The Steelers offense was terrible in the first half of the 2022 season, and in the second half they were not good, but at the same time they had metrics that showed they weren’t far off either.
For example, after the bye the Steelers ranked 2nd in the NFL in the percentage of drives that ended in either a touchdown or field goal attempt. The led the NFL in both missed field goals and were second in made field goals, but scored touchdowns on only 20% of drives, which ranked right in the middle of the league at 17th. They also had the second fewest possessions of any team in the NFL as they focused on controlling the clock to keep their defense off the field.
In fact, if you compare the Steelers to the top offenses in the NFL, the Steelers after the bye would have been scoring at a top five rate in the NFL if you changed two field goals and one missed field goal into touchdowns. That’s it. If three drives that stalled in scoring range instead ended with touchdowns over a nine game span the Steelers would have been a top 5 offense the second half of the season. That’s the difference in the NFL between a middle of the pack offense and a top five offense.
And there is one stat that shows very clearly the area where the Steelers have the greatest chance to improve and convert touchdowns instead of settling for field goal attempts. It’s red zone passing, specifically, Kenny Pickett’s red zone passing.
Now to be clear, these stats will be listed by quarterback, but I think we all understand that passing stats depend on much more than just the quarterback, the receivers, offensive line, play design, even the run game effects the passing numbers. So this isn’t just on Kenny Pickett’s shoulders, it’s on the entire offense to improve. I wanted to be clear on that, because the stats are bad.
Kenny Pickett threw 46 times inside the red zone in 2022. He completed 18 of those passes for 120 yards, five touchdowns and zero interceptions. The zero interceptions is nice, but the rest is not. Kenny Pickett’s 2.61 yards per attempt in the red zone ranked 40th out of 46 quarterbacks with at least 10 redzone pass attempts. His 10.9% TD rate ranked 44th out of 46 passers. That’s all bad. But it gets worse.
Mitch Trubisky threw 11 redzone passes, completing 8 of them for 50 yards, 4 TDs and 1 INT. Trubisky’s 4.55 yards per attempt ranks 3rd and his 36.4% TD rate ranked 2nd in the NFL. Even when you factor in the interception Trubisky only drops to 9th in TD-INT%. This means the potential was there for the redzone passing to be better, it just wasn’t.
Now before people get crazy with the Mitch Trubisky numbers, his effectiveness in the redzone was offset by how few times the Steelers actually got into scoring position when Trubisky was running the offense. His games have much more effective scoring in the red zone, but fewer trips and lower per-drive scoring than Pickett’s.
You might be thinking that if we just look at the second half of the season, Kenny Pickett’s numbers will improve, but strangely, the opposite is true. As Kenny became a more controlled and effective quarterback, his redzone passing did not improve. Sixteen of Pickett’s redzone passes were in the first half of the season, and two of his touchdowns, meaning Pickett’s lousy 10.9% TD rate dropped to 10% flat after the bye.
If we go back to the first part of this article and remember that three touchdowns instead of field goal attempts puts the Steelers offense in the top 5 the second half of the season, and we look at Pickett’s passing numbers the second half, we can easily project the stats he needed to have to be the quarterback of a top-5 offense.
If we add three completions, three touchdowns and let’s say thirty yards to his numbers, we get 14 completions on 30 pass attempts for 116 yards and 6 touchdowns in the second half of the season. Those stats only move Kenny Pickett to 21st out of 46 quarterbacks in yards per attempt, and to 26th out of 46 quarterbacks in touchdown percentage. That’s it, it’s not even requiring great numbers, just being average.
Kenny Pickett showed potential and talent, but also limitations in his first season. He was one of the more effective passers throwing downfield, but wasn’t the most effective on shorter and mid-range passes. That makes sense when you look at the film and see a lack of timing with Diontae Johnson, George Pickens’ limitations in route running and the offense being super dumbed down in the passing attack. Pickett isn’t a rookie anymore. He and Diontae Johnson are working together to get their chemistry and timing down. George Pickens has been working on his technique and route running. Multiple Steelers have mentioned the offense is much better and less restricted than last season as well.
The offseason is giving us reason to believe that the passing offense can step up and put Kenny Pickett’s redzone passing stats into the top half of NFL quarterbacks and give the Steelers offense a chance at being a top 5 unit in scoring efficiency, and if that happens, this team could win a lot of games in 2023.