The Pittsburgh Steelers’ aerial attack in 2022 was abysmal, to say the least. They ranked dead last in touchdown passes (12) and 24th in passing yards per game (200.6). The one bright spot, however, was George Pickens, as the rookie wide receiver was one of the best in the league at explosive plays.
According to Marcus Mosher of Pro Football Focus, Pickens ranked third in the NFL in big play percentage (20.7%), recording 18 big plays on 87 looks. Only Jaylen Waddle, A.J. Brown, Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill and Justin Jefferson had more big plays. That’s an elite group of receivers to be in company with.
A good portion of Pickens’ explosive plays this past season came on contested catches, a trait that he excelled at dating back to his collegiate career at Georgia. Per PFF, Pickens’ 19 contested catches in 2022 were the most by a rookie since they started tracking data. Kenny Pickett praised Pickens’ ability to come down with 50/50 balls on the Pat McAfee Show on Thursday.
“If George didn’t make a play on a 50/50 ball, it was almost as like a surprise to me in a game, because that’s how consistently he makes those plays,” Pickett said. “I think we are just going to grow in that area. I kind of understand where he likes the ball in certain situations. That’s kind of with all the receivers. Just going to continue to get better and build on it in the offseason.”
Pickens was responsible for two of the Steelers’ longest touchdown plays in 2022 — a 24-yard grab in Week 11 against the Cincinnati Bengals and a 31-yard reception against the Cleveland Browns in Week 18. A 31-yard touchdown being the longest of the year showcases just how much the Steelers struggled with chunk plays.
Shockingly, classified WR1 Diontae Johnson didn’t reach the end zone at all in 2022, despite recording 86 receptions on 147 targets. Johnson set an NFL record for most receptions without a touchdown during a season. Along with not finding pay dirt at all, Johnson wasn’t very explosive. According to PFF, Johnson ranked 102nd among 105 receivers in big play percentage (4.5%). Johnson had just seven big plays on 154 looks.
The Steelers led the league in 10+ play offensive drives and percentage of 10+ play drives in 2022, while they ranked 22nd in red zone scoring percentage (touchdowns only) at 51.92%. That’s not a sustainable way to have a potent offense in today’s league. The Steelers need more splash plays from players other than just Pickens in 2023. It’s essential for Pittsburgh to become a respectable offense once again.