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Steelers Analysis

Saunders: Steelers Plan to Unlock Passing Offense Hits Significant Snag



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

PITTSBURGH — For the last few games, the Pittsburgh Steelers have been frustrated by an inability to get star wide receiver George Pickens the ball, citing constant double coverage on the outside as the reason for their failure to do so. That caused a stir when Pickens made his frustrations public last week, putting his targets at the top of the public consciousness.

But that only tells part of the story. They’ve also had an under-performing passing offense overall, and Pickens’ lack of big plays is only a symptom of the bigger problem.

After the Steelers’ Week 9 win over the Tennessee Titans, when Pickens had two catches for -1 yards, head coach Mike Tomlin noted that yes, the team could be doing more to get Pickens ball, but that other areas of the offense needed to step up, given less attention from defenses.

“It’s an 11 on 11 game,” Tomlin said on Tuesday. “When he’s getting that type of attention, a guy like Diontae (Johnson) is going to have an opportunity to have volume catches, or you’re going to have an opportunity to have a light box and your run game is going to have an opportunity to be effective, for example.”

Steelers WR George Pickens

Steelers WR George Pickens against the Green Bay Packers, Nov. 12, 2023 – Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

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 that had its best game of the season. Najee Harris ran 16 times for a season-high 82 yards and Jaylen Warren had 15 carries for 101 yards — his first career triple-digit performance.

But it wasn’t all smiles for the Steelers offense after the game, even with that rushing performance and a 23-19 victory over the visiting Cheeseheads. The Steelers raced out to a 17-7 lead in the first half on the backs of Harris and Warren, who each contributed early touchdowns.

“The run game was doing their thing,” Johnson said. “We just kept feeding Najee and Jaylen the ball. Once we had a little thing they were off playing zone, we just kinda took little out route and stuff like that — taking what they were giving us.”

Then, the offense got stuck in the mud for the rest of the game. After an eight-play, 25-yard drive in the second quarter ended in a Chris Boswell field goal, the Steelers went three plays, five plays, three plays, five plays and five plays on the next five drives and netted just one more field goal. Pickens finished as the team’s leader with three catches for 45 yards.

What Happened to Steelers Passing Offense?

What happened? The 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 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.

“We had opportunities, we just didn’t connect on them,” Pickett said. “Had a back shoulder to George, which was a really good play for us, just wish we had some more opportunities to do so, but we got the win, that’s the most important thing.”

It is, and despite Pickett’s less-than-underwhelming stat line (14 of 23, 126 yards, no touchdowns), it’s important not to lose sight of that. The Steelers are 6-3 and could be in first place in the AFC North before they take the field again. A win in Week 11 against the Cleveland Browns could really put them in the driver’s seat, and they’ve proven already that they can do that without a dynamic passing offense.

But the point of this exercise is to win a championship at the end, and a trip to the playoffs, though representing a step forward, is not enough to satisfy anyone if it doesn’t come with a realistic hope of winning it. 

Without a passing offense operating at something approaching league-average efficiency, without Pickens and Johnson being able to get consistently open and have 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 when it comes to 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.

The execution, simply put, has not been good enough. Johnson needs to catch that back-shoulder ball. Strange decision and risky pass aside, it’s a different game if Jaylen Warren hauls in the third-down swing pass that clanged off his arms. Pickens certainly didn’t need the pick from Austin to be open enough to seal the game on that late third down.

And then there’s Pickett, who the team invested a first-round pick in a year ago. He can be better. He has been better in fits and spurts — mostly in the fourth quarter while training. That’s a great time to play your best ball, but it can’t be the only time a team can rely on its passing offense. 

If the Steelers are going to keep winning, they need more from Pickett, and they will need it sooner than later. It’s hard to envision beating one of the league’s best run defenses in Cleveland and keeping up with a dynamic Cincinnati offense without the Steelers getting more from No. 8.