How the Steelers have finally freed George Pickens in their passing game

As a coach, it’s rarely good when you become a meme.

Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada probably hates the South Park movie with the heat of a thousand suns with all the “Blame Canada” stuff you see out there, but it’s not as if Canada has much with which to counter. Pittsburgh’s offense has been a study in reduction over the last few seasons in the transition from Ben Roethlisberger to Kenny Pickett. They’re currently 26th in Offensive DVOA — 24th in Passing DVOA, and 28th in Rushing DVOA. Their passing EPA of -31.73 ranks 23rd, and their rushing EPA per attempt of -0.17 ranks 29th.

Nov 20, 2022; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada makes his way to the field before the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Acrisure Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

But for all the bashing of Canada and his concepts, the Steelers have done something over the last couple weeks that has finally turned receiver George Pickens into the matchup nightmare he’s designed to be. Pickens, the 2022 second-round pick out of Georgia, has all the attributes you want in a receiver — size, speed, separation ability, the desire and skill set to win contested catches, and outstanding hands. Both Pickens and Steelers fans have been frustrated by his usage in Canada’s offense at times, but things are finally turning around.

Greg Cosell and Doug Farrar got into the details in this week’s “Xs and Os.”

What’s different now? Pickens was good for four explosive plays in the Steelers’ first four games, and seven in their last two, against the Baltimore Ravens and the Los Angeles Rams. As Greg detailed, what Canada and the Steelers are doing now is they’re using Pickens as an iso receiver to one side in spread alignments that take away bracket coverage. Pickens is winning on deep fades and other boundary throws in which he’s able to negate any outside leverage advantage for the cornerback, and Canada is dialing up plays in which the Steelers are running four-strong to one side (four potential targets), and Pickens as the sole target to the other.

When that sets up a fade matchup against a single cornerback, the single cornerback will generally be unhappy with the result. Ahkello Witherspoon of the Rams got the wrong end of it last Sunday… and watch how the Steelers used running back Najee Harris in motion to the right flat.

Ravens cornerback Ronald Darby got Mossed by Pickens to the other side in Week 5. This was a different utilization of personnel with running back Jaylen Warren as the outside receiver to the four-strong side, and receiver Calvin Austin running motion to the left flat from the right side inline.

That motion helps Pickett both with coverage identification, and with spacing of receivers. As he recently intimated, Pickett is well aware of this.

“Yeah, it’s big. You know, shifts and motions are going to help ID. Some defenses do some maze looks where they give you a look that looks
like man and then they pop into zone or vice versa. So, in this day and age with the NFL, teams are doing some good things that help
you identify man or zone. Sometimes they throw some curveballs in there that kind of mess with you a little bit. But it all depends on the
game plan.”

The Steelers have used pre-snap motion on just 91 dropbacks, which ranks 24th in the NFL. So. maybe that should be the next step in Canada’s offensive evolution. Baby steps, but things are a bit better with the Steelers’ passing game, and there was nowhere to go but up.

You can watch this week’s “Xs and Os,” detailing Week 8’s biggest NFL matchups (including Steelers-Jaguars), right here:

You can also listen and subscribe to the “Xs and Os” podcast on Spotify…

…and on Apple Podcasts.

Story originally appeared on Touchdown Wire