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J.J. Watt Confused, Shocked by Steelers Passing Offense



Steelers QB Kenny Pickett
Steelers QB Kenny Pickett against the Green Bay Packers, Nov. 12, 2023 - Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

The Steelers’ passing offense is baffling. They have not thrown a single pass between the hashes in the past two weeks. In what has been a theme over the last few seasons under Matt Canada, Pittbsurgh’s inability to attack the field, even across multiple quarterbacks, remains baffling. But the tape now showcases a Steelers team that is running concepts there, but Pickett is not ripping them for whatever reason.

Joining the Pac McAfee Show on Wednesday, J.J. Watt talked about the odd Steelers passing attack, and to say the least, he was stunned by what he saw for the passing locations.

“How crazy is that? Look at that,” Watt said. “There is not one single throw between the hashes. Not one single throw between the hashes. Everything is short of 10 yards and outside the numbers. That tells me one of two things. Either we’re not scheming up the right plays to get these types of passes, to have these crossing routes, to get these middle throws. Or you don’t trust to be able to do that. We don’t know which, obviously.”

Watt likes that Pittsburgh has taken care of the football, so he believes it is hard to be angry given that Pittsburgh is 6-3. But Sunday against the Green Bay Packers, the second half of that prophecy came to pass. The Packers opened up in zone coverage, trying to give a secondary missing star cornerback Jaire Alexander as much help as possible in dealing with Pickens and Johnson.

The result was a Steelers ground game with its best season game. Najee Harris ran 16 times for a season-high 82 yards, and Jaylen Warren had 15 carries for 101 yards — his first triple-digit performance. So, naturally, the passing game should come along, too, but it just did not.

“It’s not pretty,” Watt said. “They’re not putting up these huge massive numbers. They’re not throwing the ball over the middle of the field at all, which is wild. But they’re keeping everything safe.”

How Mad Can You Be?

Watt asked how people can be made, given that Pittsburgh is 6-3, but they also have to ask how sustainable this naturally is. Even with the return of Pat Freiermuth, can the Steelers keep up with teams that present challenging defenses and above-average offenses? They need to prove that before they can justify just turtling along. The games coming up on their schedule necessitate that thought.

On Sunday, he Packers adjusted against the run, moving to more of their Cover 3 look — basically playing the Steelers’ own base defense against them and daring Pickett, Pickens and Johnson to take advantage of zone coverage on the outside. 

Pickett completed 10 of his first 13 passes for 83 yards. After that, with the opportunity to do more, he completed four of his final 10 for 43 yards. Included in that group was a back-shoulder missed big play when Johnson couldn’t come down with a back-shoulder throw, and Calvin Austin III was flagged for offensive pass interference.

Without a passing offense operating at something approaching league-average efficiency, without Pickens and Johnson being consistently open and having the offense execute through them, it’s hard to imagine the Steelers being better than they are.

Much has been made this season about the performance of offensive coordinator Matt Canada, and he is certainly part of the conversation regarding the overall struggles of the offense. But while Canada’s lack of higher-level playcalling might be limiting the Steelers’ total offensive potential, it’s up to the players on the field to raise the floor.