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Looking at George Pickens’ impact within the Steelers passing game

Even when the Steelers rookie wide receiver isn’t targeted, his mere presence can cause a change in the coverage.

Baltimore Ravens v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 regular season is rolling into the final four games. In the Steelers Week 14 loss to the Ravens, rookie wide receiver George Pickens made some great plays. But Steelers fans were left scratching their heads as Pickens was only targeted three times in the game. But George Pickens is making a difference in the Steelers passing game even when he is not the recipient of the ball. This is the subject for this week’s Steelers Vertex.

Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.

Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.

Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

The Steelers second-round draft pick in 2022, George Pickens has appeared in all 13 games this year. With 8 starts, Pickens has 590 yards on 40 receptions for a 14.8 yards per reception average. Targeted 64 times, Pickens has a 62.5% catch percentage. According to Pro Football Reference (PFR), Pickens has 3 drops on the year while Pro Football Focus (PFF) has him credited with four. Pickens has two receiving touchdowns on the season, a two-point conversion catch, and a rushing touchdown on one of his three carries for 24 yards.

After starting the season easing him into action the first two games where he had three and two targets respectively with only one reception in each game, in Week 3 Pickins involvement increased as he saw five-straight games with at least six targets each. The game against the Philadelphia Eagles saw Pickens only targeted three times and had no receptions. But since the Steelers bye week, Pickens targets have been hit or miss. Over the last two games, Pickens has only been targeted five times total with four receptions for 80 yards. This followed two games from Weeks 11 &12 where Pickens was targeted 12 times for seven receptions for 140 yards and a touchdown as well as a two point-conversion.

When it comes to being on the field, Pickens saw his fewest snaps in Week 14 against the Ravens with 42, but this was primarily because the Steelers didn’t have as many offensive plays as he played 76% of the offenses snaps which is right around his 78% on the season. His three receptions on only three targets for 78 yards gave him his largest yards per reception (26.0) of the season, and being the same number for yards per target was almost twice his second highest of 13.83 yards per target against Cincinnati in Week 11. Pickens did have one other pass thrown his way which ended in a pass interference in the end zone, setting up a Steelers touchdown.

So exactly how are the Steelers utilizing Pickens in his time on the field? Is he simply not being targeted? Let’s see what the film has to say.

The Film Line:

Steelers vs. Ravens, 1st quarter, 12:54

George Pickens is the second receiver from the top of the screen.

Kenny Pickett starts his read to George Pickens’ side of the field, but quickly moves off that read and takes off when he fails to find something he likes. This play shows early in the game the strategy the Ravens came into this matchup with. The safety to Pickens’ side of the field is getting deep quickly and staying close enough to Pickens to take away any deep windows.

Steelers vs. Ravens, 1st quarter, 01:40

George Pickens is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

Look how quickly the safety gets deep and outside to help cover George Pickens here. The space this opens up means Pat Freiermuth is 1-on-1 with a linebacker with no help anywhere around. The Ravens selling out to contain Pickens is a big part of this converted third down. Opening up all that space for the Steelers to use costs the Ravens on this play, but not giving your defender facing George Pickens deep help is worse.

Steelers vs. Ravens, 1st quarter, 0:57

George Pickens is the receiver to the top of the screen.

The safety waits for the quarterback to commit to a receiver before moving out of the middle of the field in this cover-3 look, and he can’t get over in time to help as George Pickens outruns Marlon Humphrey to make a big play. You have to think the better option here is to shade heavily to Pickens’ side of the field and make your defender on Diontae Johnson win a 1-on-1.

Steelers vs. Ravens, 1st quarter, 12:54

George Pickens is the receiver to the top of the screen.

The Steelers get George Pickens in a clear 1-on-1 and it’s the obvious throw. Humphrey does what he can, driving Pickens to the sideline away from the throw, but he gets caught by the back ref. Humphrey is a great corner famous for his physical man coverage, and rookie George Pickens was a tough matchup for him.

Steelers vs. Ravens, 2nd quarter, 0:42

George Pickens is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

Humphrey is forcing Pickens to the sideline on this route, has him lined up and hands on him, but Pickens clears him out of the way and makes a nice back-shoulder catch here.

This catch is a great one, and deserves a closer look.

The key here is the small stumble from Marlon Humphrey that gives George Pickens a real chance to catch this ball. Pickens’ creates that opportunity with a great move. Watch his right hand. Pickens has his hand on Humphrey’s arm, and pushes off with it as he jumps, putting a good amount of force on Humphrey that pushes him out of the way. Humphrey recovers almost instantly but it’s enough time for Pickens to secure the ball.

This is a great move, and how fast that hand gets from pushing Humphrey’s arm to being squared up to the ball is impressive, especially for a rookie. It’s an effective move, and it’s subtle enough, and his hand gets around to catch the ball so fast it would be really hard for a ref to call this a penalty on Pickens.

Steelers vs. Ravens, 2nd quarter, 0:31

George Pickens is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

Here’s a zone defense and again Pickens pulls defenders from Freiermuth and it’s another first down. Just look at how the slot defender is backing towards Pickens as the corner stays deep. It opens up a ton of space for Freiermuth to cut into for a fresh set of downs.

Pickens and Freiermuth aren’t on the same level Travis Kelce and Tyreke Hill were on the Chiefs, but the Steelers use a lot of the same attacks to force the defense into a hard choice of which receiver gets more room to work.

The targets for Pickens are being driven down by the coverage opponents use, and teams consistently choosing to shift help to Pickens and force someone else to beat them. This is happening even as Pickens isn’t getting targeted on a lot of the different routes he runs. His quarterbacks obviously trust him on go routes, but the timing and spacing has been frequently off a bit on other routes, and that makes it hard to drive up Pickens’ targets. But there has been improvement.

Steelers vs. Ravens, 3rd quarter, 0:21

George Pickens is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

This is a good in route from George Pickens and a nice catch on a not great throw. The Steelers need to see Pickens route running continue to grow. That’s how you get targets, and the threat of other routes growing will make his deep routes more effective.

The Point:

There’s a lot of room to grow in George Pickens game, and inconsistencies in his routes that make it hard to commit a lot of targets to him each week, but even with those rookie flaws Pickens is making a huge impact on the Steelers offense, whether or not he gets targets. When he is in the game, the defense takes notice and adjusts accordingly to reduce his threat level and open things up more for other options. If they don’t, then it would be inexcusable if Pickens’ targets didn’t increase to more than he has seen the last two games.