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Kenny Pickett’s first NFL game showed his aggressiveness

Although it showed the difficulty in starting off in the NFL, the mindset of Pickett in his first action also showed the potential of what fans could see in 2023.

New York Jets v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2023 league year is rolling into the summer. Although we planned to take a look at some of the top players on the Steelers and their best games of 2022 from now until training camp, a situation has come about with Geoffrey and the health of a family member where he will be stepping away from BTSC. So, unfortunately, this will be the last Steelers Vertex article. To send it off properly, we will be looking at Kenny Pickett’s first action of the 2022 season.

Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.

Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.

Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

Although many people like to point out how Kenny Pickett had a seven touchdown to nine interception ratio in his rookie season, one-third of his interceptions came in his first half of action coming off the bench. Because the Steelers fell to the Jets 24–20 after surrendering a 10 point fourth-quarter lead, more was made about Pickett’s three interceptions than the 10 passes he completed during the half.

When Kenny Pickett came off the bench for the second half in Week 4, he only had one pass which was not caught and the play was nulified by penalty. Otherwise, Pickett completed 10 of 13 passes for 120 yards with his three incompletions going as interceptions. Pickett also added six rushing attempts for 15 yards and two rushing touchdowns.

During Pickett’s first game, the Steelers offense converted 5 of 6 third downs with the only time they came up short they went for it on fourth down where they were 1–1. Pickett had completions in the game of 27 yards to George Pickens, as well as 18 yards and 14 yards to Pat Freiermuth. The only thing which stalled any of the Steelers drives in the second half were turnovers.

While the numbers tell a small portion of the story, the film paints things much differently.

The Film Line:

Kenny Pickett’s first action of his career came in the second half of the Steelers Week 4 matchup with the Jets, and it didn’t start out great.

Steelers vs. Jets, 3rd quarter, 11:07

Chase Claypool is the slot receiver to the top of the screen.

Kenny Pickett started his NFL career with an aggressive throw 40 yards downfield. It didn’t end well, but you can see the reason he made that decision. The nickel back runs a delayed blitz, only rushing once Claypool is past him. When Pickett starts his throw, Claypool is cutting across the field and the safety to the bottom of the screen is not looking for the ball. Pickett throws this ball into the gap between the line backers and safeties, and from the placement of the ball Pickett is relying on his receiver to go up and get it. When the receiver is 6’4” and the defenders are 5’10” and 5’8”, that would seem like a pretty good choice.

Chase Claypool turns to the ball, but notice how skinny he gets, and how he doesn’t use his size to protect the catch at all. The safety is in a terrible position to make a play on this ball, reaching backwards over his head, but Claypool not only doesn’t get his body between the defense and the ball, he goes from running laterally to jumping away from the ball and physically puts the defender’s arm in the way. Claypool didn’t just fail to protect the ball, he made this pass breakup happen.

A second interception from the Jets game also involved Chase Claypool.

Steelers vs. Jets, 4th quarter, 3:42

Chase Claypool is the front receiver in the bunch to the bottom of the screen.

Chase Claypool has a very similar route against similar coverage, and while the middle linebacker drops this time, Pickett can lead him just the same as he did earlier, but he doesn’t. It’s less than 30 minutes of game time into Kenny Pickett’s career and he already has lost faith in one of his main receivers. To me, these two plays alone were enough to warrant the Steelers trading Claypool. As we’ll go on to show in this film room, Pickett wants to be an aggressive quarterback, but to be that guy, he needs receivers he can trust to make plays for him and Claypool wasn’t that guy. With no other good options and Pickett not trusting Claypool, he throws the ball towards Pat Freiermuth too high for Freiermuth to catch. His tight end gets hands on the ball and , unfortunately, it’s just a tip up where the defense comes down with the ball.

Steelers vs. Jets, 3rd quarter, 0:35

George Pickens is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

I don’t know what was supposed to happen on this play. It looks like an RPO, but the receivers all look like they are surprised it isn’t a run. With the play busted, Kenny Pickett throws what would have been his only pass to not be caught by somebody, except the play was negated by Kevin Dotson getting too far downfield, as he also seems surprised it isn’t a run play.

This play and the Freiermuth interception above show another side of Kenny Pickett’s aggressiveness. These are plays where the right move is to throw the ball away. Pickett’s response is to put the ball where his receiver still has a small chance of making a play, while putting the ball well away from the defense. If you compare that to the Steelers last 1st round quarterback rookie, Ben Roethlisberger also didn’t like to throw the ball away as he would scramble and take sacks trying to extend the play. The Steelers like that aggressive spirit in their quarterbacks. As Mike Tomlin says, he’d rather say “whoa” than “sic ’em”.

Steelers vs. Jets, 3rd quarter, 5:07

Pat Freiermuth is the tight end to the bottom of the screen.

The Steelers get Pickett out of the pocket on this play, running a two-man game with Pickett and Gentry with a three-layered attack downfield via Diontae Johnson’s deep route pulling the defense and Freiermuth coming across at intermediate depth. The defender chooses to chase Kenny Pickett, but Pickett isn’t taking the short pass to a wide-open Gentry when he has Freiermuth downfield.

Steelers vs. Jets, 3rd quarter, 2:51

Kenny Pickett is the quarterback.

This time as Pickett scrambles out of the pocket the defense is more concerned about coverage than Pickett as a runner so Pickett tucks the ball and sprints for a first down. It’s Pickett’s first game and it was clear he had a lot to learn and a lot of growing to do, but he showed good instincts to go with his aggressive mindset.

But it was late in the third quarter when we got to see one of the main reasons to be optimistic about the Steelers offense going forward.

Steelers vs. Jets, 3rd quarter, 0:49

George Pickens is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

The defender on Pickens is trying to stay in front of him and not let Pickens release downfield. Pickett sees this and attacks with a back shoulder throw, and Pickens makes a fantastic catch to reward his quarterback’s faith in him. Pickens does a great job keeping the defense off this pass and is using his left arm to keep the defender off right before the catch is made. This play was directly before the throw away shot I showed earlier. Pickett found out in his first quarter of action who he could trust.

Steelers vs. Jets, 4th quarter, 4:57

George Pickens is the slot receiver to the top of the screen.

Pickens was having trouble getting deep outside, so they move him to the slot to give him more room and an easier release. The defender is in trail technique and Pickett throws up a trust ball. Pickett isn’t really open here; this play needs either a great throw or a tough contested catch to work. The throw is good, not great, and Pickens again shows he’s up to making tough catches.

It’s easy to nitpick a quarterback’s ball placement, and rookie quarterbacks much more so. If you can find rookie film of Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, or more recently Josh Allen and Jalen Hurts, it’s easy to see how much they all improved with their ball placement after their rookie season. One of the key factors for growth from a young quarterback is having a player or two they can trust to make plays when the ball isn’t great, to ease that learning curve. Ben Roethlisberger had Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress his rookie season, and they took plenty of would-be interceptions away from defenders. George Pickens was that guy for Kenny Pickett in his rookie season. It’s exciting to think of what could be in the coming seasons as they both mature and improve in their roles.

Steelers vs. Jets, 4th quarter, 14:25

Chase Claypool is the slot receiver to the top of the screen.

This is perhaps the best play from Kenny Pickett all season, he takes a big hit and nails a throw to Pat Freiermuth to put the ball inside the five-yard line. Most quarterbacks would take the safe option and turtle and take the sack. Pickett is looking to make a play even as he is going to take a big hit.

The Point:

After Pickett’s first four games saw seven interceptions we saw the aggressiveness go away as the offense was reworked to focus on the safe throws first. The Steelers banked on avoiding turnovers and running the ball being their best path to win games, and they went 7-2 after the bye week. But while Kenny Pickett didn’t have the experience and skills to succeed while being aggressive, he showed that he has the talent and mindset to be an aggressive, attacking quarterback. He just needs to adapt to the NFL game before he lets that loose. A better offensive line and better play from his receivers would help too.

While it’s easy to look at the Steelers offense the second half of the season and question if Pickett can be an aggressive playmaker, he showed right off the bat that he isn’t afraid or overly cautious as a quarterback. He’s an aggressive playmaker the Steelers had to reign in as a rookie. Hopefully they can loosen the leash in his second year.

With this being our final Vertex article, I, Dave, would like to thank Geoffrey for all the hard work and dedication he put into doing these articles every week. I’m going to miss the nerdiness we started and the fun it was to break things down. I wish Geoffrey the best in all that he does. #FamilyFirst