Steelers’ fans, and the Steelers themselves are going to look at the current competition to be the starting quarterback from just one angle: Who helps the Pittsburgh Steelers win more games?
But the different quarterbacks will shape the Steelers offense through their strengths and weaknesses, and different receivers will fit better with different quarterbacks. That’s what I want to discuss in this article. I’m going to go through different types of plays and throws and rank the quarterbacks in those specific skills. Then I’ll give my opinion on which quarterback each receiver will benefit from the most.
I understand that my analysis and opinions won’t line up with everybody else’s analysis and opinions, and I’m not saying any quarterback/wide receiver combination cannot work, just which combinations seen to be a better fit.
I’m going to break down the passes into seven categories, and then to wrap up I’ll give you my thoughts on which receivers would benefit the most from which quarterback.
1 - Screen passes
Whether to wide receivers, running backs, or even tight ends, screen passes are a major part of NFL offenses as well as a big part of Matt Canada’s offense. For this category I’m mostly looking at screen passes where the quarterback has to catch the snap and get the ball out very quickly. This requires different mechanics than most throws as resetting your feet throws off the timing of the play.
Worst - Mitchell Trubisky. This is a serious weakness in Trubisky’s game. His quick screen passes are not good, frequently off target enough to wreck the timing of the play.
Best - Kenny Pickett. Screen passes were a big part of Pitt’s offense, and Pickett executes them really well.
WR impact: Most players are involved in the screen game in Matt Canada’s offense, but I’d say a player like Calvin Austin III is going to be most affected by how well the quarterback can deliver a quick screen.
2 - Short In-cutting routes
Quick passing games thrive on accurate passes delivered before the defense can really get going. Slants, drags, and crossers are some of the most thrown passes in the NFL, and with those throws frequently going into traffic, placement and timing is critical.
Worst - Mitchell Trubisky. Trubisky isn’t bad on these, it’s not a weakness like his screen game, but he tends to put the ball right on the player’s helmet, and puts his receivers in position to take hits.
Best - Rudolph/Pickett. I’d give this hands down to Pickett, but these quick routes are so timing dependent that I would put Rudolph even with or ahead of Pickett right now. The NFL is a different timing and Pickett will need to adjust. The second he does, he’s the best in this category. Pickett does a great job throwing over the middle, and on film his receivers aren’t taking many big hits as he has good timing and frequently will lead receivers out of a big hit.
WR impact: Read my thoughts on Mitchell Trubisky and watch Diontae Johnson’s dropped passes. Diontae Johnson struggles coming across the middle on balls thrown at his face mask. It’s consistent from college through 2021, even with the improvements he has made, it’s one of his most likely throws to drop, especially when he’s taken a few hits. This is a big reason I think Diontae Johnson stands to benefit a lot the earlier Kenny Pickett takes over, or even if Mason Rudolph is the starter Week 1.
3 - Short out routes
A quick out all the way to the 10 yard out routes are throws that have to be made with rhythm, anticipation and arm strength.
Worst - Kenny Pickett. Pickett’s lesser arm strength shows up the most here, and I like him better on the 10-yard outs than the 5-yard ones. The more pure velocity matters and the less touch matters the worse Kenny Pickett is. He can cover a lot of that with anticipation and accuracy, but some routes just need the ball to be going fast. This isn’t a serious weakness, just one route that is harder for him to compensate for his slightly weaker arm.
Best - Mason Rudolph. This was a very close competition between Rudolph and Trubisky. Rudolph didn’t throw these routes with anticipation in 2019, but he has improved on them a lot since. Trubisky hasn’t played enough to show if he’s gotten better at these routes, and on film it is close between him and Rudolph, so with a little improvement this could be Trubisky.
WR impact: Out routes are a great weapon. It is a route with very little opportunity for defensive help and completing a few of them will open up double moves and inside routes later in the game. Both Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool are good on these routes and the double move potential really benefits Claypool and a receiver like George Pickens.
4 - Deep middle routes
When we talk about attacking the middle of the field, we’re usually talking about routes that are 15+ yards downfield. Not looking at bombs here— routes attacking the deep middle of the defense, not ones trying to out throw their ability to get deep.
Worst - Mason Rudolph. This isn’t a big weakness for Rudolph like it was in 2019, he has improved, but he still tends to wait too long to throw these passes and instead of throwing a covered receiver open will often throw an open receiver into coverage. Again, not as bad as it was in 2019, but still not a strength.
Best - Kenny Pickett. Pickett was fantastic attacking the middle of the field in college, and he should be in the NFL as well. While I would rate Trubisky ahead of Rudolph here, his occasional overthrows are more dangerous here than anywhere else, and he has a history early in his career of throwing a lot of these passes into the dirt.
WR impact: While every receiver benefits from being able to attack the middle of the field, the one I think will benefit the most is Pat Freiermuth. Freiermuth is a big, athletic target in the middle of the field, and if his quarterback can hit him in stride reliably, he’s going to be a nightmare for opposing defenses.
5 - Deep outside routes
I’m excluding one type of throw from this category, and that is your sideline, over the shoulder type throws. I want to keep the touch throws over the defense separate, for reasons you will see when I cover those. This covers deep outs, and throws deep outside that don’t need to be lofted over defenders.
Worst - Kenny Pickett. Not a big weakness at all, and an area where Pickett can excel when the play works. But he isn’t going to rifle a ball into spots where he shouldn’t. That’s a good thing. It just isn’t nearly as good as having the ability to throw the ball hard enough that it doesn’t matter. Pickett is only third here because this also happens to be one of Mason Rudolph’s best areas.
Best - Mitchell Trubisky. This is where Trubisky shines. Rifling a ball thirty yards downfield is no problem for him, and he has the gunslinger personality to rifle a ball into spaces other QBs can’t. This is the one area where I would compare Trubisky to Ben Roethlisberger, because they both have the arm strength and chutzpah to split defenders for big plays. If you want to be excited for one thing in 2022, it’s the chance that Trubisky brings back those throws to the Steelers this season.
WR impact: Chase Claypool is a monster on seam routes, and while none of the three options the Steelers have will come close to what Ben Roethlisberger would do routinely on these routes pre-2019, if they can replicate what Roethlisberger and Claypool did on these routes for most of the 2020 season, it will be a huge boost to Claypool’s production.
6 - The Bombs
This is specifically for throws lofted deep down field, looking for a receiver to run under them. It also incorporates a lot of back shoulder throws, as those also generally involve more touch.
Worst - Mitchell Trubisky. Trubisky doesn’t have good touch on his deep passes. If he can throw a laser beam to his receiver, he’s great. Toss it over the defense and lead his receiver? not so much.
Best - Mason Rudolph. While Kenny Pickett has even better touch than Mason Rudolph on these throws, Rudolph’s better arm strength is a big factor. Mason Rudolph’s best throws are downfield and outside the hash marks, it’s where he shines.
WR impact: George Pickens is the receiver most likely to benefit here. He is in line to replace Chase Claypool on the outside in 3+ wide receiver sets, where this will be his main usage as a rookie. Where these routes are a weakness for Chase Claypool, they are a huge strength for George Pickens. Is he good enough to still do well with Mitchell Turbisky on these routes? Allen Robinson was, so it is possible.
7 - Off-script throws
Lastly we’ll look at how these quarterbacks fare when the play breaks down. This is where Ben Roethlisberger made the most impact early in his career, scrambling, breaking tackles until he could find an open receiver.
Worst - Mason Rudolph. Rudolph might be the best overall pocket passer on the Steelers in 2022. He can move too, he isn’t slow. But Rudolph doesn’t do a great job of making plays when the play breaks down. He isn’t as good at extending the play, and he doesn’t excel at finding receivers at that point.
Best - Kenny Pickett. Kenny Pickett’s area where he compares the best to Ben Roethlisberger is his ability to extend a play and keep his eyes downfield to find a way to still make a play. Trubisky and Rudolph are more likely to run for yards when things break down, Pickett does a great job of extending while still looking for a weapon.
WR impact: Pat Freiermuth was becoming Ben Roethlisberger’s go-to receiver on the few extended plays he mustered in 2021, and that knack for finding the gaps in the defense as the play breaks down will benefit him no matter who is the quarterback, but it could be the difference between having a good season and a great one.
Rudolph’s strengths lie in pocket passing, so the biggest downside to him starting wouldn’t be to any receiver, but to the effectiveness of Matt Canada’s offense as a whole. But looking at his impact on receivers:
Biggest boost: George Pickens and Chase Claypool. Rudolph’s deep throws are his strength, and when the Steelers go with three wide receivers, having Pickens and Claypool next to each other would be a great situation for Rudolph and a very tough half of the field to defend for his opponents.
Biggest drop: Pat Freiermuth. When Rudolph played in Week 10, Freiermuth set his season high in targets, but he and Rudolph only converted 5 of his 9 targets for 31 yards. That 3.44 yards per target was the second lowest of his rookie season, his catch rate the lowest, and yards per reception was fourth lowest. It hasn’t been a good fit on film or on the stat sheet.
Trubisky’s best usage is on plays where he is rolling to one side, seeing his target and throwing a laser downfield. He’s not as good in the pocket, and he isn’t a touch passer.
Biggest boost: Chase Claypool. Trubisky is great firing on seam routes and deep crosses, and those line up with Trubisky’s laser arm. His occasional overthrows are lessened here by Claypool’s vertical reach and his lack of touch passing lines up with Claypool’s weakness catching those passes. Of course this presumes that the Steelers won’t be asking Trubisky and Claypool to hook up on those routes as they asked Roethlisberger and Claypool to do so much last season, if they do. . . ugh.
Biggest drop: Diontae Johnson. While Claypool’s production plummeted as Ben Roethlisberger shied away from his aggressive attacks on safeties in 2021, Diontae Johnson’s production soared in the Steelers quick underneath passing attack that followed. Trubisky brings the exact opposite skills that Diontae Johnson wants to see in a quarterback. Does that mean Johnson will be bad if Trubisky is the starter? No. It isn’t like Trubisky can’t make throws— all the quarterbacks can make throws— they are just better at some than others. For these reasons, Diontae Johnson will have a tougher path to big production if Trubisky is the quarterback.
Kenny Pickett doesn’t have elite arm strength. What he does have is accuracy, touch, and a knack for making plays.
Biggest boost: Diontae Johnson and Pat Freiermuth. The quick passing game, attacking the middle of the field and making off-script throws are all strengths of Kenny Pickett. If Pickett takes over early and the run game is working, I think Pat Freiermuth could have a huge season. While Pickett fits well with Diontae Johnson on paper, they will need to develop chemistry to make it come to fruition. I think it will happen.
Biggest drop: Chase Claypool. This is a hard one, because Chase Claypool does well on short routes and attacking the middle of the field, but he is at his best on seam routes and deep posts and those aren’t Pickett’s best routes. I don’t think it is a big drop off, but similar to 2021 production.
I know I put Chase Claypool in each quarterback’s impact, but really, that’s where the skill sets show the most impact. I don’t think Diontae Johnson will suffer too much with Trubisky starting, and I don’t think he’ll put up Antonio Brown numbers with Pickett. But I do think we will see a significant difference in Chase Claypool’s production based on who is the quarterback. I don’t think any one of the quarterbacks is really bad for the passing game as all of them have players that work with their style of play. The numbers will just divide up a bit differently depending on who is starting, kind of like how the numbers differed in 2020 and 2021 largely due to the throws Ben Roethlisberger had confidence in.