NFL News & Analysis

Examining Kenny Pickett's fit within the Pittsburgh Steelers offense

Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) participates in drills during Rookie Minicamp at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

After Ben Roethlisberger‘s retirement, the Pittsburgh Steelers stayed local for their next quarterback by selecting Pitt’s Kenny Pickett with the 20th overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. Pickett was the only quarterback selected in the first round after posting a 92.1 passing grade in 2021 — the second-highest in the FBS. 

Pickett will compete with Mitchell Trubisky for the starting job after the Steelers signed the former Chicago Bears and Buffalo Bills QB to a two-year contract. Given the level of competition and the draft capital spent, Pickett has the best chance to start among 2022 rookie quarterbacks.

How does the former Pitt Panther mesh with the Steelers' offense?

The Steelers offense, headed by offensive coordinator Matt Canada, operates a run-heavy attack that is heavily reliant on RPOs. Last season, Rothlisberger registered 81 dropbacks on RPOs, the third-most in the NFL behind Tua Tagovailoa and Patrick Mahomes. Pickett didn’t run many RPOs in Pitt’s offense, registering just 33 RPO dropbacks. However, he did complete 27 of 31 passes in the play style with a 96.1% adjusted completion percentage. 

The Steelers' run-heavy approach should take some pressure off the young quarterback early on. Najee Harris logged 319 attempts last season — the third-most in the NFL. He wasn’t particularly efficient or explosive with his carries, averaging 3.9 yards per carry and 2.96 yards per carry after contact while just 16.4% of his carries were deemed breakaway runs (over 15 yards). That being said, Pittsburgh is committed to running the football, as the team signed guard James Daniels (71.8 run-blocking grade) and center Mason Cole (75.2 run-blocking grade). 

The Steelers needed to upgrade their offensive line after ranking 26th in run-blocking and 15th in pass-blocking grade last season. Pickett will not have the 3.19 seconds to throw he had in college: That figure would’ve ranked first among quarterbacks with at least 100 dropbacks last year — narrowly edging out Jalen Hurts (3.18). However, the Steelers did a solid job protecting the aging Rothlisberger last season, allowing 142 pressures — the sixth-fewest in the league.

The improved offensive line should help the young Pickett, but he needs to do a better job getting rid of the football. The Pitt quarterback was personally responsible for 34 pressures in 2021, tying Malik Willis for the most in the draft class. Pickett struggled under pressure last season, posting a 60.0 passing grade (34th among quarterbacks with at least 25 dropbacks) and committing eight turnover-worthy plays. 

Year Passing Grade Clean pocket Under Pressure TWP%
2018 60.2 72.1 40.6 4.00%
2019 75.8 83.4 59.2 3.40%
2020 67 78.2 41 3.30%
2021 92.1 94.1 60 2.80%

Pickett’s breakout 2021 season at Pitt was aided by talent on the outside, specifically wide receiver Jordan Addison. The now USC Trojan ranked 11th in the country in receiving grade (88.6), racking up 100 receptions for 1,593 yards. He posted 655 yards after the catch, the fifth-most in the FBS. 

While moving on from a player like Addison will be an adjustment, Pickett steps into an offense boiling with young talent. The team's No. 1 WR, Diontae Johnson, caught 112 balls for a team-high 1,195 yards last season, leading to an above-average 73.8 receiving grade. Chase Claypool had some ups and downs in his second season, dropping seven passes but also hauling in 17 contested catches — the sixth-most in the NFL. Rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth logged a 75.2 receiving grade — the eighth highest among tight ends with at least 25 targets. He also scored seven touchdowns (sixth) and caught 10 contested catches (seventh). 

Player Receiving Grade YPRR ADOT Contested Catch % YAC/REC
Pat Freiermuth 75.2 1.26 5.6 58.80% 4.3
Diontae Johnson 73.8 1.83 9 39.10% 4.8
Chase Claypool 68.4 1.67 12 41.50% 5.2

The Steelers added receiving talent in the draft as well, bringing in Georgia receiver George Pickens in the second round and Memphis speedster Calvin Austin in the fourth. Pickens missed most of 2021 with a torn ACL but flashed his potential in 2019 and 2020. His 88.0 receiving grade as a freshman in 2019 ranked 18th in the FBS. For reference, Justin Jefferson ranked 21st. According to the 2022 PFF Draft Guide, Pickens has some of the best ball skills and was considered the top receiver in the class after his freshman year. If he can stay on the field, the former Bulldog will be a difference-maker in the Steelers’ aerial attack. 

Meanwhile, Austin has speed to burn, as he averaged 7.2 yards after catch per reception at Memphis last season and ran a blazing 4.32-second 40-yard dash at the 2022 NFL Combine. He stole the show in Indianapolis, posting top-three figures in the broad jump (11-foot-3) and vertical (39 inches) as well. There are legitimate size concerns, as Austin barely scratches 5-foot-8, but he’s a big play waiting to happen. 

There is enough talent around Pickett for the rookie to succeed as soon as he steps on the field. Whether he can take advantage of that talent, specifically down the field, remains to be seen. Pickett posted a 9.7-yard average depth of target, which ranked well behind other quarterbacks in this class, including Sam Howell (11.7), Willis (11.2) and Desmond Ridder (10.6). He ranked sixth in the class with a 94.7 passing grade on deep passes (20-plus yards down the field) while committing nine turnover-worthy plays on these throws, tying Florida International’s Max Bortenschlager for the most in the class. 

However, Pickett was an exceptional intermediate (10-19 yards) and short (0-9 yards) passer, posting a 93.7 grade on intermediate throws (highest in the class) and an 87.0 grade on short throws (second highest). He committed just four turnover-worthy plays on these throws despite 313 combined attempts. This fits perfectly with Pittsburgh’s offensive approach: 71.5% of Roethlisberger’s throws last season went to the intermediate or short portions of the field. While some of that could be credited to Roethlisberger’s aging arm, backup Mason Rudolph threw 41 of his 53 attempts to those two sections of the field, as well.

Pickett doesn’t run the ball very often (28 attempts in 2021), but that shouldn’t matter within Pittsburgh’s offense, as the two Steelers quarterbacks carried the ball a combined 21 times last season. Pickett does have some escapability at his disposal, as evidenced by his 14 runs of 10-plus yards, including this 58-yard touchdown run in the ACC Championship Game against Wake Forest.

We don't know when Pickett will see the field, but his ability to seamlessly transition into the Steelers' offense should enable him to start sooner rather than later. 

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