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Steelers Vertex: Is George Pickens production in Week 4 a sign of things to come?

SB Nation logo SB Nation 10/5/2022 Dave.Schofield and Geoffrey Benedict
© Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 regular season is underway. In Week 4, rookie wide reciver George Pickens had his first 100-yard reciveing game after fellow rookie Kenny Pickett was throwing to him in the second half. Is this an indication of things to come? This is the subject for this week’s Steelers Vertex.

Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.

Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.

Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

In the three games leading up to Week 4, George Pickens had a total of five receptions for 65 yards. Having one catch in each of the first two games, his receptions grew in Week 3 as he had three catches for 39 yards. But the expectations after the preseason was for more production coming from the second-round draft pick.

In Week 4 with Mitch Trubisky at quarterback in the first half, Pickens saw four targets where he had two receptions for 31 yards with a long of 26 yards. But in the second half after Kenny Pickett came into the game, Pickens was still only targeted four times but had four receptions for 71 yards with a long of 27 yards. During the half, Pickens averaged 17.8 yards per reception.

So how much did the change at quarterback affect Pickens play? Let’s see what the film has to say.

The Film Line:

George Pickens looked great in training camp and in the preseason and was a favorite for NFL Rookie of the Year heading into the season. He has played at least 45 snaps every game of the season, and his stats before Week 4 were terrible. Catching 5 of 12 targets for 65 yards is not good at all, and way below the expectations his performance in training camp and the preseason brought.

All that changed in Week 4 with his first 100-yard game and a very nice 6 catches on 8 targets. Let’s look at what changed.

Steelers vs. Jets, 1st quarter, 13:04

George Pickens is the slot receiver to the bottom of the screen.

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The Steelers needed to get Pickens involved early and they tried. This was Mitch Trubisky’s second pass of the game. You can see the Jets are far more concerned about shorter routes and the middle of the field, and this defense is giving the Steelers 1-on-1 matchups on deep routes. If you watch the path both Pickens and the free safety take to the ball, you can see how leading Pickens up field lets the safety back into the play. It’s a good shot to take, but the placement of the ball allows the defender to close the window. Can’t nitpick this too much, it’s a 60-yard throw, it’s not going to be a pin-point accurate ball.

Steelers vs. Jets, 1st quarter, 3:25

George Pickens is the receiver farthest to the bottom of the screen.

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Nothing wrong with a quick route to the sideline to get some yards. You can see Trubisky is looking for Chase Claypool’s slant route from the slot, but doesn’t like it and switches to Pickens outside. There’s a window to hit Claypool there, but it isn’t a big one with the safety lurking and the timing would have to be on point. The throw is made after Pickens stops and turns, so the ball has to be thrown back a few yards because they’ve lost the opening created when the cornerback has to change direction.

Steelers vs. Jets, 2nd quarter, 11:52

George Pickens is the second receiver from the bottom of the screen.

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This is a nice two-level attack on the Jets defense, and you can see how Claypool (third from bottom) and Freiermuth’s (TE to top) routes open up the middle of the field while Diontae Johnson keeps the safety to the bottom from charging forward. A small fake for a route like the first clip had gets the safety to the top of the screen to take a step back and the middle of the field is wide open for this throw. It’s a nice play design against this defense, nice execution and a 26-yard gain. At the time, it was the second-longest pass to Pickens for the season.

Steelers vs. Jets, 2nd quarter, 3:16

George Pickens is the receiver farthest to the bottom of the screen.

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This is exactly the kind of route George Pickens was drafted for. You can see how isolated Pickens and his defender are. Opposing defenses have been giving the Steelers one-on-one matchups outside and protecting the middle of the field all season. Diontae Johnson has a one-on-one to the top of the screen as well. Yet this pass falls incomplete and does nothing to convince the defense to change their strategy. Let’s look at why.

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Good coverage by the defender here, but the throw is inside and Pickens is going to have to go through the defender to catch the ball. A catch here would have been played all week on the highlight films. It’s not how you set your receiver up for success.

George Pickens entered halftime with 2 catches on 4 targets for 31 yards. The Steelers were trying to get Pickens involved more in the offense, but they weren’t having much success.

At halftime the Steelers switched to Kenny Pickett at quarterback. Pickett didn’t target Pickens until the third quarter was almost over.

Steelers vs. Jets, 3rd quarter, 1:31

George Pickens is the receiver farthest to the bottom of the screen.

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The first throw from Pickett to Pickens is a quick out route. I’d like to see this ball come out a lot quicker. You can see how much separation Pickens has when he first turns to go outside.

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This is the point Pickett commits to the throw. Because of that timing the ball has to go farther outside and away from the defender, which means backwards. If the ball was already in the air here it’s a better ball and they wouldn’t have to give ground to have a chance to beat the defender.

That’s the same kind of thing we see with Trubisky, but this is Kenny’s first pass to George Pickens. I talked about building chemistry in the offense with Trubisky, and it never materialized. Pickett has shown anticipation and good rhythm passing in camp and in preseason, so I’m hopeful we’ll see improvement.

Steelers vs. Jets, 3rd quarter, 0:49

George Pickens is the receiver farthest to the bottom of the screen.

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The Jets are still jamming the box and giving the Steelers one-on-one matchups on the outside. Kenny Pickett throws this one to George Pickens for a first down. Notice the same physical defense driving Pickens to the sideline that we saw earlier.

Now check out the placement on this ball.

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Instead of having to go through the defender to make the catch, this ball takes Pickens away from the defender and he just has to adjust to the ball here. The placement is good on this ball, and the defender can’t get to it. The throw from Pickett is much better than Trubisky’s on similar, but not identical, situations.

Steelers vs. Jets, 4th quarter, 4:57

George Pickens is the slot receiver to the top of the screen.

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One of the points I made on the Know Your Enemy podcast was that George Pickens isn’t a separation based receiver, that he is a receiver who beats tight coverage and not a guy who shakes defenders. I wanted to see the Steelers throw Pickens the ball more in one-on-one situations. Kenny Pickett did just that. The second the defender turns his back to the quarterback Pickett puts the ball in the air away from the defender and trusts George Pickens to come down with it.

Steelers vs. Jets, 4th quarter, 0:16

George Pickens is the receiver farthest to the top of the screen.

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Pickens last reception put him over 100 yards, but you can see the Jets are willing to give up the yards and are more concerned with funneling the play to the middle of the field to make the Steelers burn their final time out. Pickett does a good job with the placement and Pickett makes the first defender miss to set the Steelers up for a better chance on the hail mary to end the game.

Kenny Pickett did have one pass to George Pickens that wasn’t caught, but it was negated by a penalty and the Steelers rookie tandem end their first half of football together at 4/4 for 71 yards.

The Point:

George Pickens was the same player in the second half of Week 4 that he had been the previous 3.5 games. The difference was he had a quarterback that has better placement on his passes. Both of Trubisky’s deeper outside passes to George Pickens were thrown where the defender had a much better shot at the ball. Kenny Pickett put the ball in a better spot, giving Pickens a much better shot at the catch.

It’s only one half of football, and again, the last catch comes with the caveat of end of game “prevent” defense not really trying to take it away, but the initial results give real hope that George Pickens could still have the kind of rookie season Steelers fans were hoping for.

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