TAMPA, Fla. — The Pittsburgh Steelers have a good amount of work to do in advance of the 2023 season, but no task is taller than showing improvement from the team’s bottom-tier scoring output from 2022.
There are many ways to accomplish that, and the Steelers have been focused on several of them this offseason, targeting improved offensive line play, a more effective running game, and a passing game that can be more explosive, better utilize the entire field and maximize the talent of the eligible players on the roster.
In Friday’s preseason opener, the offense showed what it can be. The look was brief, as the team’s starting offense played just one drive. But in that drive, it looked like a unit capable of accomplishing all of those goals.
In 10 plays, the offense went 83 yards, and was faced with just two third downs along the way. Here’s the entire drive chart:
1-10, PIT 17: Kenny Pickett to Diontae Johnson, 8 yards.
2-2, PIT 25: Pickett to Pat Freiermuth, 6 yards.
1-10, PIT 31: Pickett pass to Najee Harris, 1-yard loss.
2-11, PIT 30: Jaylen Warren run right, 1 yard
3-10, PIT 31: Pickett pass to Diontae Johnson, 11 yards
1-10, PIT42: Warren run 10 yards.
1-10, TB 48: Pickett to Johnson, 13 yards.
1-10, TB 35: Warren run 2 yards.
2-8, TB 33: Pickett incomplete.
3-8, TB 33: Pickett pass to George Pickens, 33 yards, touchdown.
Six of the 10 plays the Steelers ran went for five yards or more. Four of them went for 10 yards are more. Only one play was negative.
Pickett largely had time to operate. His receivers — especially Johnson — were able to create separation. They used the entirety of the field. They ran a play action pass, which was something sorely missing in the offense in 2022.
Then they got a big play touchdown from Pickett and Pickens. Their longest scoring play in 2022 was 24 yards. Only a handful of plays went for more than 30 yards, scoring or otherwise.
It was one drive, and the Steelers aren’t going to spend all day Saturday congratulating themselves over how well it went.
“We’re no going to wear our hands out patting ourselves on the back at this juncture,” head coach Mike Tomlin said. “We had a good night tonight in some areas. Back to work.”
But it’s hard not to draw a line from the improved offense the Steelers showed down the stretch in 2022, through the offseason additions, to what looked like a vastly improved unit.
MORE FROM GEORGE PICKENS
Pickens had a very successful season as a rookie second-round pick. The 11th wide receiver selected in the 2022 NFL Draft, he finished fourth in receiving yards, fourth in receptions, and tied for third in receiving touchdowns.
But much of Pickens’ impact in 2022 was as a down-field, along the sideline threat. He proved he can do that, but to transition from above-average rookie to actual receiving star, Pickens need to show that he can be a more-versatile player.
On his long touchdown, he starts vertically, but then expertly broke off the route at the designated spot, fitting in just behind Pat Freiermuth in the route concept and leaving a window just big enough for Pickett to fit a pass into.
Pickens caught just one pass, but it was exactly what the offense has been working on.
“That’s one of the plays that describe that,” Pickens
Mike Tomlin has talked about it. Omar Khan has talked about it. Matt Canada has talked about. Even Pickett has talked about it.
One of the biggest things that the Steelers offense needs in 2023 is to be more explosive, and the best way to be explosive is to score long touchdowns.
That longest scoring play from 2022, of 24 yards? It came on Christmas Eve against the Las Vegas Raiders. For most of the 2022 season, the Steelers relied on long, methodical scoring drives — if they got there at all. They finished 26th in scoring offense and were 22nd in red zone touchdown percentage.
The ability to rattle off a long drive is fine. In fact, in many cases, it’s a good thing. It can help put a game away when a team is ahead. It’s good for establishing the pace of a game in the early going.
But not every game will be a Steelers/AFC North-style grinder. Sometimes, they will have to score in bunches. Sometimes, they’ll need to be in a shootout. They need to be able to win in more than one way.
“It shortens drives,” Pickett said. “The longer the drives go, you start to see penalties and more negative things happen offensively. If you score quick, it gets us points and gets us off the field.”
KENNY SHOWS GROWTH
Pickett himself is also expected to be better in Year 2 than he was as a rookie. As Tomlin always says, expecting players to be better than they were as rookies is reasonable.
It’s also not guaranteed. The past is littered with players that had promising rookie seasons and were never able to live up to them again. Pickett’s opponent on Friday, Baker Mayfield, was one of those players.
If training camp and preseason are any indication, Pickett does not appear to be destined to join that group.
He completed six of seven, with the lone incompletion a throw away, and made throws from the pocket and moving to his left and his right. The throw to Pickens for the score might have been his best one.
The placement of the ball out and ahead of Pickens was exactly what the receiver needed to shake the pursuit on his back hip and set him up with enough open space to make a move on the safety.
There are different levels of accuracy for a quarterback. Completion percentage does not tell the whole story. There were any number of places that Pickett could have delivered that ball where Pickens could have caught it and got a first down. But for the play to end the way it did, with Pickens looking over his shoulder on the way into the end zone, there was only one.
Pickett has long has serviceable accuracy, but to see that extremely fine accuracy, on a ball he had to throw at max velocity, is exactly the kind of improvement that those watching his game have hoped to see.
Pickens, as he is used to doing for his highlight-reel catches, was nonchalant in response.
“That’s really a big sign of composure,” Pickett said. “Just staying in the pocket and delivering balls in the first read window — what he’s been doing the whole time.”