PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers had a trap set, and the Baltimore Ravens walked right into it.
After two straight games of having top wide receiver target George Pickens smothered by double-team coverage by the opposition, the Steelers offensive braintrust noticed on tape that the Ravens, despite entering the game with the third-best passing defense in the NFL, had not been giving that treatment to opposing star wide receivers.
In fact, the Ravens had been doing the exact opposite. They weren’t double-covering anyone. Baltimore had shown on tape a tendency to go to man-to-man coverage across the board — also known as Cover Zero — in order to bring extra pressure.
Late in the fourth quarter on a 2nd and 9 at the Baltimore 41, Kenny Pickett got to the line and saw every single Baltimore defender pressed up to the line of scrimmage. Most of them were in the tackle box, but cornerback Marlon Humphrey was aligned over Pickens wide to the right, and there was no one behind him.
Pickett adjusted his protection, keeping back Jaylen Warren in to make sure he had the time to make the throw, and then cut it loose to Pickens for the go-ahead score.
PICKETT TO PICKENS! What a comeback for the @steelers 😮
— NFL (@NFL) October 8, 2023
“We were preparing all week. In those kinda bigger moments, they were going to go zero,” Pickett said. “We got the protection right, gave George his route and he went up there and won. Big-time players make big-time plays in those moments and that’s why we have him on the team.”
Head coach Mike Tomlin said that the Steelers weren’t specifically looking for a touchdown on that play. It was just a proper reaction to the coverage that Baltimore showed, along with the preparedness to be able to correctly identify the right place to go with the football.
“It just developed,” he said. “We knew that they had an appetite for zero coverage in those weighty moments. It presented itself to us, but I don’t know that was our intention.”
Pickett has said he does have the freedom to change play calls at the line, and make changes like the protection swap that gave him the time to find Pickens.
“It’s all game-plan related,” Pickett said. “Built into certain plays, if they go zero, we always have those answers. We can do certain things. I thought we did a really good job of communicating today. There’s some personnel things we have to get cleaned up. It wasn’t as smooth as we hoped or needed it to be.”
Earlier in the game, Pickett and Pickens misfired on a similar play. They got the protection dialed in, but Pickett was reading off coverage and a come-back and Pickens kept going. That led to a wildly missed incompletion. But they got things right, Baltimore gave them another shot with its aggressive defensive playcalling, and the Steelers eventually took advantage.
Pickens summed it up nicely:
“The resiliency of the team right there in the last hour was pretty incredible.”