How the Steelers created a much-needed deep passing game in the 2022 NFL draft

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·11 min read
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The 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers finished their season with a 9-7-1 regular-season record, and a wild-card playoff loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. They accomplished this without much of a deep passing game in Ben Roethlisberger’s final season, and by preventing explosive plays far more than they created them. Per Pro Football Focus, Big Ben completed just 21 of 71 passes of 20 or more air yards for 686 yards, six touchdowns, and three interceptions. Those 21 deep completions ranked 19th in the NFL; Matthew Stafford led the league with 39 deep completions for 1,544 yards, 10 touchdowns, and eight interceptions.

Pittsburgh’s screen-heavy “RPO in a Can” offense was consistent at times, but it didn’t really scare defenses, and that extended to the receivers. Chase Claypool led the team with nine deep receptions, Diontae Johnson had eight, and James Washington had five. That was it, as far as Roethlisberger’s targets were concerned. (If you’re doing the math here, Mason Rudolph was also responsible for one deep completion on three attempts).

With their post-Ben quarterback situation very much up in the air, and without a defined alpha dog receiver, things had to change in the Steel City. Unless you have a historically great defense and a truly transcendent running game, your chances of winning more than you lose without a quarterback who can set defenses on their heels in today’s NFL is very, very slim.

So, the Steelers took Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett with the 20th overall pick in the first round, Georgia receiver George Pickens with the 52nd overall pick in the second round, and Memphis receiver Calvin Austin III with the 138th overall pick in the fourth round.

Pickett was considered by many to be the best in a bad quarterback class. Pickens missed all but four games in his 2021 season due to injury, and Austin was debited due to size concerns. This would seem like the Steelers are adding to an island of misfit toys, but when you look at the players and watch the tape, there’s a way in which the Steelers just redefined their explosive-play passing game in just three picks.

“Right now, people want to score points, and everybody is looking to have those big splash plays,” offensive coordinator Matt Canada said during the draft, when asked about the value of receivers overall. “I think that’s what happening. You’re seeing that in free agency, you’re seeing that in trades, and you’re seeing that in the draft, its going quick. There’s a lot of talent out there, you look at college football, its spread out there’s more wideouts playing and that’s what’s happening, so we see all of that. We see that trickling up to us.”

As to the ability to affect defenses with three or more receivers on the field, Canada pointed to that as a specific point of emphasis in this draft.

“I think it’s showing across the league,” he said. “You just have one, things roll that way. Coverage tilts that way. Having three guys that go down the field and we feel positive about what we got at tight end too with Pat and Gentry both. They can add to our versatility and ability to make them go the entire field both horizontally and vertical.”

As for Pickett, there are all sorts of reasons it’s a good fit, and it’s not just that he was one building over for five years. Mark Whipple, Pickett’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Pitt, got that job in 2019 — Canada had it in 2016 — and Whipple was also Ben Roethlisberger’s first quarterbacks coach with the Steelers from 2004-2006. The Canada and Whipple offenses have ties together, which should assist Pickett in the ramp-up to NFL quarterback.

“Yeah, we talk about it all the time,” outgoing general manager Kevin Colbert said of the fit with Pickett. “He’s coming from a pro system and sometimes it’s an easier transition. It doesn’t mean the player is coming out of it, can’t make that transition. It may take a little bit longer. And you’ve got to be careful as to not over-evaluate a player because he’s coming from a familiar system.

“But I think Kenny, again, coming out, that’ll help him. Going to the Senior Bowl helped him. Again, that was another great week where we got to see the top guys all in the same venue. It’ll be familiar for him, but again, he’s going to go from being a great college player to hopefully a great NFL player.”

So, how does all that translate into the explosive plays the Steelers needed (and really weren’t getting) in 2021? As always, the tape tells the truth.

Kenny Pickett and the deep ball

(Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports)

Pickett’s Kirk Cousins/Matt Hasselbeck skill set may have you thinking that he’s more of a distributor than a creator of explosive plays, but the tape and stats tell another tale. In 2021, Pickett completed 38 of 74 passes of 20 or more air yards for 1,299 yards, 17 touchdowns, and five interceptions. Only Western Kentucky’s Bailey Zappe and Wake Forest’s Sam Hartman had more deep completions in the NCAA last season, Pickett ranked fifth in the NCAA in deep passing yards, and he tied with Zappe for fourth in the NCAA in deep touchdowns. A full 16% of Pickett’s passing attempts in his breakout season went for 20 or more air yards. That’s more than an occasional flash; that’s a defining offensive architecture.

Pickett can create those explosive plays with anticipation, as he showed on this 25-yard touchdown against Syracuse…

This 32-yard touchdown against North Carolina shows Pickett’s ball placement from the pocket; you can’t do it much better than this.

Pickett can be a little arm-short rolling out and throwing deep when his mechanics aren’t all the way there, but that’s a coaching thing that can be corrected over time.

“Going back to when I was getting recruited, it’s just the diversity of it,” Pickett said of Canada’s Steelers offense after he was drafted into it. “He has the quarterback in the pocket, he gets the guys on the move. So, I feel that’s kind of underrated in my game. I feel I do a really good job of getting outside the pocket and making plays, and he does that with his play design naturally.

“So, I feel like I do all the great things that he wants, and that’s why he recruited me for his offense, that’s why I feel like I’m in Pittsburgh now again. I can’t wait to get back into it.”

The deep ball will certainly be a big part of what Pickett is diving into from here on out.

George Pickens: The underrated playmaker

(Syndication: The Indianapolis Star)

Pickens suffered a torn ACL in the spring of 2021, coming back for the Bulldogs’ November 2 game against Georgia Tech, and for Georgia’s run to a national championship against Alabama, Michigan, and Alabama again. He had just five receptions in the 2021 season, but he averaged 21.7 yards per catch, and he was clowning some very good defensive backs when he was on the field. If you want a guy who can just demolish press coverage with a simple slant, Pickens can do that very well — here also is where his size (6-foot-3, 195 pounds) comes into play. He knows how to use his dimensions to make things tough for defenders.

Pickens can also go up and get the deep ball with aggressiveness and an impressive catch radius; even if his quarterback doesn’t have a great deep arm, Pickens will turn 50/50 balls into at least 60/40 odds.

And if you do want an alpha play demeanor from your receiver, Pickens checks the box. This should fit with the Steelers’ overall philosophy. (As opposed to this, Mr. Claypool).

The time missed made Pickens less of a sure thing coming into this draft, but the Steelers appreciated how he fought to get back on the field for that championship run.

“I think that the one intangible that you can give him a lot of credit for is coming back and playing,” Canada said of Pickens. “…Eight and a half plus or something from injury, to coming back and playing. He didn’t have a huge role, but he came back and played late, had some significant plays, and fought to get back out there and play. To me, that’s a great show of his character right there. He could have easily said, ‘Hey, I’m going to get healthy and wait.’ We’ve all seen those things happen.

“They had a great team, they had an exceptional season, but I think that shows a lot about him right there. On the field, you’ve seen it, or you will see it if you go study him on tape. He can go down the field. He makes plays. He goes up for the football. We’re impressed with his hands. All those things you like about a wideout. I think for me sitting here, that’s said a lot about his character. He wanted to be a part of that team, he wanted to be a part of that championship, and he fought to come back. You guys have been following the draft here for two days, they had a lot of guys come off the board and a lot of great players. I think that’s an impressive character for him.”

All well and good, but the tangible here is that Pickens can stretch the field outside, inside, and with whatever route concept you’d prefer.

Calvin Austin III: Too small? So what?

(AP Photo/John Amis)

Kevin Colbert has been with the Steelers since 2000, moving up from director of football operations to general manager to Vice President/general manager. During that time, Colbert has had a pretty good track record in the middle rounds with smaller receivers from relatively smaller schools who could win outside despite their supposedly “slot-only” size.

It’s not yet known whether Austin could be another Antonio Brown or Emmanuel Sanders, but it’s worth considering that in 2021, Austin lined up outside 90% of the time — sat 5-foot-8 and 170 pounds. Both Brown and Sanders were a couple inches taller and a few pounds heavier, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that the Steelers have replicated the disastrous Dri Archer pick here. The Steelers took Archer out of Kent State in the third round of the 2014 draft, and at 5-foot-8 and 173 pounds, Archer just didn’t have the temerity to deal with much bigger NFL defenders coming right for his head.

(It does not help my case that Archer is one of the athletic comparisons for Austin in the MockDraftable.com database. Ouch).

Therefore, I will have to buttress my argument that Austin can be more than a gadget guy and return man with actual tape. If you want a guy this size winning outside, he’d better have the moves to take bigger cornerbacks on some very sad journeys. This stanky-leg move for a touchdown against Tulsa is just filthy.

And Austin should fit well in the more constrained aspects of Canada’s offense; he can take a simple swing pass or slant, and make things happen after the catch with both straight-line speed and elusiveness once he has the ball.

“Just watching the draft too, this whole process, it’s music to my ears,” Austin said last week about the preconceptions that he can’t win outside. “I come out and laugh anytime I see someone say it or mention it. That’s always the thing. That’s all I’ve been hearing, so it just gives me the extra drive to continue to work hard. I’ve been built off work. All I do is work, so it’s not going to be anything drastic. I was going to work anyway, but it does add a little more juice.”

Should the Steelers put Austin inside more often than not? Probably. Is Austin limited to just that? Absolutely not.

Building a new passing game from scratch.

(Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)

It’s interesting that one of the NFL’s marquee franchises did a lot in the draft to redefine their offense, and it’s not seen by the vast majority as such. Perhaps it’s that people are underwhelmed by Pickett, or they didn’t see enough of Pickens, or they’re looking at Austin and seeing to little (literally). And there are no guarantees that this will work. There’s no guarantee that Pickett will even beat out Mitch Trubisky or Mason Rudolph for the starting job by Week 1; everyone’s referring to it as a competition at this point.

But Pickett does have the traits to expand the Steelers’ passing game back to where it needs to be, and both Pickens and Austin, properly deployed, can help a lot. We need to see it (or not) on the field before we believe (or don’t), but the Steelers did their part in the 2022 NFL draft to at least give that formerly minimalist offense a necessary degree of swag.

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