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Steelers superlatives: It’s time to start blaming the QB coach for Kenny Pickett’s lack of production

This week we touch on misery, attributing blame, and Kenny Pickett’s career trajectory.

Kenny Pickett #8 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs out of the tunnel prior to an NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers at Acrisure Stadium on November 12, 2023 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photo by Perry Knotts/Getty Images

Per usual, you’ve all excelled in proffering a wonderful assortment of takes here in the comment section at Behind The Steel Curtain. Here are some of the best (or most interesting) the audience had to offer ahead of Week 11’s showdown against the Cleveland Browns.

What a miserable bunch of winners. Lol” — Steel Curtain 68

I have several theories about this. The first—and probably most correct—is that Steelers fans are spoiled rotten by success. I am squarely among this contingent: I’m 32 and in my lifetime the Steelers have had only four losing seasons (three of which occurred before I was old enough to fully comprehend how football worked) and played in three Super Bowls, winning two. That’s a remarkable run of achievement, and one any fan of most other teams would welcome with gleeful enthusiasm.

For Steelers fans to complain about the state of a consistently prosperous franchise that currently sits at 6-3 is kind of like a straight-A student complaining about how dumb they are because they “only” got a 97 on their math test. Meanwhile, the kid in the back wearing the booger-stained Deshaun Watson jersey spelled their own name wrong.

Another theory is that fatalism is inextricably linked to fandom, at least in the sense that assuming and expecting the worst dulls the pain when and if the worst ultimately comes to fruition, and that many fans, bloggers, etc. of other teams engage in the same kind of discourse.

That said, the Steelers are unique in that I don’t think it’s necessarily fatalistic to conclude that their record probably belies how good they actually are; that much is largely self-evident in analyzing their metrics (namely, their negative-26 points differential) and, ya know, watching the games. Any misery that anyone is feeling about the current state of things is rooted in considering what ugly and logic-defying wins might portend, which in this case would be a regression toward the mean and another 9-8 season, or worse. And, honestly, it’s hard to argue with the rationality of that mindset.

My counterpoint (in this made-up argument that I’m having with myself) would be that fandom is inherently irrational and that it is good to simply enjoy things. Keep in mind, too, that misery loves company and that articles decrying the Steelers will invariably do better numbers than rosier dispatches about how great it is that Kenny Pickett isn’t turning the ball over. Vox’s executives need their bills paid somehow.

I think someone else who needs to start shouldering some blame is QB coach Mike Sullivan. It is evident that Kenny hasn’t taken the next step for whatever reason but that falls on all 3 (4 if you include Tomlin) parties. We are so quick to throw blame at the OC, DC, Oline coach, DBs coach, etc, but I never hear us throwing blame at QB coach who is working directly with Pickett. I wonder how much of Canada now being on the sideline is a lack of trust that Sullivan is actually helping Pickett in game?” –bmp2108

You’re telling me there’s a second Mike Sullivan at whom I can direct my animus and condemnation when the local sports team underperforms?? Bliss.

This is a profoundly interesting point that I’d genuinely never considered before I read this comment. My understanding is that coordinators like Matt Canada are tasked with devising and implementing game plans, plays, etc. whereas individual position coaches handle more of the day-to-day minutiae like reviewing film, orchestrating drills, polishing fundamentals, etc. While it is fair to criticize Canada’s schematics for failing to get the most out of Pickett within the context of the offense’s framework, it isn’t like Pickett is struggling merely with tactics. Indeed, Pickett’s problems this season have been manifold, and mechanical issues like pocket presence, footwork, and timing are the sorts of kinks that a position coach should be reasonably tasked with ironing out, both during the week and in-game. So yeah, Sullivan probably should be catching more flack.

But pinning blame to the offensive coordinator isn’t a uniquely Pittsburgh thing. The Bills just handed walking papers to Ken Dorsey, an adept play-caller who prior to this season looked to be on the fast track toward a head coaching gig. It isn’t uncommon for bad teams to terminate lame duck coaches in season, but for a presumed Super Bowl contender to fire their offensive coordinator before Week 11 is a huge deal and the sort of thing that only happens when an otherwise good team is desperate to stem their bleeding. Interestingly, the person tasked with replacing Dorsey in Buffalo is Joe Brady, the Bills’ quarterbacks coach.

The difference between a team like the Bills and a team like the Steelers is that the former already has an established franchise quarterback who can navigate a shake-up on the coaching staff because he is the system, whereas the latter is still very much in the process of seeing what it has at the quarterback position and taking things a week at a time. There is value in maintaining some level of consistency in the coaching staff (see, again, the Browns for proof of concept).

The Steelers should probably give Ken Dorsey a call this offseason, though.

I love how Pickett gets under this writers skin. :) Never seen someone root against a Steelers player so much. You would think he’s Zack Wilson.KP is no Zack Wilson. The results speak for themselves, does he make mistakes, absolutely. They all do. Does he limit them yes.I bet the Jet’s would love to have KP right about now. :)But keep dogging man, just don’t jump on the band wagon when it’s convenient.” — Lifelongsteeler915

We do write about Pickett a lot on this site. He’s a first-round draft pick, hails from the local university, and is succeeding one of the 20 or so best quarterbacks in NFL history, and he’s laboring under the perception that his play will determine whether the Steelers are a fringe wildcard team or a legitimate contender. That’s deeply compelling stuff. The vicious screeds that portray Pickett as an entirely lost cause get tired after a while, sure, but no player is beyond reproach, and offering a critical perspective about Pickett when his play warrants it isn’t unreasonable. That was a bit of a tangent; I just wanted to defend the writer to whom this comment was originally directed.

Anyway, I agree with this commenter that Pickett does seem to have a penchant for limiting mistakes, but I think it’s important to put this in the necessary context: namely, that the Steelers' offensive system does not lend itself to the kind of higher risk plays that portend higher interception rates. Like, Josh Allen has turned the ball over a million times this year, but is there any universe in which Kenny Pickett is the quarterback than Josh Allen? Limiting turnovers is absolutely a good trait for a quarterback to possess, but if that is their best or most straightforwardly apparent trait, then their overall upside in tangibly impacting games is always going to be limited. Fortunately for Pickett, the Steelers defense is very good, and the backfield had its best performance of the season against Green Bay. If they can rely more heavily on the run game moving forward, limit turnovers, and play good defense, Pickett might not need to impact the game as much as he needs to manage it.

I keep coming back to this, the Steelers are 6-3, and a big part of that is because the version of Kenny Pickett that shows up in the fourth quarter is vastly different than the one who manages the first three frames. I do hope that Pickett can play at his fourth-quarter level more regularly so the bandwagon the commenter speaks of gets nice and full.

“So here’s some context, the Green Bay Packers game was Kenny Pickett’s 21st NFL start. Here is a comparison of the number of games with under 200 passing yards in their first 21 starts:Kenny Pickett - 12Ben Roethlisberger - 13So I guess Big Ben was actually JV and the Steelers should have dumped him after 2005 and drafted another QB.” — Carlos71

I’m interpreting this comment as a glass-half-full perspective about Pickett, which I appreciate, but this is a good example of how cherry-picking statistics can lead to faulty arguments. Passing yards represent an especially deceiving statistic because they aren’t indicative of how well the quarterback who amassed them actually played.

The current NFL passing leader is Washington Commanders quarterback Sam Howell, who is very assuredly not the best quarterback in the NFL. Second-year Ben Roethlisberger didn’t have a ton of passing yards because he didn’t have to, and when he was tasked with making plays, he did. Commenter Beijing_Breakfast responded to this comment with some thoughtful and cogent analysis, so I’d encourage you to check that out.

Maybe the coaches don’t trust Pickett to throw over the middle of the field more. I wouldn’t blame them if they don’t trust him. He’s inaccurate and has trouble reading defenses, and that’s a recipe for interceptions when trying to throw in the middle of the field.However, they need to realize their recent formula for winning is not sustainable. Limiting turnovers and squeaking out close wins isn’t workable long-term.They need to get a lot more production out of the passing game in order to be competitive with better teams. That means that they need to throw the ball over the middle and down the field more. They need to utilize Freirmuth, Robinson and Washington over the middle on short to intermediate routes more, and take more deep shots to Pickens, Johnson and Austin. Sure, Pickett is going to throw more picks if they loosen up the reigns a bit, but they need to see if he learns from his mistakes and improves as a passer. Opening things up in the passing game is the best way to see if Pickett has any real potential to be a true franchise QB.” — jmn51

This is another thing that confused me throughout the season. Pickett’s passing charts rarely contain much action in the middle of the field. What isn’t immediately clear is how much of that is a tactical peccadillo and how much is born from the coaching staff not trusting Pickett to make those sorts of plays. I’d imagine it’s both things because throws to the middle of the field are higher risk and require the quarterback to render and execute confident decisions in a matter of microseconds, and if the Steelers’ primary objective on offense is to mitigate turnover risk, then short, quick passes toward the sideline or at the line of scrimmage promote the attainment of this goal.

But like jmn51, I agree that the Steelers offense might benefit from untethering Pickett from the current schematics and letting him huck it and chuck it. If nothing else, it should make for a more visually appealing product. Or not. I don’t know, man. The Steelers are 6-3. Clearly whatever they’re doing is working.

Who killed Kenny? Blame Canada! South Park had it right all along.” — The Hateful 8 in the Box

Presented without further commentary. A truly elite comment.