With the Super Bowl in the books, it’s time to turn the page on the 2022 season and start looking ahead to 2023. Before we do, here’s one last article in my “2022 in Review” series examining the Steelers’ performance. For this final piece, the focus is on two areas where quarterback Kenny Pickett struggled, and how improvement in those areas will benefit the offense.
Let’s start with a statement that I’m willing to hang my hat on: the Steelers have found their next franchise quarterback in Kenny Pickett.
That may not be the boldest proclamation ever put into print. Certainly not as bold as if I’d guaranteed they’ll win the Super Bowl next season. The Steelers probably aren’t a championship contender just yet. But they’re closer today than they were a year ago. A big reason for that is Pickett, whose growth after being thrust into the lineup early in the season is exciting.
Pickett was understandably shaky at first. He’d been given no pre-season reps with the first team offense and had inherited a re-made line that was still developing chemistry. After relieving Mitchell Trubisky at halftime of the Jets game in Week 4, his first four starts were against Buffalo, Tampa Bay, Miami and Philadelphia, all of whom were eventual playoff teams. The Steelers went 1-3 in those games, as Pickett threw eight interceptions, suffered 12 sacks and looked as skittish at times as a squirrel trying to cross a crowded intersection.
The bye week followed the Philadelphia contest, and Pickett emerged as a new man. Pittsburgh went 7-2 from there as Pickett settled into his role. The offense averaged 20.8 points per game over that stretch — good for 11th best in the league — and ranked 3rd in yards per drive and 1st in time of possession per drive. Pickett learned to protect the football. His touchdown to interception ratio nearly flipped, from 2:8 before the bye to 5:1 after. Additionally, Pickett was at his best when games were on the line. He led three fourth quarter comeback victories, two of which (Las Vegas and Baltimore) featured long scoring drives where the winning touchdown came in the final minute. “Klutch Kenny” became an appropriate nickname.
Given that improvement, and the way the team rallied around him, Pickett looks like the answer at quarterback for the foreseeable future. Still, he is far from a finished product. Pickett must continue to develop for Pittsburgh to become a legitimate title contender. Here are two areas where that development will prove most beneficial.
The chaos that unfolds in the two to three seconds a quarterback hangs in the pocket while diagnosing coverage and waiting for routes to come open can be difficult to describe. In that confined space, the bodies are massive, the sightlines are blurry and the speed at which everything moves is remarkable. Defenses are so fast, and so good at disguising coverage, that an open window is often a mirage. When that happens, the inclination of many young passers is to get the heck out of there. A quarterback frozen in the pocket quickly becomes a sitting duck. Better to flee the chaos than to get your chest caved in.
The problem with constantly fleeing the pocket is that it destroys the integrity of play designs. Routes are drawn up a certain way for good reason. Namely, to exploit the weaknesses in various coverages. When a quarterback can stand in the pocket and go through his progressions, he can often expose those weaknesses. When he escapes the pocket, it all breaks down.
Occasionally, big plays can be made this way. Ben Roethlisberger was legendary for his ability to extend things by moving around until one of his receivers came free. Pickett, in limited play, has displayed a similar aptitude, like on the game-winning touchdown toss to Najee Harris in Week 17 against the Ravens:
Or here, in the season finale against Cleveland:
Often, though, scrambling results in a quarterback having to throw the football away or making a bad decision. Pickett learned this the hard way. In Week 7 at Miami, with the Steelers trailing by six and driving the ball with under 30 seconds remaining, Pickett prematurely bailed from a sound pocket. Rather than run the ball, where he could have picked up a 1st down and gotten out of bounds, he instead forced a throw to Diontae Johnson that was intercepted at the goal line:
This mistake was in part a factor of youthful exuberance. Young quarterbacks often feel they can make plays in the NFL they routinely made in college, only to find that NFL defenders are faster and more capable. It was also a product of failing to hang in the pocket long enough to let his routes develop. As we see below, the pocket was clean when Pickett decided to leave. Had he slid up and over, he would have stayed square with his eyes up and been able to see the entire field, rather than closing off two-thirds of it by bailing to his left. Subtleties like this often separate mediocre quarterbacks from those who master the position:
Pickett’s eagerness to leave the pocket also caused him to miss on some big-play opportunities. Take this one from Week 17. With minor pressure in his face, Pickett decided to flee to his right, which removed his eyes from the routes developing to his left:
The receiver running the dig (George Pickens) was about to cross paths with the receiver running underneath him (Gunner Olszewsky). Meanwhile, two Baltimore defenders chased Diontae Johnson, whose crossing route in the opposite direction pulled them away from Pickens. Had Pickett hung in for another second, Pickens would have come wide open in a big window near the Ravens logo at midfield, with no defender in position to make a tackle. At worst, this would have been a 1st down. At best, if the throw was out in front of Pickens where he could catch it in stride, he may have taken it to the house.
As Pickett gains experience, he should acquire a better feel for what constitutes genuine pressure versus what amounts to clutter. Pressure often requires a quarterback to leave the pocket. Clutter is just the cost of doing business. Making throws from a cluttered pocket is a pre-requisite for elite passers. If Pickett can master this subtle art, he may become one.
Another area where Pickett can grow is in his ability to recognize coverage. This is often one of the most difficult tasks for a young quarterback. It’s not just that professional defenses play a multitude of schemes. They use man concepts like Cover-0 and Cover-1, zone schemes like Cover-2, 3 and 5, split-field coverages like Cover-6, match coverages like Cover-4 and Banjo, trips adjustments like Cloud and Island, and coverages to disrupt specific routes, like Robber and Trap. As if diagnosing all of that isn’t complicated enough, professional defenses often show one of these before the snap only to seamlessly move to another as a play develops. An NFL quarterback must not simply recognize pre-snap alignment but must diagnose and counter post-snap movement, too.
Offensive coordinator Matt Canada tried to limit Pickett’s exposure to these complications by running a simplified passing scheme. The Steelers used a multitude of combo and mirrored concepts, where the routes were either similar or the same on both sides of the field. Routes like slant-flat, for example, which is a Cover-3 beater, would be run by the slot and split end to one side and tight end and flanker to the other. Or, Canada would pair a Cover-3 beater like slant-flat with a Cover-2 beater like double slant. Pickett would then select which side to throw to based on his pre-snap read of the coverage.
This was understandable, given Pickett’s inexperience. But it’s also high school stuff. It’s similar to what we run at the school where I coach. As an example, here’s Pittsburgh running a mirrored concept from a 2x2 set with hitch routes on the inside and dropouts along the boundary:
And here’s our high school team, from a similar formation, running a hitch-slant combo to the short side of the field and slant-flat to the wide side:
It’s the same basic construct: give the quarterback a simple half-field read and get the ball out quickly.
For Pickett and the passing game to evolve, Canada will have to minimize comparisons between his scheme and the scheme of a high school team. He will have to design more full field concepts, while Pickett will have to show he can execute them effectively by diagnosing coverage rotations.
This is not an area where Pickett excelled as a rookie. On the occasions Canada did dial up full-field reads, Pickett often struggled. Watch this play from Week 18. The Steelers align in an empty set with three receivers to the right of Pickett and two to his left. Cleveland plays the two-receiver side by pressing Johnson outside and showing a combo coverage with the inside backer and alley player on Harris at the wing. To the trips side, the pre-snap look is hazy. It could be loose man, with the safety in the middle of the field coming down on the tight end. Or, given the unconventional structure, Cleveland could be poised to rotate. It’s hard to discern their intentions from the pre-snap picture:
How should Pickett read this, then? The free safety is the key indicator. If he drops straight back at the snap, Pickett will likely have man-free. If he rotates to his right, Pickett should look for a Cover-2 rotation from the other safety, Grant Delpit (22), aligned over Steven Sims in the right slot. If the free safety comes down hard, it’s Cover-0, with the free safety taking the tight end.
Pickett, though, turns his head to the left almost immediately. My guess is his pre-snap read told him the middle of the field was closed, which ruled out the post route from Sims. This prompted him to look for Johnson, who was running a comeback against tight coverage. Pickett’s throw sailed over Johnson’s head for an incompletion:
Watch the rotation of the safety, though. Ideally, Pickett should have seen this, then gotten his eyes to Delpit to see if he was rotating to the middle. When Delpit did not, Pickett would have known the post was open. With a clean pocket, he had plenty of time to hang on it, and should have hit Sims for six.
It’s likely that Pickett, given his work ethic and desire, will take the necessary steps this off-season to improve. Can Canada evolve his scheme, though, to create a more complex passing game that uses the entire field? And can he teach Pickett how to properly execute those reads? This remains to be seen. Canada has always been better at developing run schemes than with the passing attack. That’s why, when it was announced last month that he was being retained, many argued in favor of the Steelers hiring a passing coordinator to work with him. I support that idea, provided it’s someone who will supplement Canada rather than undercut him or try to put his own stamp on things. That sort of dissention will only stunt Pickett’s growth.
Pickett showed enough in his rookie campaign to warrant optimism. He looks like a quarterback around whom the franchise can build the offense. If he can develop better pocket presence and sharpen his ability to read coverages, that prospect is exciting.