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Film Room with Kenny Pickett: Improving Timing with Freiermuth, Johnson



Steelers QB Kenny Pickett

Kenny Pickett has shown steady growth and development since taking over as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ starting quarterback.

After throwing eight interceptions in his first five games, Pickett has now gone four straight without throwing one. Partially as a result, he has seen his passer rating increase in each of the last five contests, and he posted a career-high 90.9 on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons. Pickett did not have an adjusted net yards per attempt over six in any of his first five games. He now has four straight over six and a 7.75 against the Falcons.

The end results of those numbers is not mind-blowingly good, but it shows steady and consistent progress for the Steelers’ first-round draft pick.

“When I first got put in there versus the Jets, I didn’t have a lot of reps leading up to that point,” Pickett said. “The more that I’ve been playing, I feel like I feel a lot more comfortable going through progressions, knowing how our guys get in an out of breaks with timing purposes and stuff like that. Every week I feel like I am getting better and better, and I just want to continue to improve on the things that I need to work on and just build off the positives.” 

One of the areas that Pickett has said he felt was a deficiency was his level of comfort with the team’s first-string receivers. Pickett came into the league as the Steelers’ No. 3 quarterback, and kept that position all the way through until the end of training camp.

For six months, Pickett was working to build a rapport with a group of players that is now largely no longer on the team. When he was bumped up to the second team on the eve of the season, that meant more practice team reps for Pickett, but he was still throwing to scout team players like Steven Sims and Connor Heyward.

Chances to throw to the big guns of the offense, players like Diontae Johnson, Pat Freiermuth and George Pickens, were few and far between. Since Pickett was thrust into the starting lineup in Week 4 against the New York Jets, he’s put in a concerted effort to find extra time to make up for those lost reps with the group of receivers that he’s currently responsible for getting the ball to.

It’s still a bit of a work in progress at times. Against the Falcons, Pickett missed Freiermuth going up the seam and he and Johnson were not on the same timing for a ball in the corner of the end zone. But they did start to show some glimpses of what the offense could look like as those players dial in their timing. Here’s two plays that really show next-level awareness between Pickett and the receivers.

This is a 3rd and 3 on the Steelers opening drive of the game. Pickett takes the shotgun snap and immediately looks to his right. He only has one receiver down there, and it’s Johnson, who is absolutely locked up by the Falcons corner. I’m not sure if Pickett really wanted to throw right of if this is just a look-off, because it’s a very fast look. But either way, he totally re-sets his feet, looks to his left and immediately fires to Freiermuth for the first down.

Take another look at this with a more isolated angle on Pickett. He has basically zero wasted time between re-setting his feet and throwing the ball. He has to know exactly where Freiermuth is going to be when his back is still to him in order for this to work. They made it look a lot easier than it is.

Here’s another example from the second quarter. This is a play-action bootleg and Pickett is on the move, dodging one defender being blocked by Derek Watt and dealing with a second one in his face. Johnson is working a deep comeback on the play side.

Pickett needs to start his throwing motion before Johnson is all the way turned around. He also needs to start his throwing motion before he gets hit. There is a check-down option to Gentry that is open at the hash mark. But Pickett correctly assesses that he has time to wait for Johnson to come out of his break, starts to deliver the ball just as Johnson turns, and makes another completion looks easy.

“I think that is definitely a sign (of progress),” Pickett said. “As a quarterback, you just know kind of an indicator of right before they break, their body language. That’s something I am learning with each guy, and I definitely have it with Pat, I have it with George, and now I am getting there with Diontae because we are getting the reps. It feels good to have that and a lot of confidence that I can let it loose while their back is turned to me because I know they’re coming out of it right when they need to be.” 

The Steelers still aren’t hitting on all of these types of plays, and their failure to do so on Sunday forced the offense to settle for two field goals instead of touchdowns, letting the Falcons hang around and keeping the potent Atlanta ground game as a viable option. But they are showing consistent and steady progress in this along with many other areas, and that’s the big key for the development of Pickett this season.

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