The Pittsburgh Steelers are hoping that 2022 first-round draft pick Kenny Pickett can help unlock a little-used area of their passing game in the middle of the field.
There is no question about where the Steelers did not attack last season. While the Steelers had some of the best numbers as a team outside of the numbers, they were dreadfully bad in between them. The middle of the field past ten yards felt like a foreign landscape, a place that was forbidden to use at all.
However, the rest of the NFL consistently used that area, not only to great success but to create explosive plays.
So, what happened? It was likely due to the skillset of Ben Roethlisberger. Perhaps, he did not feel comfortable enough targeting the area where there are typically tighter windows. Roethlisberger, instead, opted for rhythm-based routes underneath and outside the numbers. With physical players like JuJu Smith-Schuster and Chase Claypool, and a guy who can run routes like Diontae Johnson, it was easy for Roethlisberger to move the chains that way.
Roethlisberger did not try to throw there very often, and when he did, he did find that much success. He attempted only 34 passes over the middle of the field that went 34 or more air yards. That was the 15th most in the NFL. However, he only completed 14 of those passes, which was 26th in the NFL. His completion percentage of 41.2% on those passes was 47th in the NFL. Roethlisberger racked up 362 yards and three touchdowns, thus only showing up to 10.6 yards per attempt, which was 47th in the NFL. The most resonating stat may be the lackluster five yards for Roethlisberger’s average depth of target on passes over the middle. That ranked 65th in the NFL.
However, Roethlisberger is now gone. In comes Mitchell Trubisky and Pickett. Perhaps, that would showcase a change in philosophy. Still, Trubisky’s numbers in this area are not stellar, either. Trubisky certainly can move and is efficient on rollouts. His mobility and veteran savvy is a key reasons for the Steelers adding him to the fold. Add in some potential unrealized upside, and maybe Trubisky can improve. Still, in 2020, he was not proficient in the middle of the field, especially past 15 air yards.
Trubisky ranked had 28 attempts in eight games for the Bears. The volume was there for him, but he only completed 12 of those attempts. His 42.9% completion percentage ranked 41st in the NFL. His 9.2 yards per attempt was 46th in the NFL in 2020. Trubisky’s 6.8 average depth of target over the middle of the field was not all that great, either. That ranked 38th in the NFL. Simply put, that was not an area where Trubisky was at the top of the NFL.
However, enter in Pickett. His last season at Pitt was one that was fantastic overall, but he especially won in the middle of the field. In a campaign where Pickett was a Heisman finalist, he put up some of the best middle-of-the-field numbers in all of college football when throwing over the middle of the field past 15 air yards. His 59 attempts were second-most in the nation, while his 41 completions were the most in the nation. Pickett’s 69.5% completion percentage was the best mark in the nation. In addition, his 1251 yards and 15 touchdowns were the best in the nation. Pickett’s 21.2 yards per attempt was the second0-best in the college football. His 8.8 yards on his average depth of target over the middle of the field in general ranked third-best in college football.
Understandably, comparing college football to NFL stats is a tenuous one. However, this is where Pickett wins. Roethlisberger and Trubisky do not win in the middle of the field past 10 yards. That might be where Pickett is at his best and strives to actually play within. Should Pickett win the starting job, the middle of the field is completely in business for work. The offense will change around that strength.
With the Steelers’ lack of ability to open up the most fertile area in the NFL for explosive plays, Pickett allows them to do that. It is just one more reason why it made sense for Pickett to be the draft pick, as his middle of the field proficiency was downright elite.