glance route. Pickens is able to get an inside release while staying inside through the breakpoint which signals that he's open. Trubisky delivers a nice ball on the numbers while Pickens is able to shield Gardner off using his frame. Unfortunately, the mesh point takes a little too long and James Daniels ends up downfield which resulted in this being called back due to a penalty.
Now that we've got those out of the way, let's get to the really good stuff.
On 2nd and 16 following a penalty, Trubisky would hook up with the rookie wideout for 26 yards, his longest reception of the season. Pittsburgh gets a 2-high safety look and responds by having Chase Claypool run a quick curl underneath while they run Pickens behind the linebackers on a deep dig route over the middle.
This is a variation of what I would call a "sucker" concept, which is meant to lure the second level defenders to take the cheese underneath, opening a void for the quarterback to layer the football to. This is a nice anticipatory throw, hitting Pickens in stride and he's able to quickly get north, accumulating an extra ten yards after the catch.
Late in the third quarter, the rookie connection of Pickett and Pickens began to cook. On 3rd and 4, the Jets show pressure before dropping out at the snap while playing man coverage across the board. Pickett immediately recognizes it and fires a back shoulder throw to Pickens on the sideline who's working as the teams X receiver, isolated on the backside of a 3x1 formation. The cornerback does a nice job walling Pickens to the sideline but the throw was perfect. Pickens's incredible body control shines bright as he's able to turn with the ball in route and do his best ballerina impression with a toe tapping grab. Jets cornerback D.J. Reed is a quality starting corner but he's giving up nearly six inches of height to his opposition and the Steelers took advantage of the size differential for a crucial conversion.
Pickens saved his best for last, another third down conversion that came in the fourth quarter.
The Steelers lined him up in the slot out of 12 personnel opting to work a slot fade concept to the field side with the Jets again playing man coverage. Pickens gets an awesome outside release and has a step on the slot cornerback but instead of leading him and throwing towards the sideline, Pickens opts for the back shoulder throw instead.
The rookie sensation is able to slam on the breaks, work back to the football while fighting through contact to make a contested catch for a gain of 26 yards. This is another example of the Steelers targeting a smaller defensive back in Michael Carter and allowing Pickens to essentially play bully ball.
Over the last several weeks, it became evident that the rookie wideout was clearly frustrated by the lack of opportunities to make plays for his offense. Against the Jets, it seemed like they took the training wheels off of Pickens and even prioritized him throughout the gameplan as it seemed like they often went matchup hunting during critical parts of the afternoon. A diversified route tree and reformed usage led to a big afternoon, something that Steelers fans surely hope carries over moving forward.
While there are flashes, Pickens has work as a route runner but it won't become more natural for him if he doesn't get the necessary reps to improve.
Utilizing him as a boundary vertical threat is fine and we knew that would be a big part of his initial role but it can't be the only thing that he does in Canada's offense. His route tree over the first several weeks led to predictability and moving forward, veteran cornerbacks around the league were never going to be consistently threatened by him because they seemingly knew what to expect each play.
Pickens can separate well for a bigger receiver but it will look different than when you're watching a player like Diontae Johnson. His best qualities right now are his body control, tracking ability and his contested catch prowess. Pickens is one of those receivers that even when he's technically "covered," he's still sort of open and as a quarterback, you must give him a couple chances per game to make plays in those situations.
There were a couple instances where Pickett was able to do just that in the second half, something that will hopefully be a building block for the duo moving forward.
There seemed to be a good amount of chemistry between Pickett and Pickens despite Trubisky handling almost all of the first team reps since training camp began. If the Steelers have any shot of climbing out of this 1-3 hole that they have dug themself into, both rookies will need to play a sizable role in providing a spark for what's largely been a lifeless offense.
The development of this relationship could provide clues into what the future of this Steelers team holds and it should be a blast to watch unfold.
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