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Steelers’ offensive pulse: Revived

Things are feeling different after the Steelers’ undefeated preseason.

George Pickens #14 of the Pittsburgh Steelers leaps for a reception over Natrone Brooks #35 of the Atlanta Falcons during the first quarter of a preseason game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on August 24, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia. Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

If you took the pulse of the Steelers offense early this offseason, the results were certainly mixed. The overall feeling, from fans and pundits alike, leaned more towards that it was faint, at best. The refrains were common. You probably heard them if you perused NFL sources prior to training camp.

It always started with Kenny Pickett, whose most frequent point of contention was that his touchdown percentage was outright lousy, even by rookie standards. 7 touchdowns in 12 starts – the worst among all starting QBs. His counting stats, overall, were unimpressive. Just a tad over 2404 passing yards and a 51.5QBR rating. In a pass heavy league, it brought doubts Kenny’s way.

Another frequent criticism was lobbed, somewhat surprisingly, at George Pickens. The point seemed to be that even though he made highlight reel, contested catches, he simply was a throw it up, inefficient go-route guy, not a good route runner nor a complete wide receiver. He’s overrated, they implied. Nice, but a one-trick pony.

And, of course, there were worries about Najee Harris. They called him a plodder who lacked explosiveness. This was bore out by his 3.8 rushing average and long of only 36 yards in 2022, and 37 yards over two seasons.

Well, through two preseason games the offense certainly has been injected with adrenaline. The media is catching up to what many Steelers fans already thought, as well as a few experts. The problem with a lot of offseason buzz is that it is driven by the vocal and opinionated fantasy community. Their coverage dominates the offseason, from the Sirius/XM radio channel to the mega-popular Rotoworld. There seemed to be a more hopeful opinion from actual scouting types and analysts not in the fantasy world.

Fantasy is obviously stat driven, and their opinions derive from that point of view instead of an NFL scouting perspective.

Watching Kenny Pickett last season take the field in his early games always showed promise, even with the rookie mistakes. Even behind a line that seemed to break down on every pass play, he didn’t have that chicken-with-its-head-cutoff stuff you saw from Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges. You saw him move well, and make many great throws on the move that you didn’t ever see from the aforementioned.

He just looked competent and in charge. Never over his head. You never got that with Rudolph and Hodges, to use recent Steelers examples of first time QBs.

His progression was evident, from those not just interested in his stat sheet after the game. There were the two comeback, game winning drives against the Ravens in Baltimore (!) and the Raiders, as well as an almost engineered game winning drive in Miami against the Dolphins. The impressive drive was almost complete, but he threw it just a tad off on the run and it was intercepted.

Yes, losing stinks. But you can’t tell me you weren’t impressed by the rookie being so close to victory on the road against that quality team. It was his football play that impressed, not the statistics, which were solid down the stretch even if they weren’t gaudy.

Now, this preseason, Pickett continues to develop. He’s simply been impressive.

George Pickens has also started to shine, and is looking like a connection that Pickett will rely on for many years, maybe like that Burrow guy has with Jamarr Chase. With a now-veteran quarterback throwing his way, as well as better pass protection, he might not have to catch as many toss ups, as well as being able to show off his route running, which looks improved. By the way, George Pickens is going 80th in drafts now. Fantasy tip: Draft him every time at that cost!

Najee Harris has been solid, but this one’s a little tricky because Jaylen Warren continues to shine. But, in the overall Steelers offense outlook, this is all good news. Warren has shown the breakaway ability that Najee definitely lacks. But, remember, last season Harris played through a metal plate in his shoe, a rookie quaeterback, and an often abysmal offensive line.

Which leads to the obvious upgrade that many didn’t factor enough into the play of Pickett, Pickens, and Harris. The offensive line is the engine. When that breaks down, it all breaks down. Your rookie QB is running for his life, Pickens has to track down those balls thrown on the run, and Harris is getting hit before he often had a chance. The additions all seem to have hit, and the cohesiveness, at least shown so far, is levels above recent years.

To get Steelers fans more excited, those dire early forecasts didn’t even factor in the contributions of Calvin Austin and Jaylen Warren. Without the offensive line bogging the offense down this season, this offense might even begin to be special.