There is death, there are taxes, and there is the Steelers drafting Pro Bowl-caliber receivers on the second day of the NFL Draft. George Pickens largely justified that assumption last season when he put up 52/801/4 despite playing in a mostly anemic offense and then spent the summer emoting on his teammates and balling out in the preseason.
Based on this confluence of factors, it was not unreasonable to expect Pickens to truly break out in 2023—or, at the very least, marshal the Steelers offense from its creative void into a place of relative respectability. The verdict so far? Well, hmm—it’s, uh…it’s getting figured out!
Pickens himself is off to a nice start: if you were to do something reckless like extrapolate three weeks’ worth of statistics to an entire season, you’d find that he’s on pace for 73/1,348/5 (somewhat relatedly, T.J. Watt is on pace for 34 sacks, which would be difficult to achieve on the easiest setting in the franchise mode in Madden, so take any full-season projections with a massive grain of salt).
1,300 yards is nothing to scoff at, but attaining that benchmark would require Pickens to average more than 18 yards per catch for the rest of the season. It isn’t impossible, but it does look like a bit of a stretch given the framework of the Steelers offense. Realistically, Pickens’ overall usage will need to see an appreciable increase. Keeping in line with that macro perspective: George Pickens should get the ball more! More often and in more multifarious capacities.
Designing, implementing, and orchestrating a successful NFL offense requires about a hundred different factors to function in concert. Bold coaches seeking to disrupt the established paradigm by leveraging advanced statistics and devising innovative schematics do promote the attainment of this symbiosis, but there is only one ball, so running a good offense can be as simple as ensuring that the best players have the ball in their hands as often as possible.
What makes someone like Justin Jefferson so valuable isn’t that he scores lots of touchdowns (and as any Vikings fan or weekly Any Time Touchdown—or ATTS— bettor will tell you [shakes fist at sky], he doesn’t) but that he gains vast quantities of yards and in doing so puts his team in position to score more points.
Keenan Allen, whose Chargers defeated Jefferson’s Vikings last Sunday, caught 18 passes for more than 200 yards in that game, and his team needed every bit of his production to eke out a close win.
Bengals WR Ja’marr Chase caught a dozen passes in a tight game against the Rams on Monday Night Football, helping to pick up the slack for teammate Tee Higgins (whose woeful performance made Kadarius Toney look like Antonio Gates; yes, he’s on my fantasy team, but that isn’t important) and QB Joe Burrow, who looked very visibly hobbled by a lingering calf injury.
WR Adam Thielen caught 11 passes for 145 yards and a touchdown against Seattle, in the year 2023, with Andy Dalton as his quarterback. Thielen and the Panthers lost, but he converted a handful of third downs and generally helped keep the game close until it wasn’t.
If you watched the Steelers play the Raiders, you saw Devante Adams feast on a buffet of short, intermediate and deep routes on his way to beating your fantasy team (and nearly coming back to beat the Steelers). His route chart looks like something a marine biologist would name after a Lovecraftian horror:
All told, 16 receivers across the NFL caught eight or more passes in Week 3. In most cases, these were not meaningless garbage time receptions: 10 of these players saw their teams win, and five of the remaining six saw their teams lose in close games. (The remaining player is Courtland Sutton, whose team got its teeth kicked into the Earth’s mantle and is collectively paying Russell Wilson and Sean Payton somewhere in the ballpark of $60 million a year for the next five years. Ha ha, ha ha ha, hahahahahahaha. Ha.) The teams who demonstrated a heavy reliance on their best receivers generally wrought attendant benefits.
Pickens was not among the receivers who saw extensive utilization, having caught four passes for 75 yards against the Raiders. His route chart looks like the signature on my driver’s license:
Of course, there is some faulty logic in comparing Pickens to multi-time All-Pros, and Pickens’ team, ya know, won their game, so splitting hairs about his lack of production falls within the having cake/eating it, too purview. Still, Pickens feels like the kind of player whose elevated usage rate would boost the offense’s production en masse—aiding the running game by moving defenders out of the box or tricking them into selling out during play action. The threat of him creates space for other receivers. He serves as a reliable safety valve for QB Kenny Pickett to prevent drives from stalling out and keeping the proceedings churning along; and advancing into areas of the field where scoring points becomes far likelier—and the math would seem to support the notion that Pickens is being under-utilized.
To this point in the season, Pickens’ average depth of target is around 10 yards (all but one of the routes on which he was targeted in Week 3 were 10 or more yards downfield), which communicates that he isn’t being targeted very often in designed screen plays. Pickens also has zero rushing attempts this season and he’s played just 10 total snaps from the slot. The Steelers simply aren’t exercising much creativity in his usage. Interestingly, though, Pickens is eighth in the league in total yards after catch (YAC), second in YAC per reception, and fifth in average YAC above expectation per NFL’s Next Gen Stats. In other words, once Pickens gets the ball in his hands, he tends to make things happen.
I don’t want to inundate this blog with a bunch of stats, and I certainly don’t mean to imply that the Steelers offense should get more gimmicky or that Kenny Pickett should feel compelled to force-feed Pickens the ball if doing so may result in interceptions, hospital passes, etc., but if screens and jet sweeps are going to be hallmarks of the offense, and George Pickens has a demonstrated penchant for creating additional yards once he gets his mitts around the ball, shouldn’t it behoove Matt Canada et al. to run plays designed to get Pickens the ball as much as possible?