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The Steelers need to emphasize “hot” plays in 2023

From Kenny Pickett to the team’s offensive line, this weakness needs to become a strength.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Miami Dolphins Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

As the Steelers enter this year, it’s no secret that their offense has a litany of areas to improve. From overall scoring to more complementary route combinations to red zone success rate, Matt Canada’s unit must reduce its 2022 shortcomings to achieve its expected results in 2023.

Embedded in that laundry list, though, is a more niche element that consistently plagued Pittsburgh last year: “hot” plays.

Effectively, a “hot” play is when a defense is showing a heavy pressure and/or blitz look, leaving it the role of the quarterback (or offensive coordinator/coach) to audible to a “hot” route. The goal of this change at the line of scrimmage is to give the QB a quick read and throw in light of so many defenders descending upon the pocket.

On these types of plays, the quarterback must have the wherewithal to alter the original design with something such as a flat, slant or curl. On top of that, the offensive line needs to ensure enough protection, even in the face of pressure, to allow the throw to be made. Frankly, Pittsburgh was not good whatsoever in both of those facets.

Let’s start with the role of the man under center — for the Steelers, that’s obviously Kenny Pickett. While it may be daunting to ask a rookie to recognize blitzes, slide protection and audible for a hot route, those types of commands will have to become commonplace for the 25-year-old as he attempts to make a prototypical “jump” in his second year.

A significant area of growth for Pickett should not only be better sliding protections and making audibles at the line, but also hastily finding hot routes and better locating his eyes on blitz looks.

On this third-and-five against the Eagles, Philadelphia rushes five overall, bringing safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson down via a safety blitz. However, Pickett (at least as is visible in the All-22 clip) does not appear to slide the protection to the right — where there are three rushers — or communicate with a receiver (or multiple) to run a quick-hitting route. While Miles Boykin gets open on a short in route, Pickett can’t fire and is taken down for a sack that ends the drive.

Consistently, Pittsburgh’s opponents recognized that it would gain an advantage by demonstrating pressure looks on third down, creating confusion for an inexperienced quarterback and an inconsistent offensive line. Those shortcomings were especially detrimental in opponent territory.

On this third-and-12 from the Indianapolis 12, the Colts walk up both of their linebackers but only rush five against the Steelers’ five blockers. However, Pickett doesn’t alter the play, and four receiving options make their way well downfield, with the quarterback glancing at two vertical routes to the right. Without a designed hot route, Pickett takes too long to detect the pressure and is taken down, forcing the team to punt instead of attempting a field goal.

While third-and-12 is a long distance to convert, these route combinations are inherently questionable, attacking only the boundary and creating almost no confusion or traffic for the defense. Instead, Pickett should have tasked either George Pickens or Connor Heyward with running a fast in-breaking route (e.g., slant, drag, dig) with just one dropping linebacker assigned to McFarland.

The Steelers’ trouble versus pressure looks was not entirely Pickett’s fault, though. The team’s offensive line must also shoulder blame for how the offense executed in such situations.

Far too often, Pittsburgh’s offensive line lacked cohesion in terms of communication, botching protections in which it either had a sufficient number of blockers or even more than the defense rushed. This was especially troublesome when defenses implemented either blitzes or simulated pressures.

On this snap against the Ravens, Baltimore uses a “mugged” look to show pressure up the middle. Although Jason Pierre-Paul and Roquan Smith drop into coverage, there’s little deception regarding where Patrick Queen is coming from: right up the middle. Nonetheless, Kevin Dotson widens, leaving Mason Cole isolated and handling, at the time, two blitzers. Ultimately, Pickett is forced to escape the pocket and eventually suffered a concussion in the aftermath of the play.

Plays like the one above were certainly indictments against Dotson, and have to be considered in Pittsburgh’s decision to fortify its offensive line with Isaac Seumalo, Broderick Jones and Nate Herbig. The team’s newfound “Pickett Fence” must be much more sound in terms of actually protecting its potential franchise quarterback, and that’s heightened on blitz looks.

To reiterate, the Steelers’ offense suffered from a bevy of issues last year; it’s hard to pinpoint just one weakness as to why the team was tied for the second-fewest offensive touchdowns and ranked 18th in offensive DVOA. At the same time, it’s clear that Pittsburgh needs to improve on “hot” plays, from Pickett’s audibles/play recognition to OL communication — if nothing more than to keep its ascending gunslinger on the field.