The Pittsburgh Steelers passing game didn't cut the mustard in 2022, finishing towards the bottom of the league. It was inadequate by any and all metrics, and it definitely didn't pass the eye test, as it was often hard to watch.
In this article we will try to decipher the reasons why, who was the biggest culprit, and what can be done to remedy the problem.
First, let me clarify, there's plenty of blame to go around. Play design and usage, quarterback play, offensive line performance, and wide receiver fundamentals were the most glaring inadequacies, in my opinion, but maybe not in that particular order. Regardless of level of blame, all this issues need addressed to adequately fix what ails the offense, enough to consistently put points on the scoreboard.
The easiest issue to identify over the past few seasons has been the offensive line, but that started to change in 2022. In the previous few seasons, the Steelers sub-par offensive line resulted in the Steelers inability to run the football anywhere near an acceptable level. This equated in an inordinate amount of unfavorable down and distances, allowing the opposition's pass rush to tee off on the struggling pass protection. Steelers quarterbacks regularly had under two seconds to get the ball out of their hand, so a repetitive and easy-to-defend passing game was the predictable outcome.
That started to change towards the end of the 2022 season. Thanks to free agent acquisitions Mason Cole and James Daniels, plus offensive line coach Pat Meyer, the Steelers developed into a slightly above average unit, both in run blocking and pass protection. They are definitely trending in the right direction, which bring us to our next discussion topic: Quarterback.
Even with the improved offensive line performance over the course of the season, the Steelers quarterback play was often found lacking. Both Mitch Trubisky and Kenny Pickett were new to the team, therefore inexperienced with their teammates and offensive scheme. Early season struggles were expected and inevitable, but issues lingered even after the offensive line started to gel.
The Steelers quarterbacks fluctuated between being ultra aggressive or painfully conservative, especially during the murders row first half of the season. Trubisky never did find a peaceful median, but Pickett finally did during the much more manageable second half of the season.
Pickett settled in as a conservative game manager during the Steelers’ back half of 2022, as he gained comfort in the system, with some flashes of late game heroics thrown in for good measure. He relied on the Steelers improving offensive line, and surging rushing attack, to carry the majority of the load. Pickett focused on ball security, and reliably stepping up when an accurate throw was needed to move the chains. Pickett's steady improvement bodes well for his future.
However, Pickett must take the next step in his development in 2023, and there are still plenty of questions to be answered. Can Pickett find a middle ground between ball security and a more aggressive mindset, especially in the red-zone? Can he learn to trust in his pass protection, enough to not miss out on late developing scripted opportunities, which happened regularly last season? I believe he can, as his talents and work ethic suggests so, but only time will tell.
That brings us to our third obvious issue; wide receiver fundamentals. The Steelers wide receiver depth chart hasn't lacked talent over the past couple seasons, but they have not been very efficient or effective, partly due to a lack of fundamentals. Diontae Johnson lacked the requisite size and strength to offer contested catch and/or run after the catch ability. George Pickens lacked the footwork and consistent effort to develop chemistry with his quarterbacks during his rookie campaign. Add former Steelers pass catcher Chase Claypool into the equation during the first half of last season, and you had a Big 3 who struggled with consistency, both in effort and focus. However, that wasn't their biggest shortcoming.
The Steelers receivers have been bystanders far to frequently in recent seasons. Casual observers if you will. Steelers receivers will run their scripted route, come to a complete stop, and just stand there taking in the action. A receiver should be in continuous motion, constantly trying to work back to the quarterback, especially if he is forced out of the pocket and off script. The Steelers receivers have done a poor job at this fundamental necessity in recent seasons. I remember Ben Roethlisberger yelling at Claypool for that infraction last season. Sadly, the Steelers receivers continued to struggle with fundamentals in 2022, especially early in the season.
All of the aforementioned issues negatively impacted the Steelers passing attack last season, but they weren't the most influential problem in my opinion. That distinction falls between the parameters of play design and usage, meaning the responsibility for the Steelers anemic aerial attack falls at the feet of OC Matt Canada.
We have discussed Canada's play calling shortcomings ad nauseam over the past few months, so I will try to be brief. Every play matters and has value, whether it is successful or not. The information gained from a first half play can facilitate a game changing counter later in the contest. Every formation and personnel package reveals defensive tendencies for coordinators present enough to pay attention. Variety is the spice of life. Play action, misdirection routes, and an adequate screen game have been missing in action under Canada. See Andy Reid and the Super Bowl champion Chiefs for the most recent example.
The Steelers decision makers are rolling the dice this offseason. They are betting on continued growth and improvement in the areas we have highlighted in this article. That the offensive line will continue to gel with more experience working together in the trenches. That Kenny Pickett's confidence will grow in unison with his comfort level within the offense, while maintaining his excellent ball security habits. That the second half of the season improvement from the receivers was an addition by subtraction situation.
I saved the biggest gamble of them all for last. The Steelers are counting on Matt Canada's ability to show drastic improvement as a passing game coordinator. I like the odds of the first three happening far more than the last scenario. Needless to say, just another reason I am not a gambler.