PITTSBURGH — George Pickens made his thoughts known when he only had two targets in Atlanta two weeks ago. But on Sunday, he saw three targets and caught all the balls that went his way for 78 yards. Yet, it still was only three targets when Marlon Humphrey admitted after the game that Pickens burned him all day.
“He was burning me all day. I knew he was gonna be a good player, and I knew Pittsburgh would probably draft him,” Humphrey said “He’s a Pittsburgh guy. He just has a lot of dog, a lot of grit in him.”
However, those three targets are still a low number. Diontae Johnson and Pat Freiermuth led the way for Pittsburgh with 8 and 6 targets each, respectively. But this is not just a one-week trend for Pickens, who has proven to be a dependable option for the Steelers.
Since the Chase Claypool trade, the number of targets Pickens has seen each week has never been higher than six. In three of the five games, he has not seen more than four targets. Whatever you thought of his sideline outburst, Pickens is right about the fact that he is not seeing the ball enough. In fact, Pickens has run 412 routes on the season, but his target rate of 15.8 percent is 97th in the NFL according to PlayerProfiler.
Something else that complicates this equation further is that when he is targeted, Pickens only registers 1.35 yards of separation. Those stats can be fluky at times, but it remains true that often, Pickens is not that open when he is targeted. But the contested catches that George Pickens makes on a weekly basis mean that when he is not open, he actually is open. In fact, two of his catches against Humphrey were contested grabs.
The first thing that the Steelers can do to get his target rate up? Simply take a few more deep shots when presented with one-on-one opportunities. Ben Roethlisberger made a living off targeting receivers he trusted in one-on-one coverage throughout his career. At this point, Pickens should be given the benefit of the doubt that he can make 50-50 balls look more like 70-30 balls because of his body control and strong hands.
Pickens seeing only one target in the second half is inexcusable at this stage in the season. For an offense that craves explosive plays, Pickens is the one player who has proven to be able to do that at a consistent level. As a route runner and receiver, he is starting to find the blind spot of cornerbacks more often. Moreover, he has shown the ability to find the soft spots in zone coverages.
Oftentimes, the progressions will prioritize Johnson or Freiermuth, which is fine. Pickens can not be targeted on every single play and that is fine. But there is little to no reason he should not get at least two or three opportunities to make a play per half. The oddly disjointed usage of Pickens and his skillset has been one of the more head-scratching things.
So, how can the Steelers get Pickens the ball more? They should be looking for him in single coverage down the sideline often. Even if jump balls are low percentage in the NFL, they turn into high-percentage plays with Pickens. When it comes to using him at all three levels of the field, Pickens has to be trusted to win on dig routes and deep over routes. The tape is proving his route tree is expanding as he rounds into a more complete receiver.