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Steelers Analysis & Film Study

More Deep Balls Not the Answer for Struggling Steelers Offense

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Steelers George Pickens

PHILADELPHIA — After last week’s loss to the Miami Dolphins, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Chase Claypool frustratingly called for the offense to take some more deep shots and go over the top of opposing defenses.

“It’s not enough go balls,” Claypool said. “We have playmakers. I haven’t had a go ball all year. George needs more. ‘Tae needs more.”

In Sunday’s loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Steelers gave it their best shot, and it was an abject failure.

Kenny Pickett threw 11 passes with more than 10 air yards on Sunday. He completed just two of them, one to Chase Claypool and one to Pat Freiermuth, for a total of 43 yards. One, another Freiermuth attempt over the middle, was tipped and intercepted. Pickett’s passer rating on those 11 throws was 5.49.

Three of those passes were the only three balls thrown to rookie George Pickens on the day. None of them were completed. On one, Eagles cornerback Avonte Maddox pushed Pickens out of bounds. The next time, Pickens did catch the ball, but was called for offensive pass interference. On the third one, Pickens couldn’t hold on as caught the ball and landed, while colliding with corner James Bradberry. The fourth time, Pickens was so well covered by Bradberry that he broke his route off, but Pickett through it to the end zone, anyway, and the pass went easily incomplete.

All of those came in the first and second quarter. The Steelers didn’t throw to Pickens again the rest of the game. Fellow outside receiver Diontae Johnson didn’t fare much better. Freiermuth was open in the middle of the field a few times, but Pickett badly missed him once, and the final pass to the big tight end in the middle of the field was tipped and intercepted.

“We’re pushing it down the field,” Pickett said. “We have to do more of it. We have to get guys in space more to get some more run after. Guys catching the ball on the move. That’s me putting it on them and hitting them in stride and stuff like that. So there’s a lot of things we have to work on. This bye week is huge for us to figure out what it is and what we have to do to turn it around and get it right.” 

But what is right? The Steelers offense seems to be caught in a bit of a tug of war between wanting more deep shots and not being able to deliver on them. Pickett has a well-above league average passer rating on balls thrown less than 10 yards down field, and he’s well below that line on balls thrown farther than 10 yards down field, per Next Gen Stats.

The Steelers committed to Pickett being their quarterback and letting the first-round draft pick play and develop. So wouldn’t it make some more sense to do more of what he’s better at, instead of forcing the ball down the field where he’s struggled?

It probably would, but part of the problem has been the Steelers game situations. When you’re losing by more than two touchdowns, it’s often less about what you want to do and more about what you need to do.

“You get down by a number of scores, the secondary is playing soft, the four-man rush has got their ears pinned back,” head coach Mike Tomlin said. “That’s why the game needs to be close to keep everything at your disposal. When they’re not, when they are multiple possession games, and time is winding down it gets extremely difficult to get the ball over the top, coupled with protecting your quarterback.”

The Steelers have a lot of problems with their offense, and the lack of a ground game is likely contributing to both the team’s struggle throwing deep and consistently falling behind in games. They have two weeks to figure out a long list of problems, but it does not immediately appear that throwing a lot more deep balls is a solution on its own.

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