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Breaking down predictions for the Steelers passing game in 2023

Who will be the offense’s biggest contributors through the air this year, and how does it all add up?

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Arguably the biggest storyline for the Steelers this year is the projected development of Kenny Pickett and the impact that will have on the offense. That’s far from the only big story though. There are also plenty of young skill players developing besides Pickett. How much they can develop is a big question, and will have a bearing on Pickett’s success as well. This is all guesswork at this point, but one thing that can make the guesswork a little more reasonable is to address all the questions together as a whole. Instead of asking how any one of these particular players will do, what about asking how they all will do?

Looking at the big picture helps develop a more realistic expectation for individual players and for the team as a whole. There are still a lot of different ways things could go, but accounting for all the variables definitely helps you get closer to a reasonable estimate. In Part Two, I’ll look at the running game, which is a major emphasis for the team this year and will greatly influence the passing game, but for this article, we’ll start off projecting the Steelers’ passing game.

The Steelers’ passing game

The Steelers are pretty obviously looking to establish the run game given the personnel they’ve acquired and overall messaging from the front office. It’s still a passing league, though, and even “run heavy” may not mean actually running more run plays than pass plays.

Last year, just seven total teams ran more than they passed, and only two of those ran more than 52% of the time (Chicago and Atlanta — not exactly teams you want to emulate). So, let’s make it easy and say the Steelers' run/pass ratio is 50/50 straight up. We’ll say the offense runs 1,050 plays, which is about average based on last year, and that means 525 passing plays (down from 571 in 2022) with the following projected results.

Diontae Johnson: 90 rec, 1,000 yds, 5 TD

George Pickens is the fan favorite right now, and Diontae Johnson is in a lot of folks’ doghouse, but Johnson gets open like nobody’s business, had 1,100 yards in Roethlisberger’s final year, and has clearly developed a rapport with Pickett in camp. Johnson creates more separation than any wide receiver in the league, and you should never underestimate a quarterback’s love for an open receiver, regardless of the other guy’s ability to make highlight-reel catches. Zero touchdowns last year was a weird fluke. as Johnson scored at least 7 each of the two years prior and should definitely approach that mark again this year.

WR George Pickens: 60 rec, 900 yds, 5 TD

I’m really not sure what to do with Pickens. I’ve been saying all off-season that Pickens hasn’t done anything that Chase Claypool didn’t do as a rookie too, and his conversations with reporters during training camp haven’t assured me of his maturity and professionalism. He’s great at highlight reel catches but doesn’t yet seem to have the ability to make routine plays, routinely. An improved Kenny Pickett with an improved offensive line will create more and better opportunities for Pickens, but that doesn’t mean he’s ready to emerge as a WR1.

TE Pat Freiermuth: 60 rec, 700 yds, 4 TD

Tight ends take a while to develop and it’s realistic to expect Freiermuth to continue to improve this season, especially with improved QB play and a familiar system. However, the presence of a strong slot receiver and another good TE where there was none last year, while passing the ball less overall, will comparatively limit his opportunities. His catches and yards may go down a bit but the overall improvement of the offense will boost his TD total compared to last year.

WR Allen Robinson: 25 rec, 250 yds, 3 TD

Not much to look at, but the stat line doesn’t show the value of those tough catches over the middle to move the chains. I don’t believe Robinson is washed up necessarily, but the fact is he hasn’t hit 40 catches in either of the past two years and he’s coming into an offense that’s looking to run the ball, pass the ball out of 12 personnel (no slot receiver), and has a young speedster looking to steal his playing time.

WR Calvin Austin III: 15 rec, 200 yds, 1 TD

Austin’s speed alone is worth getting the ball in his hands once per game, although more likely he has a couple of catches in some games and none in others. Steven Simms had 14 receptions last year, and granted, that that was without any competition for the slot role. Regardless, Austin should be able to force his way into the game to a similar extent.

TE Darnell Washington: 20 rec, 250 yds, 3 TD

It almost always takes time for tight ends to develop in the NFL, and there’s no rush on Washington with plenty of other targets to choose from, notably his fellow TE Pat Freiermuth. I expect Washington to be putting together some good games by the end of the year, but his total stats for the season probably won’t be impressive (although he is projected beyond Gentry’s 19 catches last season).

RB Najee Harris: 30 rec, 200 yards, 3 TD

Harris’ reception total went down dramatically last year as Jaylen Warren ate into his opportunities and I expect that to continue as Warren sees similar usage all season to what he did in the second half of last season. Anthony McFarland may cut into Harris’ workload as a receiver this year too, as McFarland at RB3 offers a distinct change of pace compared to Snell at RB3 last year. The overall improvement in the passing game will help bolster Harris’ numbers a little, though.

RB Jaylen Warren: 30 rec, 250 yds, 1 TD

Jaylen Warren is legit. In fact, he was markedly better than Harris last year on a per-touch basis. He won’t be catching defenses by surprise this year, but it won’t take the coaches almost half the year to decide to start seriously using him either, and putting him down for basically the same stat line as last year seems like a no-brainer.

TE Connor Heyward: 10 rec, 100 yds, 1 TD

Last year’s performance was good enough to earn him more looks, but at the end of the day Heyward doesn’t have an every-down role and the Steelers aren’t going to manufacture a bigger role for him just because it would be cool. With a real slot receiver this year and better depth at TE Heyward could see even fewer opportunities, but he’s just too much of a baller to keep him from making at least a few plays.

RB Anthony McFarland: 10 rec, 100 yds, 0 TD

With Snell gone, AntMac graduates to RB3. The pair combined for 30 touches last year, which will be exclusively McFarland’s this year, and with the different skill set McFarland offers I’m going to tilt those touches more heavily toward receptions this year than last year (4 combined).

Totals: 350/525 (66.7%), 3,950 yds, 7.52 yards per attempt, 26 TD

The first thing you may notice is this is a quarterback stat line, not a receiver’s, because the interesting thing when you total up all the receivers isn’t the total receptions but the fact that this actually gives you what Pickett’s year would be like.

I actually had to revise most of my WR estimates down to get it to a reasonable completion percentage (even 66.7% would’ve tied for 8th best in the league with Kirk Cousins, Andy Dalton, and Daniel Jones last year). The yards per attempt would’ve tied Geno Smith for 10th overall last year, and is obviously a big step up from Pickett’s mark of 6.2 in 2022. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect Pickett to be very efficient in a run-first offense, though.

The total yardage of just under 4,000 would’ve been 11th in the league last year, and would certainly be optimistic but I don’t think is outlandish. My first draft had 31 touchdowns (which would have tied Kirk Cousins for fifth in the league last year), and I definitely felt I had to revise that down a bit. It’s certainly enough of an improvement over the seven touchdowns Pickett threw last year. Even projected for “just” 26 touchdowns, this total would’ve tied Aaron Rodgers and Justin Herbert for 10th in the league last year.

The bottom line is that it wouldn’t take a huge year or a superstar effort from any of our receivers to make the Steelers a borderline top-10 passing team. The weapons are there at Pickett’s disposal. If he’s worked enough on his mental processing this year to see what’s there, he has the physical skills to take advantage of it and the result should be at least an average passing offense.

More broadly, you might hear about Freiermuth having a huge year this year or Pickens having a huge year this, or Allen Robinson or Calvin Austin. Maybe even all of them! When you look at it in context, though, it’s apparent that for Pickens to have 1,300 yards, or Austin to have 500 yards, or Freiermuth to have 1,000 yards, those yards need to be taken away from someone else — or would have to pass significantly more than they run the ball.

If the Steelers actually do run a relatively run-heavy offense, we’re probably not going to have any Pro Bowl receivers unless one or more of the other receivers has a really disappointing season.