There were some things to like about the Pittsburgh Steelers offense in 2022, particularly in the second half of the season when they went 7-2 over their final nine games and narrowly missed the playoffs.
The reality, though, is they simply weren’t good enough to contend. One of the most telling pieces of evidence was their points-per-game average — 18.1 — which ranked 26th in the league. This is troubling when you consider that the top scoring offenses were among the league’s best teams. Kansas City, the Super Bowl champ, finished first at 29.2 points per game. The runner-up Eagles were at 29.1. The rest of the Top 12 included Buffalo, Dallas, Detroit, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Minnesota, Jacksonville, Seattle, Miami and the Chargers. Of those teams, only Detroit failed to make the playoffs.
The median number of points per game among the 14 teams who qualified last season was 24.6. That’s a touchdown more per game than the Steelers averaged. There are a host of variables that factor in to whether a team makes the playoffs, and this is by no means a perfect determinant. But it gives you an idea of the improvement Pittsburgh must make, especially in a highly competitive AFC loaded with superstar talent on offense.
The bottom line is simple. For the Steelers to become contenders in 2023, they need to score more points.
One way to do so is to create explosive plays. Definitions on what constitutes an explosive play vary, but generally speaking, they are runs of 10+ yards and passes of 15+. The chart below, courtesy of Royal Football, shows the number of explosives each NFL team generated on offense last season, and also the number they gave up on defense. It ranks them by differential. The Steelers were one of only three teams, along with Tampa Bay and the Rams, to create less than 100 total explosives on offense (they had 99). They gave up 120 explosives on defense for a net difference of -21, which ranked 26th. By contrast, the four teams who qualified for the league championship games — Philadelphia, Buffalo, Kansas City and San Francisco — had the four best explosive differentials. All were +35 or better:
Every team which had a differential of +25 or better made the playoffs last year. And only six of the 18 teams with a negative balance qualified. If we focus just on the offensive side of the ball, the Eagles created 151 explosive plays, or 52 more than Pittsburgh. That’s an average of roughly three per game. Imagine how much better Pittsburgh’s offense would have been had they generated two or three more explosives each week.
Then there’s the topic of explosive plays that created touchdowns. The following graphic, courtesy of Warren Sharp, reveals Pittsburgh’s struggles in this area:
TDs scored from outside the red zone last year:— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) June 7, 2023
17 - PHI, LV
16 - SF, SEA
15 - BUF
12 - CIN, NE
11 - MIA, NO
10 - DAL, GB
9 - CHI, JAX
8 - KC, CLE, DET, MIN
7 - NYG, TEN, WAS ARI, DEN, NYJ, LAC, CAR
6 - BAL, HOU
5 - TB, LAR
4 - ATL
3 - IND
2 - PIT
The red zone is generally defined as the area from an opponent's 20-yard line to the end zone. With just two touchdowns coming on plays from beyond this area, Pittsburgh was forced to rely on long drives to score. This takes precise execution and leaves almost no room for error. The Steelers were among the league leaders in time of possession per drive last year, but those drives often resulted in field goals or no points at all. By failing to produce big plays, they put too much pressure on an offense that wasn’t good enough to routinely finish drives.
Generally speaking, then, explosives are a huge key to scoring touchdowns. From Conor McQuiston, of “The 33rd Team:”
Two questions, then: why weren’t the Steelers able to create explosives last season, and how might they do so in 2023? Let’s dive in.
Why the absence of explosive plays?
First, the Steelers were an offense in transition. With new quarterbacks in Mitch Trubisky and Kenny Pickett, several new starters on the offensive line, a rookie wide receiver (George Pickens) and a new line coach (Pat Meyer), the offense faced a steep learning curve. Multiple reports throughout the off-season have suggested that Mike Tomlin instructed Matt Canada to play it conservatively as the offense worked through its growing pains. Tomlin’s logic was that if the offense protected the football and didn’t lose games by turning it over, the defense would give the Steelers a chance to win.
This formula proved ineffective early on. The team averaged just 15 points per game while stumbling into their bye week at 2-6. Tomlin allowed Canada to open the playbook a bit after the bye, but their 7-2 finish wasn’t the product of a wide-open attack. They simply got better at doing what they’d been doing earlier in the season. An easier schedule against weaker offenses helped, as it lessened the need to score points. Pittsburgh did improve in that area, averaging 20.8 after the bye. But it’s not like they morphed into the Chiefs.
Another factor was their lack of explosive playmakers. Najee Harris, as good as he is, is more of a power back whose value lies primarily in his ability to consistently earn four and five-yards. When Harris does get loose, it’s generally because he runs through contact, not around it. This inevitably slows him down and allows the pursuit of a defense to catch up. A typical “explosive” run for Harris looks like the one below. Last season, his longest run covered 19 yards, while his longest career run is 25. Harris is more of a grinders than a home-run hitter.
In the passing game, Pittsburgh’s best deep threat was Pickens, whose route tree as a rookie was extremely limited. Pickens did have 12 receptions of 20+ yards last season, which tied for 12th most in the league. Overwhelmingly, though, these catches came on routes like the one below, where Pickens won jump balls along the sideline:
While Pickens proved adept at winning these contested throws, they are still 50/50 balls. And, as the field shrinks, it gets harder to complete them as you near the red zone.
Another factor was that Meyer set out to remake the line’s pass protection technique. Meyer had his linemen fire out and make contact first as opposed to kick-stepping and retreating. It was a more aggressive approach designed to create a deep interior pocket. Canada leaned into the dink-and-dunk passing attack he’d used in 2021 with Ben Roethlisberger as he waited for Meyer’s strategy to pay dividends.
Finally, the play of the two quarterbacks factored in. When Canada did get aggressive, the offense often suffered for it. Pickett missed some big play opportunities, like this post route to Steven Sims against Cleveland, because he failed at times to recognize coverage rotations and was focused on moving the chains and protecting the football:
Trubisky. meanwhile, had a penchant for making costly mistakes down the middle of the field, where big plays often occur. His three interceptions in Baltimore territory during a 16-14 loss to the Ravens in Week 14 were devastating. Points on any of those drives may have resulted in a Steelers victory that could have been the difference between making the playoffs and ultimately missing out:
In combination, these factors led to a Steelers attack that was unable to produce enough big plays to score a sufficient amount of points. In order to improve in 2023, they will have to find a way to become more explosive.
Here are some thoughts on how they can do so.
Year One is in the books, and it’s time to take the gloves off (no pun intended). Pickett showed enough play-making ability down the stretch to warrant a more aggressive mentality. He was especially good in clutch situations, where he made big throws that produced explosive plays leading to game-winning touchdowns, like this dime to Sims in the Week 17 comeback in Baltimore:
The leap between a player’s first and second year is often significant. Canada must trust that Pickett will make it. Pickett’s ability to read coverages should evolve, and with the anticipated improvements up front, he should have more time in the pocket, too. Canada should use these factors as the impetus for more aggressive play-calling. The goal this season can’t be for Pickett not to lose games. It should be to trust him enough to win.
Expand Pickens’ route tree
Similar progress should be expected from Pickens, who was among the best rookie wide receivers in the league last year. We featured his jump ball ability above, but Pickens showed he can make acrobatic catches anywhere on the field, like this beauty on a dig route:
The challenge for Pickens won’t be catching the football. It will be learning the nuances of playing the receiver position in the NFL, like recognizing the holes in zone coverage, when to sit down in them versus when to run through, how to properly stem his routes to gain leverage on defenders, etc. Pickens has the potential to be a Top-10 receiver in the league. To get there, the Steelers will have to train him well then devise a passing attack that maximizes his potential.
Take advantage of the new guys
The acquisition of massive tight end Darnell Washington through the draft and the return of second-year player Calvin Austin III, who lost his rookie season to injury, provide the offense two explosive additions. The 6’7-270 pound Washington averaged over 17 yards per catch at Georgia last season, which is an indication of how he can create chunk plays with his size and mismatch ability. Whether it’s isolating Washington up the seam against smaller safeties or getting him the ball in the flat and forcing corners to tackle him, Washington should be able to generate his fair share of explosives.
So too should Austin III, who has already opened eyes during OTAs with his sub-4.4 speed. The Steelers have had smaller receivers in the past who could run, like Chris Rainey and Dri Archer, but they were both converted running backs trying to learn the receiver position at the professional level. Austin III is a trained receiver who was described by last season’s defensive rookie of the year, Sauce Gardner, as the toughest player he had to cover during his college career. If the Steelers can’t find a way to create explosives with a player like Austin, shame on them.
Finally, there’s veteran addition Allen Robinson to consider. Robinson has not historically been a big-play threat. His career average of 12.8 yards per catch suggests as much. And at age 29, he is unlikely to suddenly start outrunning safeties to the post. But Robinson does have the ability to play in the slot, where at 6’3-210, he should eat up space and command attention. Having an experienced veteran to operate underneath could free up Pickens, Austin III and Diontae Johnson to work down the field more. Robinson’s value to Pittsburgh’s explosive play repertoire may not come in the plays he makes, but in his ability to create opportunities for others to make them.