The Steelers defeated the Baltimore Ravens 16-13 on Sunday night behind a second straight game-winning touchdown drive from Kenny Pickett. Here, in my 3 & out column, I look at how “Klutch Kenny” and an offense that has been described as “Saturday-ish” got the better of Baltimore to keep Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes alive.
I don’t know who first coined “Klutch Kenny” to describe Pittsburgh’s rookie quarterback, but they should trademark it. One week after taking the Steelers 76 yards in 10 plays in the final three minutes to beat the Raiders, Pickett piloted an 80-yard, 11-play drive that culminated with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Najee Harris with 0:56 remaining to knock off Baltimore. On those two drives, Pickett went a combined 12-15 for 139 yards and two touchdowns while calling most of the plays himself. Nit-pick all you want about how Pickett isn’t yet a complete quarterback, but his poise, moxie and ability to rise to the moment has the potential to make him special.
For three-and-a-half quarters on Sunday night, Pickett was anything but. Entering that final drive, he was 10-21 for 104 yards. Coordinator Matt Canada had been exceptionally conservative with his play calls, relying on a zone-based run game and a dink-and-dunk passing attack to move the football. But just like the previous week, once the reigns were off, and the urgency of the moment necessitated a more aggressive approach, Pickett flourished. He made three ridiculously good throws on the game-winning drive that resembled prime-Ben Roethlisberger, the last of which put a dagger into the Ravens.
On 1st-and-10 from his own 30 with 2:33 remaining, Pickett was flushed from the pocket to his left, where he made a heady throw to Pat Freiermuth for a gain of 20 yards. What made this play special was how Pickett recognized the coverage to Freiermuth’s right. Rather than lead him into it, he purposefully threw to Freiermuth’s left shoulder. Freiermuth had to stop and collapse back on the ball. But it was the only place Pickett could throw it where it wouldn’t be defended:
One of the things analysts often talk about with quarterbacks is how well they see the field. Pickett has struggled with this at times, especially when he’s in the pocket. But here, on the move, he diagnosed the situation perfectly. The fact he placed the ball on Freiermuth’s inside shoulder while moving in the opposite direction was special. It was a big-time play that spoke volumes about Pickett’s ability.
On the following play, Pickett got a great pocket from the guys up front and used it to rip a perfect throw between the hashes to Steven Sims for a 28-yard gain. Sims ran a divide route from the right slot against a Cover-2 look from Baltimore, clearing the underneath coverage of 6’4” safety Kyle Hamilton before bending his route towards the middle of the field. Pickett had a tiny window in which to locate the throw — over top of Hamilton and between the two-deep safeties — yet his placement was perfect. Sims, to his credit, did a great job of focusing on the football as Hamilton lunged for it, then getting down to avoid a hit that could have jarred the ball loose. The degree of difficulty on this pass was exceptional, and the circumstance made it even more impressive:
The touchdown pass to Harris may have been the best play of the three. Facing 3rd-and-8 from the 10-yard line with just under a minute to play, Pickett motioned Harris out of the backfield to an empty formation. This was subtle but important, as it revealed man coverage by Baltimore and, specifically, that linebacker Roquan Smith was responsible for Harris. At the snap, Pickett was almost immediately chased out of the pocket by end Jason Pierre-Paul (4). Pierre-Paul got a hand on Pickett’s right shoulder, but Pickett pulled away. With linebacker Patrick Queen closing in, and with his shoulders turned towards the sideline, Pickett managed to flick a throw that hit Harris in stride as he broke away from Smith. It was a throw of which Roethlisberger, who made a living torturing Baltimore with plays like this, could be proud:
All the caveats we’ve been applying to Pickett remain in place. He is not a finished product. He needs to hang in the pocket better and diagnose coverages quicker. He needs to work on his read progressions, and on his mechanics as he goes through them. There aren’t many rookie quarterbacks in the history of the league to whom those caveats have not applied. Then again, no rookie has led back-to-back game-winning drives until now. Pickett’s clutch gene is the most exciting thing to emerge for the Steelers in this suddenly fascinating season. He looks increasingly like their next franchise quarterback.
NFL star receiver-turned-television-commentator Steve Smith Sr. made some headlines last week when he described Pittsburgh’s offense following their win over Las Vegas as “Saturday-ish.” Smith’s reference suggested that Canada’s scheme was better suited to the college game than to the NFL. According to Smith, the plethora of pre-snap movements Canada incorporates to mask his largely vanilla play designs may fool college defenses, but in the NFL, it takes more than smoke and mirrors to consistently move the football.
It’s true the Steelers haven’t scored many points this season. How much of that is the product of a scheme that does little to stress opposing defenses versus a young offense that hasn’t played much together? Is Canada’s scheme the primary culprit? Or do other factors share in the blame? These are good questions.
Based on what I’ve analyzed, the scheme is pretty vanilla, particularly in the run game. I charted every play the Steelers ran the past two weeks. Of their 68 combined rushing attempts, they pulled a lineman on exactly ONE play. Here it is, a power run against Baltimore with left guard Kevin Dotson wrapping up to the play-side linebacker that gained three yards. Try not to get too excited:
All the other attempts were zone runs or wedge blocks on sneaks and dives. Zone runs, for those who are unfamiliar, utilize area blocks where linemen work along a track rather than blocking an assigned defender. They can involve double-and-chip concepts, and there are several variants — inside zone, mid-zone, wide zone — but the scheme is pretty straightforward. All the linemen block in the same direction, with no one pulling or trapping.
Here’s a zone run from the Ravens’ game. This is inside zone to the right. Everyone works through their play-side gap, while Connor Heyward, aligned as the wing to the right, comes back to wham block the backside end. Harris tucks the ball inside Heyward’s block, then squeezes through the back door for a nice gain:
It seems elementary to use the same blocking scheme repeatedly. The Steelers had been a power, counter-gap and pin-and-pull sweep team for years before Canada arrived. What happened? Where did the gap runs go?
It may be Canada doesn’t like Pittsburgh’s athleticism up front and doesn’t feel the linemen are good pullers (Dotson did fall to his knees in the clip above and has never been considered a great athlete). Or maybe it’s that Canada hasn’t needed them lately. Pittsburgh ran the same zone plays over and over on Sunday night, and the Ravens couldn’t stop them. When he wanted to switch things up, he didn’t run a new concept. He simply added a wrinkle, like we saw on this jet sweep to Jaylen Warren where the line zone-blocked in one direction and Warren took the sweep the other way:
Or here, where Freiermuth wrapped around as a lead blocker on a zone run with counter action in the backfield:
The scheme is not complicated, but it is working. Pittsburgh is a Top 5 run team over the last eight weeks and ran for 198 yards against a tough Ravens defense. “Saturday-ish” or not, they’re getting it done on the ground.
The passing attack is another matter. I’ll save my more detailed breakdown for after the season. For now, let’s just say that concepts like this all-hitch route, which the Steelers ran against Vegas, lend credence to Smith’s criticisms:
On this play, four receivers run out about five yards and simply turn around, while Harris runs a swing route out of the backfield. That’s more “Friday Night-ish,” as in something you’d see in a high school game, than what colleges run on Saturday.
The quick passing game Canada has relied upon could be a product of Pittsburgh’s desire to protect Pickett, not turn the football over and keep games close with their defense. Mike Tomlin has made no secret of his desire to play this way. That formula has served the Steelers well at times, particularly over the past two months. But it has hamstrung the offense, too. How much of that is on Tomlin as opposed to Canada is hard to know.
Of course, it could also emanate from Canada simply not knowing how to develop an NFL-style passing attack. His passing schemes as a college coordinator were fairly remedial, and little has changed in Pittsburgh. Ironically, when he does let Pickett off the leash, the youngster has shown play-making ability. So too have his receivers, like George Pickens on this sensational grab to convert a 3rd-and-14:
Why it takes 3rd-and-14, or a hurry-up situation at the end of a game, for Canada to open up (or for Pickett to take over, as he is rumored to have done again on the final drive against Baltimore), is frustrating. It’s impossible to ignore his lack of creativity. Then again, with the run game improving, and the strategy to play conservatively paying off, maybe this is the best approach for an offense loaded with players who only recently left their Saturday careers behind.
Odds and Ends
- If Canada’s play-calling is hard to ignore, so too is the unit’s propensity to derail promising drives with self-inflicted wounds. Against Baltimore, Pittsburgh had three 1st half possessions that totaled 29 plays, took 16:34 off the clock and gained 146 yards. Yet they scored just three points. Freiermuth jumped offsides on 1st-and-goal from the 2 to derail one touchdown opportunity. Pickens stepped out of bounds on a completed pass that would have resulted in a 1st down and was flagged for illegal touching to derail a second. And Chris Boswell hit the right upright on a 48-yard field goal attempt to wipe out a third. That’s how it’s gone all year for the offense. They are young and experiencing growing pains. These are the requisite frustrations.
- All of this talk about the offense is nice. But really, it’s the defense who is keeping Pittsburgh’s season alive. Sunday made six straight weeks Pittsburgh has held their opponent to 17 points or less. Despite averaging just 18.3 points per game themselves, they’re 5-1 over that stretch. I don’t write about the defense as much as I should, partly because offense is easier to analyze without the All-22 film and partly because Canada and Pickett have proven to be fascinating topics. But the ability of the defense to keep the Steelers in games until the offense does just enough to win has been the defining element of their resurgence.
Originally in this space I had some thoughts on the intensity of the Steelers-Ravens rivalry and how much I enjoyed watching that physical contest on Sunday night. Then, last night in the Buffalo-Cincinnati game, the play with Damar Hamlin happened. It doesn’t change my feelings about Steelers-Ravens, which remains the best rivalry in football. But it makes me step back from the spectacle of the sport to consider the men who play it, their humanity, and the brotherhood that is a football team.
I’ve been playing and coaching football for over 40 years. I can say, with complete certainty, that no one on that field last night cared about finishing the game. They only cared about Damar Hamlin. The things you experience with your teammates creates a bond that is impossible to explain to those who have not shared it. To see one of them literally fighting for their life on the field, as it appears Hamlin was, is stunning. The notion of continuing to play after that is absurd. Anyone who expected the game to resume has a lot to learn about football, and even more about being human.
Thank God the NFL came to its senses and postponed the contest. They can sort through the implications later. Right now the only thing that matters is Hamlin, and everyone praying for his recovery.