From the moment the Pittsburgh Steelers made Kenny Pickett the first quarterback off the board in last April’s NFL draft, it was just a matter of time before he became the team’s starting quarterback.
His second-half performance against the New York Jets last Sunday pushed many – including coach Mike Tomlin – to see that now is the right time. Pickett gets his first career start Sunday against the Buffalo Bills.
The Steelers offense with Mitch Trubisky has been subpar in 3 ½ games, and Pickett showed enough promise in his one half of play to make a change at quarterback a good call. But what else needs to change about the Pittsburgh offense?
On the most basic level: yards and points. The Steelers are last in the AFC in passing yards, and Trubisky led them to four offensive touchdowns in 14 quarters of work before being pulled on Sunday. Pittsburgh is 1-3 and last in the AFC North, and is desperately in need of a spark.
Those facts make it easy to support the QB move. But there’s more to this than just raw production.
Two weeks ago, I wrote a deep dive on Trubisky’s first two games of the season, and concluded it this way: “If Trubisky and (offensive coordinator Matt) Canada can’t commit to a bolder game plan, and find at least the occasional risk-taking success down the field, the Steelers will be taking their shots with Kenny Pickett sooner rather than later.”
Committing to a bolder game plan, finding comfort with more risk-taking down the field – those thoughts will be top of mind when I watch Pittsburgh’s offense on Sunday at Buffalo.
Those same thoughts also led me to watch back the Jets game to see if Canada’s play-calling and Pickett’s decision-making give indications that it would be different.
Here’s what I noticed:
In the first half with Trubisky, seven of the Steelers’ first eight first-and-10 calls were runs. Leaning into the run game was always going to be the thing with Trubisky at quarterback. But it’s a mindset that can make it easy to cross the line into conservative and predictable, where instead of helping the quarterback, it actually hinders his chances for success when he has to throw.
Consider the fact that the Steelers converted only 1 of 6 third-down chances in the first half against New York. The correlation between first down run, run, run, and punt, punt, punt on fourth down is hard to overlook.
The second half brought Pickett under center, with slight changes to first-down variety, and major change to third-down success. Pickett was allowed to take a deep shot on an early third-quarter first-and-10. Shortly thereafter he rolled to his left on first down, then threw to his right off another play-action fake. The addition of a little more “first-down unknown” led to a lot more “third-down winning.” The Steelers converted 5 of 6 third-down situations in the second half, which not so coincidentally led to their only two touchdowns of the game.
Those realities demonstrate that even though a quarterback change feels right, an equally important change needs to happen within the play sheet. Committing to that sort of play-calling range Pickett benefited from will need to be part of this if the switch of quarterbacks is going to bear fruit.
There is a part of this switch Pickett can own, separate from how Matt Canada called the game for Mitch Trubisky, and central to how the rookie saw the field and pulled the trigger: Twice in the second half against the Jets, Pickett recognized man coverage on fellow rookie George Pickens and took advantage by taking shots.
He saw a corner with his head turned to Pickens down the left sideline and fired a back-shoulder fade for a first down. In the fourth quarter he saw Pickens in the same situation, and this time lofted a pass to him. That set up his signature play. On third-and-8 with a defensive lineman in his face, he delivered a strike to Pat Freiermuth down the seam, and got up smiling. I saw a willingness to cut the ball loose, to try and fit it in there, that the offense needs more of.
Pickett appeared to be more aggressive by nature than Trubisky in the one half we’ve seen him play, and I’d love to see play-calling that syncs up with that on Sunday. It’d be foolish to treat him like Justin Herbert and ask him to throw it 45 times. But throwing more often – especially on early downs – and trusting him to do so to more parts of the field, is the only way this offense will take a step forward.