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One Big Change the Steelers Offense Must Make



Steelers QB Kenny Pickett
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett against the Tennessee Titans on Nov. 2, 2023. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

The Steelers offense might be finding some ground. For one, the rushing attack is coming off its best game of the season against a solid Tennessee Titans front. The team’s ability to develop a run game is the first sign that the offense could be turning into something we saw near the end of last year. But something that has not come around? Pittsburgh’s passing attack.

Between several factors, including the play of Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh’s passing attack is one of the more disappointing groups in the NFL. But there could be one change that sparks it all, and Matt Canada might already be on that train. In a season of struggles, Pickett is quietly one of the NFL’s best passer-off-play action concepts, but the Steelers do not do it much.

Pickett only has 34 attempts, just 14.6% of Pickett’s dropbacks this year, good enough for 47th in the entire NFL. But he is completing 77.1% of his passes on those attempts. Pickett has 270 yards for two touchdowns. Against the Titans, they ran seven play-action concepts, up nearly 23 percent of Pickett’s passes, by far the most in the season for him. Still, most were either quick screens or dump-offs into the flat. But when the team lets Pickett rip it off play action, he can do it.


Kenny Pickett back to pass versus the Baltimore Ravens / Ed Thompson

It’s something the team talked about doing in the preseason more but never committed to until they got a rushing attack. If Pittsburgh’s run game comes along, could that be a massive adjustment that opens up the middle of the field? Pittsburgh needs to find those explosive plays in the middle of the field, and they could very well look to play action to unlock that area.

“Yeah, I get the vibe that there will be a lot of it,” Allen Robinson said this preseason. “We still, for us, need to have quicks and things like that. With Kenny being mobile and everything, it’s different (than the Rams). Most offenses will have that element of play action, and certainly with a guy like Najee. You’re going to be able to draw defenses up and that will be a big element.”

In 2022, Kenny Pickett was among the league’s bottom in every metric related to play action, including raw attempts, with just 70. Overall, the team ran play action on just 16 percent of their snaps, 21st in the NFL a year ago. While that is a slight increase, Pickett had a measly 5.5 yards per attempt, the worst in the NFL among starting quarterbacks. So, with rumored changes occurring, a more robust play-action game could make sense.

We still have not seen that develop quite yet in 2022, and again, that yards per attempt is up a bit to 7.7. But Pittsburgh needs to find a way to open up the middle of the field for Pickett and this offense. The best way to do that will be through play action, and Pickett seems to execute that at a high level.

Pittsburgh has only thrown between the numbers at a depth of between ten and 20 yards a mere 19 times this season. That’s not enough. Pickett is 8 of 19 for 194 yards and a touchdown on those throws. Sometimes, it has not shown fruitful for them, but for a team that lacks explosives in the passing game, they desperately need it.