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Steelers QB Kenny Pickett must begin to work the middle of the field

Kenny Pickett #8 of the Pittsburgh Steelers attempts a pass during the first quarter against the Green Bay Packers at Acrisure Stadium on November 12, 2023 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers enter Week 11 with a 6-3 record, just one game back from first place in the division behind the Baltimore Ravens, and things are looking up for the offense. The run game has shown a spark. The offensive line seems to be gelling with Broderick Jones at right tackle. The pass attack with second-year quarterback Kenny Pickett? That hasn’t given us all that much to talk about. Outside of some occasional rhythm that Pickett has shown in the fourth quarter, the rest of the passing game has left a lot to be desired.

There are many glaring omissions in the Steelers’ passing game to this point in the year. The most glaring, perhaps, is the complete disappearance of the middle of the field. Where for art thou, middle of the field?

Among quarterbacks with 200 or more pass attempts in 2023, no quarterback has fewer pass attempts, completions and passing yards on targets to the middle of the field. Pickett also ranks dead last with a -10.6% completion rate over expectation, averaging league-low -0.24 expected points added (EPA) per dropback and a 32.7% success rate on such targets per NFL Next Gen Stats. In short, the middle of the field has become enemy No. 1... and these two need to reconcile, quickly.

Here’s a look at Kenny Pickett’s 2023 passing chart for Weeks 1-10, courtesy of NFL Next Gen Stats. You’ll note a distinct lack of dots (indicating targets) over the middle of the field this season.

Kenny Pickett’s 2023 passing chart, Weeks 1-10

What gives?

Whether it’s Pickett’s preference to avoid the middle of the field or a product of Matt Canada’s offensive installation, it is a problem that needs solving — and fast — if they have hopes to open up this passing game.

Targets to the sideline aren’t problematic in and of themselves; it’s when that’s all we’re seeing that it becomes a problem, as opposing defenses soon learn that they won’t have to defend the rest of the field. Targets to the sideline also limit the potential for yards after the catch, which could help this offense tremendously, currently sitting with a 9.5% explosive pass percentage that is tied for the fourth-lowest in the NFL to date.

Unlocking the middle of the field will be an easier ask once tight end Pat Freiermuth returns from injured reserve, currently recovering from a nagging hamstring injury. Even then, however, Pickett will need to look to his third-year tight end more often for it to make any difference, as Freiermuth has averaged a career-low 3.25 targets per game in four outings this season. In the meantime, some targets over the middle to wide receiver Diontae Johnson will do.

Figuring out the middle of the field (and truly making it something to defend) will be imperative to getting the Steelers’ passing game in rhythm rest of season.