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Improving on this one statistic could make or break the Steelers offense in 2023

Can the Steelers make the changes necessary to take the next step in 2023?

Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Ask someone what the most important statistic in football is and you’re likely to receive some common responses. Points-per-game and yards-per-play are two of the most popular. The analytics crowd likes to talk about DVOA, while traditionalists point to time of possession and turnover ratio. All of these are relevant.

Statistically and otherwise, the Steelers proved in 2022 that they could play good enough defense to keep them in most ballgames. And, on offense, they had one of the best time of possession numbers in the league, finishing 6th overall. Unfortunately, while they did a good job of holding the football, their possessions did not result in many points. Pittsburgh finished 26th in that category, at just 18.1 per game.

Scoring more points, then, will be one of the biggest factors in the team’s success. I wrote about one way they can do so in the article below. But, while becoming more explosive should be a huge point of emphasis next season, there may be a different statistic that’s even more telling.

Per Warren Sharp, Kenny Pickett completed just 38% of his passes from inside the 10-yard line last year. Of the 26 NFL quarterbacks who had at least 20 attempts from this area, Pickett’s percentage ranked 23rd, with only Matt Ryan, Jalen Hurts and Derek Carr below him.

It may be surprising to find the names of Hurts and Carr beneath Pickett, but those two offset their passing struggles inside the 10 by being incredibly dangerous elsewhere. The Eagles and Raiders tied for the league lead in touchdowns from beyond the 20-yard line, with 17 each. The Steelers had two such touchdowns.

At the top of Sharp’s list, Daniel Jones, Ryan Tannehill, Dak Prescott, Jimmy Garoppolo and Patrick Mahomes all completed 60% or better of their passes from inside the 10. Three of the teams for whom those quarterbacks played — Dallas, San Francisco and Kansas City — were among the league’s six highest-scoring offenses. Jones’s offense in New York and Tannehill’s in Tennessee were not, finishing 18th and 28th, respectively. But they were both efficient red zone teams, with the 5th (New York) and 6th (Tennessee) best touchdown percentages. The Steelers finished 22nd in that category. So, while explosive offenses tend to score the most points, scoring from in close is important, too. The Steelers excelled in neither area last year.

To improve, they will have to become more efficient with their +10 passing attack. This is particularly amplified when you look at how the Steelers are constructed on offense. Rather than acquiring speedy receivers this off-season and attempting to build a Miami-style attack that can score from anywhere on the field, Pittsburgh dedicated themselves to becoming more physical. They loaded up on big, tough linemen and drafted a hulking tight end. The one receiver they did add, veteran Allen Robinson, is 6’3-210. Pittsburgh’s intention on offense is clear: pound the rock, control the clock, and win with toughness.

That philosophy often lends itself to contests where points are at a premium and where taking advantage of scoring opportunities is paramount. It’s wasteful to consistently drive the length of the field only to settle for short field goals. 11 of Pittsburgh’s 17 games last season were decided by a touchdown or less, and they look to be set up for many more of those affairs in 2023. When they get inside the red zone, and inside the 10 in particular, touchdowns are imperative.

It’s easy to put the onus for their inability to throw the ball well in this area last season squarely on the shoulders of Pickett. He was the guy pulling the trigger, after all. But his receivers struggled to get open, and coordinator Matt Canada did not do a good enough job designing concepts that freed them. Many of the throws Canada asked Pickett to make were jump balls near the pylon or calls that were heavily defended. It’s not easy scheming receivers open in this area of the field, but the best offenses find ways to do it.

For a closer look at why the Steelers struggled, consider these two plays from Week 10 against New Orleans. Pittsburgh led 13-10 midway through the 4th quarter and found themselves with 2nd-and-goal from the +5-yard-line. They dialed up a bootleg pass off of run action to Najee Harris, with Pickett targeting tight end Zach Gentry in the flat:

The premise of the play was built on the edge defender chasing the run action and allowing Pickett to get outside, where he’d have a pass/run option. Canada had shown this formation on the previous play, and New Orleans had lined up the same way — with two defenders outside Pittsburgh’s wing alignment. Canada figured one would chase Harris and the other would cover receiver Myles Boykin, who had motioned down to the edge of the formation. This would leave no one to defend Gentry in the flat.

That’s not what happened. Instead, the chase defender didn’t bite on the run fake. He came right at Pickett, which forced a quick throw under duress. And while the corner did run with Boykin, the defensive end fell off the line of scrimmage to cover Gentry. This was partly Gentry’s fault, as he got hung up on his run fake and couldn’t get a clean release. A combination of poor execution by Gentry and Canada misdiagnosing the defense doomed this play.

On 3rd and goal, Canada split Pat Freiermuth out wide and got him matched against a defensive back, where Pickett threw him a fade-stop to the front pylon of the end zone:

You can’t criticize the result here. Freiermuth forced a pass interference call that set the Steelers up in a 1st-and-goal from which they ultimately scored. But the Saints bailed Canada out with the interference penalty. You can see from their bracket alignment that New Orleans anticipated this throw. The corner jumped outside on Freiermuth to protect against a fade route, while the safety crept over to take away the slant. The fade-stop was almost impossible to complete given the tiny window into which Pickett had to throw. Even if the corner hadn’t grabbed Freiermuth, he would have had a hard time getting his feet down in bounds to complete the catch.

Without the penalty, this drive would have ended in a field goal. The Steelers would have been ahead by six instead of by ten, with New Orleans having time to mount a potential game-winning drive. Again, the play produced a positive result for the Steelers. But its degree of difficulty was elevated by the fact the Saints seemed to know it was coming.

Here’s another example of Pittsburgh’s struggle to scheme receivers open at this end of the field. On a 3rd-and-8 from the +10 against Buffalo in Week 5, Canada ran an out-cut to Diontae Johnson from a condensed twins formation. The formation cued the Bills’ cornerback that some sort of boundary route was coming, since offenses often compress formations to attack the width they create. Accordingly, the corner lined up with outside leverage, limiting Johnson’s ability to separate on his cut. This forced Pickett to fit his throw into an impossibly tight window with the corner undercutting the route:

Still, the Steelers nearly made it work. The sideline judge initially called this a catch, before being overruled by the back judge. It was a great effort by Johnson and a great throw (under the circumstances) by Pickett. The Bills sniffed it out, though, and made it nearly impossible to complete.

The problems in this area of the field weren’t all on Canada. Pickett missed his share of throws as a rookie, something he’ll have to improve upon as the game (hopefully) slows down for him in year two. And the receivers struggled at times to separate from coverage or read coverage properly, ruining effective play designs or leaving Pickett with nowhere to throw the ball.

While improvement in these areas are a must, there are other ways the Steelers can bolster their goal-line passing game. One would be for Canada to use more crossers, rubs and picks. He was hesitant to do that last year, because the middle of the field can be tough to navigate. With Pickett learning on the fly, there was pressure on the offense to keep things simple and minimize turnovers. Now, though, he must be given the entire field to work with.

Canada did dabble in some of these concepts last season, like on this touchdown throw to Harris against the Bucs. This is a great design, with the players in the bunch to the left creating obstruction as Harris slips into the far flat. It was called at the right time, too, with Tampa’s linebackers being aggressive in anticipation of a run:

Canada would be wise to expand his use of these types of plays. He could do so by studying some of what Brian Daboll does with the Giants offense. New York is great at freeing receivers from tight coverage with an array of picks and screens, creating easy throws for Jones:

Also, all of the quarterbacks who hit on at least 60% of their +10 throws last season are mobile. Jones, Tannehill, Prescott, Garropollo and Mahomes can all move well outside the pocket, and their coordinators take advantage of that, like we see Daboll do here:

Pickett is not the most athletic QB in the league, but his movement skills are on par with the likes of Tannehill and Garappolo.

Also, the key to the success on the play above wasn’t simply moving Jones out of the pocket but also disguising his primary target. In the clip I posted earlier of the Steelers running a bootleg scheme against New Orleans, Pickett’s target (Zach Gentry) was fairly obvious because he came from the same side of the formation as the boot. In this clip, the target comes from the other side, leaking under the linemen and into the opposite flat. This is a lot harder to cover, especially in man, because it makes the defender responsible for that receiver run laterally through clutter. Canada ran a similar concept to Harris against the Bucs, only without the boot. He would be wise to continue developing his bootleg passing game, especially near the goal line, to take advantage of Pickett’s mobility.

Finally, when you factor in the addition of 6’7 tight end Darnell Washington, the expected maturation of Pickett, Freiermuth and George Pickens, and the fact that Johnson’s zero-touchdown performance from last season was likely an anomaly, the Steelers should have better success with their +10 passing attack.

Improvement, then, should be seen as a collective task. Canada bears much of the burden, but his host of young and talented players must also be up to the task. For the Steelers to reach the playoffs in 2023, this could be the key statistic that gets them there.