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Is Kenny Pickett showing he can be the Steelers next franchise quarterback?

After seven NFL starts, there are plenty of opinions as if Pickett is a boom or bust.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 regular season is rolling on. With the Steelers getting a larger sample of games with their rookie quarterback, there is plenty of data to comb through to show both Kenny Pickett’s skills and his progression. So has he shown enough yet to where he could still develop into the Steelers next franchise quarterback? 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:

There are a lot of people that want to look at the numbers for Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett in his rookie season to argue both for quality play and for poor production. The bottom line is, people are going to look at the numbers one way or the other and already have their opinion formed otherwise. Regardless, let’s look at the numbers anyway.

So far in his rookie season, Kenny Pickett has appeared in eight games with seven starts. Pickett played only the second half of the Steelers Week 4 matchup against the Jets, and he left just after halftime of the Week 6 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. So when looking at full games, Pickett has roughly 7 games in total. His season numbers are currently very aesthetically pleasing as he has 175 completions on 265 attempts for a 66.0% completion percentage. Pickett has thrown for 1,600 yards and three touchdowns with eight interceptions. He’s also added three rushing touchdowns on 35 attempts for 195 yards with a 5.6 yards per carry average.

Specifically when it comes to Week 12 against the Indianapolis Colts, Pickett completed 20 passes on 28 attempts for a 71.4% completion percentage for 174 yards with no touchdowns but no interceptions. Pickett’s 87.5 quarterback rating was the highest of any game in his rookie season. In looking at some advanced statistics, Pickett was only credited with four bad throws according to Pro Football Reference, which was the fewest he has had in any full game this season. Pickett also added 32 rushing yards on six attempts.

So these are the numbers with Kenny Pickett. If I wanted to, I could have thrown out his Pro Football Focus score of 88.5 which was the second-highest of any quarterback in Week 12 and the best score by a Steelers quarterback since 2018. But those numbers are subjective and the objective ones above tell enough. What really needs to tell more of the story is the film.

The Film Line:

Kenny Pickett is a rookie, and he’s developing. We’re not here looking for proof that he’s a polished veteran, we’re looking for evidence that Kenny Pickett can (or can’t) be the next franchise quarterback for the Steelers. For that, we are going to look at Pickett’s ability to make plays, whether that means throwing accurate passes in rhythm or creating when the play design breaks down.

Steelers vs. Colts, 1st quarter, 7:51

Najee Harris is the running back.

On this play there’s no one to throw to, and after Najee Harris lands a beautiful support block he heads out to screen right to be a receiver. Pickett’s reaction is to run with Najee. This creates the threat of a two-man game, where one defender has to cover two players. If the defender comes after Pickett, Harris is open, if he stays on Harris, Pickett can run for yards. The defender sticks to Harris and Pickett picks up 9 yards.

Quarterback mobility was a major talking point for Mike Tomlin the last few seasons of Ben Roethlisberger’s career, and you can see why. Pickett has the quickness to pull off valuable runs, and the smarts to work the defense while he does.

As Dave mentioned above, the Colts gave up 32 yards on 6 carries to Kenny Pickett, and they did so because when he scrambles they prioritized staying in coverage rather than flowing to the ball, and for good reason.

Steelers vs. Bengals, 2nd quarter, 0:18

Pat Freiermuth is lined up in the slot to the bottom of the screen.

Here against the Bengals in Week 11, Kenny Pickett has a chance to gain some yard with his legs but keeps his eyes downfield and finds Pat Freiermuth for a 27-yard gain. Better to give up 5 yards a rush on the ground to Pickett than have Najee Harris or Pat Freiermuth running over your secondary.

Watching that first clip you can see the moment he stops looking for a pass and tucks the ball and runs. Pickett has been showing a really good sense for when the moment comes to take off and run for yards.

Steelers vs. Colts, 2nd quarter, 8:55

Kenny Pickett (#8) is the quarterback.

The Steelers even threw in two designed quarterback runs in Week 12. It’s a nice play design you can see how the running back draws a lot of attention with his motion, and it sets up blockers and clears space for another 9-yard run for Pickett. They would try this play again later without clearing the backfield and it didn’t fool the Colts but would still gain 3 yards.

But, while quarterback mobility is important, getting the ball to your receivers is the most important skill for any quarterback.

Steelers vs. Colts, 2nd quarter, 13:37

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

This 35-yard gain isn’t created by scheme, tricky route running, or misdirection. This is just a go ball with a fantastically placed throw from Kenny Pickett. He has started to get his timing down with George Pickens on these deeper routes, and now he’s showing he has the arm to make accurate deep passes. He’ll never have an arm like Ben Roethlisberger did for most of his career, but Pickett can make big-time throws downfield, he’s not limited to short passes.

Steelers vs. Colts, 2nd quarter, 3:10

Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the top of the screen.

This slant route to Diontae Johnson is opened up by Kenny Pickett looking toward Anthony McFarland to start the play. That pulls the safety far enough outside to create a window for the throw. You’d like to see the throw come in higher so Diontae could try and run with it (hopefully not backwards) but the manipulation of the defense and how he turns to look at Johnson as he is starting the throw are key skills for any NFL quarterback, and Kenny Pickett is doing it as a rookie.

Steelers vs. Colts, 4th quarter, 12:21

Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

Kenny Pickett hits Diontae Johnson in stride and it sets him up to gain some yards after the catch. You can see Johnson doesn’t slow down at all as he catches the ball, that’s an accurate, in-rhythm throw.

But that ‘s not the impressive part. The impressive part is he makes that throw with pressure coming right at his face, and right in the path of his throw. Pickett is backing up to buy time for this throw, and then has to throw it over the defender to deliver the pass. You can see the difficulty of this throw better from this angle:

That’s a big-time play for Kenny Pickett, and it isn’t a rare sight either. He’s been making throws like this all season. It’s who he is.

Steelers vs. Colts, 4th quarter, 9:55

Kenny Pickett is the quarterback.

This is my favorite play of the entire game. Pickett doesn’t leave early and get himself in trouble here like he did occasionally earlier in the season, but he waits until the defender to his right crosses inside of Mason Cole before taking off, and that gives him a nice lead on his pursuit. He keeps his eyes downfield, and has developed enough chemistry with George Pickens to make a tough throw for the conversion. It’s even better in slow motion.

Pickett is throwing this ball before Pickens clears the defensive back, he knows he can throw this ball to the back pylon and trust Pickens to go get it.

The Point:

Kenny Pickett has the mobility to turn well covered plays into good runs, and the quickness and good sense while running to be trusted on a few quarterback runs when the defense is focusing on other threats. He is the mobile quarterback Mike Tomlin and the Steelers wanted, and a big part of the Steelers success on offense since the bye week has been Kenny Pickett running the ball, gaining first downs or more favorable down and distance situations on plays when no receiver is open.

Kenny Pickett isn’t a superstar quarterback right now, he’s still a rookie, he’s not a quarterback who is going to win a game throwing the ball 50 times a game. What we are seeing is a quarterback who can make plays, and that’s huge. When Ben Roethlisberger won his first Super Bowl he had a 0-1 record in games he threw more than 30 passes, but even then he was a play maker.

Kenny Pickett isn’t Ben Roethlisberger (how many times has Geoffrey said that. . .) but he is showing the ability to be a playmaker, and that is the key to being a quarterback worth building around.