I’m totally sick of the comparisons between 49ers’ Brock Purdy and Pittsburgh Steelers’ Kenny Pickett being thrown around on social media for the past month. There is a reason why Pickett was the only first-round quarterback in this draft, and Brock Purdy was Mr. Irrelevant.
You have to respect what Purdy has done to this point. He has been competent in the 49ers' offense, but Kyle Shanahan is such a good coach that truly anyone could thrive there. Purdy deserves to be the guy until he isn’t.
The point of bringing this up, however, is that watching the 49ers’ playoff game and seeing the 49ers allow Purdy to throw deeper than five yards downfield with frequency makes you wonder why Pickett, Matt Canada, and the Steelers were so hesitant to do the same thing throughout the season.
Whether the hesitance was on Pickett’s part or the game-planning scheme, in general, is debatable. Watching Pickett play, you’d have to think that his confidence and poise would have him feeling good about throwing the ball and actually unleashing a tough throw every once and a while.
Canada’s passive game-planning and play-calling could have been big reasons for Pickett’s relatively low rookie season numbers.
One of the biggest knocks on Pickett early in the season was his perceived lack of arm strength and inability to really fit in tight balls over the middle of the field. Looking back upon some of his highlights from the season, some of his better throws came when he had to fit a ball into a tight window inside the hash marks.
One that comes to mind is his throw to Steven Sims on the game-winning drive against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 17 that kept the Steelers’ slim playoff hopes alive. He made a great throw that only Sims could get, and he did so in a huge moment in the season. My other favorite one came against Miami on the final drive of that game, where he found Pat Freiermuth on a fourth down on a seam route that had to be placed perfectly or else it wouldn’t have been caught.
When you look at the options Pickett has, it isn’t like he’s got no one to throw to.
George Pickens makes as many contested catches as anyone in the NFL. Diontae Johnson is elite at getting separation from his defenders if the Steelers choose to use him as more than a short throw kind of player. Freiermuth is among the trustiest tight ends in the league. Even Steven Sims came on and made some plays throughout the year after starting the season as nothing more than a “nameless gray face” to borrow a Tomlin-ism. Let’s not forget that Calvin Austin remains an eventual piece of the team as well.
Being a risk-averse offense in this era of the NFL is going to get you nowhere as evidenced by the Steelers ranking 23rd in total offense and 26th in points per game. There is a reason why nine of the top-10 offensive teams made the playoffs and the other is the Detroit Lions who were in contention clear up until the final week of the regular season.
Canada has to work with Pickett in the offseason to tailor the offense to what Pickett likes. Sure, Canada has some concepts that he can also use but things have to be geared toward Pickett. The Steelers won’t become the gunslinging team that they were under Ben Roethlisberger but they surely need to use the middle of the field more after seeing Pickett succeed towards the end of the season more often in those situations.
It’s not an accident that Pickett’s best games down the stretch coincided with the running game beginning to find its stride too. If the Steelers are able to run the ball, it will inevitably open up the passing game a bit if they have to find a way to respect both.
Canada is reportedly entering the final year of his contract. He’s taken a lot of criticism during his time in Pittsburgh and even had his offense called “Saturday-ish” by Steve Smith, a national TV analyst. If he wants a chance to be an NFL offensive coordinator ever again, he needs to give his young quarterback a chance to cook more in 2023.
If it works for Brock Purdy, something tells me it can work for Kenny Pickett.
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