Eight snaps into Kenny Pickett’s second preseason game, the Steelers had seen enough. Two drives, one for a touchdown was plenty. The Steelers gave starter Mitchell Trubisky three drives, then let Pickett finish the first half and played Mason Rudolph the entire second half.
They didn’t need to see anything more, and when you look deeper into the film, it’s pretty clear why.
Steelers vs. Jaguars, 2nd quarter, 1:05
Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.
This throw is a simple pattern against basic coverage. But this is NFL caliber execution. One of the things I’ve said about Mason Rudolph is he is slow to throw over the middle, and instead of throwing guys open, he throws them into the coverage. This is a good play to show the difference. Take a look at the point Kenny Pickett is committing to throwing the ball.
Diontae Johnson is not open here. But he will be in a few steps. Pickett sees the movement of the defense and throws Johnson open. Pickett places the ball in the best spot for Johnson to make the catch and have a chance to gain more yards. Compare that to a near-interception Mason Rudolph threw against the Seahawks.
This is Mason Rudolph. If you are going to throw to Heyward here you have to hit him right out of his break (the first time he looks at Heyward) or right after he passes the linebacker.— Geoffrey Benedict (@phantaskippy) August 16, 2022
Instead of throwing him open into the gap Heyward stops in, Rudolph leads him into coverage. pic.twitter.com/TLDkTDKOgt
Look at the Pickett throw again, that ball gets to Johnson when he is the most open he is going to get. Mason Rudolph throws the ball late, right into the coverage. This is basic NFL starter stuff. But there’s a lot of quarterbacks who don’t do this well, and there aren’t a ton that do it better than Pickett does it here. This is executing a simple read at a high level.
Steelers vs. Jaguars, 2nd quarter, 5:00
Chase Claypool is the slot receiver to the top of the screen.
This appears to be a simple play and read as well. Chase Claypool turns and the ball is already on its way to him. But this play showcases how well Pickett reads defenses, and not just coverage, but details of that coverage.
First watch Pickett’s helmet. He starts by reading the middle of the field, seeing the safeties swap from a two-high look to a single high look. He then quickly looks to Pat Freiermuth (slot to bottom of screen) before progressing to Claypool and throwing the ball.
The focus on this play is the difference between the defense around Freiermuth and Claypool. At first glance it isn’t a big deal. but look closer.
The difference here is Freiermuth has a defender near him, reading the quarterback’s eyes and facing forward, while Claypool’s nearest defender has his back turned to Claypool. Watch the play and you can see how much ground the safety near Freiermuth covers during the throw, while the corner near Claypool can’t do more than turn around. Not only does Pickett read the post-snap switch to single high, he also sees the nickel back has his back to Claypool and he leads Claypool closer to the nickel back with the throw. He makes this read and throw while his pocket is collapsing.
That’s the kind of reads you expect from seasoned NFL starters. And it isn’t a fluke here, this isn’t a one-time thing.
Steelers vs. Jaguars, 2nd quarter, 0:33
Diontae Johnson is the receiver farthest to the top of the screen.
A beautiful throw. This one was called back due to a hold, but check out the timing of this throw by Pickett.
Pickett is in rhythm, anticipating his receiver’s route and throwing him open. Look at the safety as Johnson makes the catch. Pickett’s throw is timed and placed where the corner doesn’t have time to adjust to the throw and position himself to make a play on the ball, and the safety is irrelevant.
Waiting half a second longer to throw the ball would make this a much tougher catch for Johnson. Pickett consistently shows that he understands his job and executes at a very high level.
Steelers vs. Jaguars, 2nd quarter, 0:29
Benny Snell is the running back.
Sometimes it really is simple. The motion to the bottom of the formation from George Pickens shows Pickett this is man defense. With a first and ten, a simple flare to the back with traffic between the linebacker and Benny Snell is just a smart play. The pre-snap read is there, the post-snap verifies he has the linebacker in man coverage on Snell and it’s an easy throw to Snell.
Pickett delivers this ball perfectly to Snell, leading him away from his coverage and hitting him in stride gives Snell a chance to do what he does here, break a tackle and score. These types of plays abound in Matt Canada’s offense, and Pickett’s ability to consistently execute these simple plays at a high level makes him a great fit for that offense.
It’s okay to be a game manager, a quarterback who executes the offense and lets the receivers make the plays. Tom Brady started out playing like that, it worked well for him, it can work well for Pickett. Especially when you can do it like Pickett does.
Steelers vs. Jaguars, 2nd quarter, 0:41
Pat Freiermuth is the inside player in the trips formation to the top of the screen.
Pickett takes a hit and delivers a beautiful ball to Freiermuth. You don’t have to dig into this to appreciate it. But when you do, it gets even better. Let’s start with Pickett’s shoulders. You can see a few small twitches before he throws the ball. You can view those two ways, one they are him considering a throw but not taking it, or he’s doing that to manipulate the defense, to analyze that more, we’ll need a different angle.
Watch Freiermuth and the linebacker No. 54. As Pickett’s shoulders are twitching Freiermuth is getting wide and the linebacker is following him. It’s possible Pickett is considering throwing it before the linebacker gets to Freiermuth, but that doesn’t fit the route, Freiermuth doesn’t look back, this looks like Pickett is threatening a throw to get the linebacker to commit outside to set up Freiermuth’s burst into the middle of the field.
Whether by design or coincidence, it works, and Freiermuth is wide open for a 24-yard gain. The key to this play is Kenny Pickett’s eyes. the linebacker is reading the quarterback’s eyes, and Pickett is looking, and shoulder faking, to the spot the linebacker runs. Check out this image from the play.
Pickett manipulates the linebacker wider as Freiermuth turns to attack the middle of the field. If you go back and watch the second angle of the play, you can even see how Pickett has his shoulders set to throw outside right where he’s looking, right where Freiermuth starts his route. Right before he throws you can see his shoulder angle change. Pickett does all this with a rusher bearing down on him. He takes a hit, delivering a perfect throw that hits Freiermuth in stride, maximizing his yards after catch opportunity.
I entered the process of making this film room because I wanted to show the value of efficient, smart passing to an offense. But Pickett doesn’t just show efficient, smart passing. Pickett is reading, manipulating and attacking defenses like a veteran quarterback. To already be doing that as a rookie is incredible, even if so far it has only been against preseason defenses.
That last statement is a big caveat. Kenny Pickett hasn’t thrown a single pass in an NFL game which actually counts. Don’t forget that. But if what fans saw against the Jaguars and the Seahawks this preseason continues into the regular season, Pickett is going to be really good in the NFL, and it is getting harder and harder to see him sitting on the bench while another quarterback leads this team.