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Steelers film room: ‘Pickett’s charge’ on 3rd-and-goal

What went wrong on the play that knocked Kenny Pickett out of the Cardinals game

NFL: DEC 03 Cardinals at Steelers Photo by Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Steelers lost to the Arizona Cardinals by a score of 24-10 bringing their record to 7-5. While they still sit on the inside of the playoff picture, their prospects for the game and the postseason took a big hit in the second quarter on a failed goal-to-go situation. Kenny Pickett would be knocked out of the game on the third down play with an ankle injury that required surgery. Any hiccups in his recovery process could make this the last play of the year for him. Let’s have an in-depth look at the play to see what all went on with the added advantage of hindsight.

The most important play of the year for the Steelers

Losing a quarterback to injury can have season-altering effects. Before this snap, there was nothing overly intense about the game situation. To set the stage, this play happened midway through the second quarter and was a third-and-goal from the three yard-line while the game was in a 3-3 tie. Pickett takes the shotgun snap and sets briefly at the 11 before trying to run it in for a touchdown. He will get caught from behind by a defensive lineman as a linebacker from the end zone peels off of his coverage to stop him before the goal line.

From the end zone view, we see a snap high and to Pickett’s right. After a quick glance to the left, pressure comes from Pickett’s right and as that Cardinal starts to get around Broderick Jones, the quarterback tucks the ball for a football version of Pickett’s Charge.

History note, Pickett’s Charge was a maneuver used by the Confederate Army in the Civil War battle of Gettysburg.


Pickett’s Charge was ultimately a futile all-out assault on an extremely fortified Union position. Many historians consider Pickett’s Charge to symbolize the turning tide of the war for the Union Army, although Lee’s army fought on for nearly two more years.

Watch the end zone as Pickett starts his charge up the hash marks, it certainly looks to be an “extremely fortified position”. Pickett’s injury on the play would “turn the tide” of the game and possibly the season. And, if you watched to the end of this game, it felt like it went on for “nearly two more years”.

Also of note from the end zone angle is that Calvin Austin is at the left of the screen and in motion at the snap. This caught my eye as the small and speedy Austin doesn’t seem to be much of a red zone weapon for the Steelers. In fact, through 12 games Austin has been targeted 28 times in the passing game and has run the ball eight times. According to Pro Football Reference, zero of those targets and zero of those runs have been in the red zone.

You couldn’t fault the Arizona defense if they ignored Austin based on his historical non-involvement down by the goal line. The next clip shows they pretty much do just that, as Austin never has a defender within five yards of him throughout the play. The Arizona cornerback on George Pickens backs up to take away a possible sideline fade while the safety sits and waits for a possible slant. Austin starts doing jumping jacks by the front pylon to get the attention of Pickett. The Cardinals were able to get away with the “Ignore Austin” defense as the Steelers were running a play that could have had that same name.

Now a closer look at why Pickett didn’t see the wide-open Austin. Right tackle Broderick Jones will get caught a little flat-footed against a speed rush and dip his head in a lunge to slow it down. Jones does use his athleticism to recover a bit and his strong arms will push the defender to the ground back at the 12 as Pickett steps up to avoid contact.

What caused there to be so many defenders clustered in the end zone in front of Pickett? Watch the bottom of the screen as tight ends Pat Freiermuth and Darnell Washington perform an exhibition of what could be the next Olympic sport—synchronized route running. Both will run to their left about three yards into the end zone and turn to face Pickett. Four cardinal defenders have them surrounded.

The Cardinals rushed four, had two at the top of the play covering Pickens, and had four in the end zone around the tight ends. That leaves only one other defender to cover Najee Harris as he leaked out to the right toward the goal line. In the clip below we see Pickett crossing the 10 and tucking the ball. He starts to the outside of James Daniels’ block but then cuts it up the hash marks and tries to beat a tight-end defender in a head-on race to the goal line. Had he kept going to the outside, he would have had a one-on-one race with 286-pound defensive tackle Dante Stills and an option to throw to Harris should Harris’s defender go toward Pickett. If he cleared Stills it would have been Pickett and Harris against a lone Cardinal.

4th and goal decision

Fans and pundits are split on whether the Steelers should have gone for it on the resulting fourth-and-goal. One stat that may sway your opinion on the decision is that at this point of the game the Cardinals had gained only 26 offensive yards on their four possessions. With hindsight, we know that they would go on a 99-yard touchdown drive and take a lead they would never lose. A big part of the difference between those first four drives and the 99-yard drive was Elandon Roberts. Roberts would leave the game with a groin injury on the second play of that drive and would not return. Roberts was hampered by the injury earlier in the game but tried to play through it. Here is a play from the previous Cardinal drive. Roberts will blitz from in between the hash marks and reach for Kyler Murray as the quarterback sidesteps him. At the end of the clip in the top left of the screen, Roberts will be bent over in pain. Earlier plays showed him walking a bit gingerly after the whistle. Credit to his toughness for trying to play, but with the two starters ahead of him already out for the season, perhaps resting instead of testing was the better path to pursue.

Canadian exchange rate

This next clip shows a mainstay of the offensive woes for the Steelers this year—blocking confusion when tasked with blitz pickup. The five offensive linemen will block three pass rushers while two other rushers have a free run at Pickett. Add to the mix that we see two receivers clumped together and this play might be Exhibit A for offensive coordinator Matt Canada getting fired. Freiermuth will release down the left hash before settling at the back of the Steeler midfield logo while Pickens crosses from the right and settles immediately in front of him. If they weren’t on the same team you might congratulate Pickens for covering the open guy so well. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and Canada can’t be erased in a week.

Deja what?

One of my favorite dad jokes goes like this: Do you know what “deja vu” is? (pause) Do you know what “deja vu” is? *I’m a big hit at parties. Whether it’s deja vu or Groundhogs Day, I saw this next play and had flashbacks. This wasn’t a blast from the past as it originally happened about a nanosecond ago. The Steelers ran this play against the Bengals in the previous game. It resulted in a lengthy replay review that allowed the Steelers to retain possession of what looked like an incomplete backward pass. They must practice this play a ton as the execution here is amazingly similar. Pickett takes a shotgun snap and, as he turns to his right, rifles the ball to Jaylen Warren. I should clarify, he rifles the ball near but behind Jaylen Warren the same as he did last week. Warren again has to do a 360 to try and catch the ball and head up the field. The release point from Pickett’s hand looks to be at or in front of the 29-yard line, while Warren appears to first contact it at or behind the 29. Too close for comfort again, and the adjustment Warren has to make to catch the football wipes out any chance for the play’s success.

With Matt Canada now gone, there are new faces in charge of the Steeler offense. They have their work to do with receiver route running, blitz pickup confusion, and finding time to rip out and shred a certain play from the playbook. They get the added level of difficulty of having to do it with a backup quarterback. This process may take a while.