Steelers QB Kenny Pickett flashed promise in his rookie season, but there's still room to grow

2K4PDCE Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. 2nd Oct, 2022. October 2nd, 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) celebrates after scoring his first NFL touchdown during Pittsburgh Steelers vs New York Jets in Pittsburgh, PA at Acrisure Stadium. Jake Mysliwczyk/BMR (Credit Image: © Jake Mysliwczyk/BMR via ZUMA Press Wire)

• The good: Coming out of college, one of Pickett’s calling cards was his natural ability to make plays after the play had broken down, which carried over to his rookie season.

• The Bad: The Steelers quarterback had a consistent problem of moving too quickly and scrambling from clean pockets instead of just taking what the defense gave him.

• Outlook for 2023: We know how good he can be when the play breaks down — he just needs to take (and make) the layups given to him instead of constantly relying on playing hero ball.

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes


The Pittsburgh Steelers have long been a model of consistency in the NFL, with few other teams able to claim the same kind of stability and sustained success during the Super Bowl era. 

Over the last 54 years, the Steelers have had three head coaches. Ownership hasn't changed hands since the franchise's founding in 1933. The team has played in eight Super Bowls, winning six, including four in a six-year span during the 1970s. They have both played and hosted more conference championship games than any other team in the NFL. And for the best part of the last two decades, they were led by one quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, who earned PFF passing grades above 70.0 in 12 of his 16 years during the PFF era.

Things got unusually rocky in Pittsburgh during the years leading up to Roethlisberger's retirement, leaving the Steelers in a very unfamiliar spot and in need of their next franchise quarterback. 

The 2022 NFL Draft was far from the ideal time for an NFL team to be finding its next franchise signal-caller — it was notably one of the weakest quarterback classes in recent memory, with the top prospects at the position all falling outside the top 25 players on PFF's big board.

In the end, just one quarterback was selected in the first round: Kenny Pickett from the University of Pittsburgh, whom the Steelers picked at No. 20 overall.

It was the first time the Steelers drafted a quarterback in the first round since Ben Roethlisberger in 2004, and for Pickett, it meant he wouldn’t have to move anywhere. It was nearly a perfect match.

Pickett’s first NFL action came in Week 4 when then-starter, Mitch Trubisky, was benched at halftime. The team never looked back, starting Pickett every single game over the rest of the season, save for one when he was sidelined due to injury.

Overall, the season was a mixed bag of results, with your typical rookie moments followed by some moments that have Steelers fans excited for the future. There were some early growing pains, but he clearly began to pick it up in the second half of the season, posting some eye-popping numbers:

Weeks 4-11 Weeks 12-18
Passing grade (rank) 58.7 (31st) 88.9 (1st)
Big-time throw % (rank) 2.7% (27th) 6.9% (2nd)
Turnover-worthy play % (rank) 3.3% (t-25th) 1.1% (1st)

The Good

Coming out of college, one of Pickett’s calling cards was his natural ability to make plays after the play had broken down, and that carried over to his rookie season.

Kenny Pickett: PFF passing grade and rank in different situations (rank among QBs who dropped back 50 or more times)
Situation PFF passing grade Rank
Under pressure 69.2 3rd of 44
Outside the pocket 72.6 3rd of 30
Against the blitz 69.9 18th of 42
Third and fourth down 72.5 12th of 40

After Week 4, his first NFL game, Pickett's passing grade on “scramble drills” was 91.9, the highest grade of any quarterback in the NFL during that time. The play was never over in his mind, and he did a great job of keeping his eyes up, always looking for his receivers.

 

Another one of Pickett’s strengths out of college was his accuracy in terms of knowing how to “throw receivers open” in tight-window situations. And this was another strength that translated well to the NFL game.

The Bad

As with most rookie signal-callers, it wasn’t all roses for Kenny Pickett, and there were some obvious struggles with the transition from college to the NFL.

As I mentioned earlier, one of his biggest strengths in college was his ability to never let a play die, but in the NFL, sometimes it’s better just to take the layups.

The Steelers quarterback had a consistent problem of moving too quickly and scrambling from clean pockets instead of just taking what the defense gave him.

In the play below, the Steelers were down by six in the fourth quarter and in a two-minute drill. Pickett knew the defense was playing deep and therefore allowing everything underneath.

One of the worst things a signal-caller can do in a two-minute drill is take a sack, and that’s exactly what happened here. He needed to just take the checkdown for six or seven yards or throw it away to save some time. Instead, he left a clean pocket and scrambled right into a sack.

The next play shows one of Pickett’s biggest issues — leaving a clean pocket before the play develops. Here, the Steelers offensive line picked this five-man pressure up perfectly. He had plenty of time to stand in the pocket, work through his progressions and find an open receiver. Instead, he scrambled, missing two open receivers, but he ultimately did a good job of finding an open man for what would have been a first down had the receiver held on to the ball. 

One of the biggest areas Pickett needed to improve on when making the jump to the NFL was his processing speed and anticipation. In his final season at Pitt, his 3.2-second average time to throw was the 10th-highest in all of college football. That was never going to work in the NFL, and while it got slightly better (3.0 seconds flat from Week 4 to Week 18), it still stands out as an area for improvement.

The play below shows how a lack of anticipation can lead to missed opportunities. Here, the Steelers drew up double sluggos (slant-and-go) to the field, and things couldn't have gone much better, as both defensive backs bit on the slant, theoretically leaving Pickett with his choice of who he wanted to target for a potentially huge gain.

But you can see from the end-zone angle that he moved off this concept before it even had a chance to develop. He then scrambles and eventually has to throw it away.

Next up, the Steelers drew up a mesh concept in the red zone, which should have been a very easy read-and-completion. The second he saw the Bengals linebacker No. 55 leave his zone to carry the underneath crosser, he needed to target the sit route from Pat Freiermuth. You can see Freiermuth looking back at him, waiting for him, but Pickett just hesitated too long and Freiermuth continued to drift, causing a miscommunication between the two — something that could have been avoided if the ball was out on time.

The game-winning touchdown play against the Ravens below perfectly sums up the Kenny Pickett experience. He took the snap and instantly drifted left, giving his left tackle no chance to block for him. Had he stayed in the pocket, he would have seen both outside wide receivers win on their routes, creating a much easier throw. Instead, he had to scramble and make an incredible throw into a really tight window for a touchdown.

Outlook for 2023

The Pittsburgh Steelers will enter 2023 with a similar group of skill players led by Diontae Johnson, Pat Freiermuth and Najee Harris. The significant changes they made in the offseason occurred along the offensive line. They brought in Isaac Seumalo in free agency and drafted Broderick Jones in the first round to bolster the left side of the line.

If Pickett and the Steelers offense want to make the jump, it will come down to him playing with more anticipation in the pocket. He clearly has a good rapport with his receivers, and now it’s about trusting that offensive line to give him the time he needs to make throws on schedule.

We know how good he can be when the play breaks down — he just needs to take (and make) the layups given to him instead of constantly relying on playing hero ball.

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