Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett’s rookie season has taken a turn for the better as of late with his performance against the Baltimore Ravens being his most impressive outing to date.
Sure, the numbers weren’t gaudy: 15-27 for 168 yards and a touchdown, but there were some legitimate big-time throws that he put on tape that helped spotlight some of the areas that he’s showing some gradual improvement in.
Most importantly, Pickett came through when the Steelers needed him most, with the game in the balance, the playoffs on the line and delivered a game-winning drive for the second-consecutive week.
Pickett took a significant step forward this week as a playmaker out of structure and made some ridiculous highlight-worthy plays down the stretch to keep the team alive.
If you watched Pickett in college and early on through his NFL career, you know that he’s seemingly much more comfortable playing out of structure than he is from operating within the pocket. This play style is one of the more difficult ways to have success in the league, but it certainly can be done to a degree.
Pickett came into the Ravens game ranking dead last in the NFL in total EPA added on throws outside the pocket. That’s not necessarily a great sign for a scrambler who defintely wants to extend the play and get out on the move. It’s also goes against what we saw from Pickett as a prospect, especially seeing how he worked wonders out of structure in his final season at Pitt, which led to him being selected in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft.
Against the Ravens, everything changed as Pickett was magnificent out of structure, delivering big play after big play in key moments. We can critique the process behind how he got there but the results were fantastic which leaves optimism that this area of his game in particular should be headed in the right direction as his rookie season comes to a close.
The first example of this came in the second quarter on 3rd and 6.
The Steelers are dialing up an option route for Pat Freiermuth which is one of their staple concepts in these situations. This play in particular is not well protected with the Steelers offensive line failing to pick up a stunt up the middle and Dan Moore Jr. losing ground to Tyus Bowser on the outside. Pickett recognizes this and escapes the pocket to his left. What’s really impressive about this play is that he never drops his eyes, keeps them upfield which helps him locate Freiermuth, drops his arm angle a bit and throws his tight end open to pick up the conversion.
This wasn’t the only time that Pickett would hook up with Freiermuth in the scramble drill as he found him again for a 20-yard gain, which essentially kickstarted their game-winning drive.
Moore Jr. oversets here and is quickly beat inside, and while I’m not sure this requires him to bail completely instead of just shuffling to his left, I understand the thought process behind it because it’s what he’s comfortable with right now.
Still, with more time and seasoning, you’d like to see him hit Diontae Johnson on the out route with some anticipation which is initially where his eyes go post-snap before turning it down.
Nonetheless, this is another example of Pickett keeping his down the field with Freiermuth working to the void in zone coverage. It’s always worth noting that he does an excellent job rotating his shoulders around to get square and make an accurate throw on the move.
Of all the big plays that Pickett made out of structure in this one, none were bigger than his last throw to Najee Harris on 3rd and 8, which ultimately gave them the victory.
The Steelers are motioning to a 4-strong look with Harris in an orbit motion. Pickett’s footwork on his drop does get him into hot water as he slides into pressure on this one but he’s still a good enough athlete to make it work.
As he escapes the pocket, his eyes are still downfield and he’s able to locate Harris as his defender fell asleep at the wheel. This throw is an example of pinpoint accuracy and ball location on the run which is impressive in its own right but jaw-dropping when you consider the situation of the game hanging in the balance.
Those three plays were huge factors in the Steelers pulling off the win on the road in a hostile environment. The biggest difference in these situations between Pickett earlier in the season to now have been his improvement in keeping his eyes down the field when he makes his way out of the pocket. That alone deserved to be highlighted in every play and when he’s able to combine that with his accuracy, which seems to essentially improve on the run, that’s when he can become a more consistent playmaker on his own.
It’s also worth noting that these weren’t the full catalogue of examples either. There was another third down where he evaded quick pressure off the edge, stepped up in the pocket before moving to his right and finding George Pickens along the sideline for a completion that looked like it would move the chains. However, Pickens lacked awareness on the play and stepped out of bounds prior to the catch which resulted in an illegal touching penalty. That’s an example of a good rep from the quarterback that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet due to factors beyond his control.
The biggest areas of improvement moving forward for Pickett revolve around working through his progressions, throwing with more anticipation and just generally being more comfortable working within the structure of the offense, which will require some work in terms of pocket management. Week 17 wasn’t perfect in this regard, but there was one particular play that really stood out in terms of anticipation which is worth talking about.
Early in the fourth quarter, once again on third down, the Ravens elected to play man coverage. Once Pickett identifies the post safety in the middle of the field, he knows he has a one-on-one outside with his best receiver running a hitch against a backup corner. The key thing to note here is that Pickett gets this ball out early with his left hand separating from the ball before Diontae Johnson even enters his break. When you combine that anticipation with Johnson’s elite ability to get in and out of his breaks, this is basically unstoppable.
Notice where this ball is thrown from as well – the far hash with a defender at his feet, but he’s still able to get enough on this football to deliver an accurate throw on the numbers. Because the ball is accurate and on time, Johnson is able to slip get his shoulder turned, slip out of the tackle and pick up some yards after the catch for an explosive play.
If you’ve watched the Steelers offense over the past half decade, you’ve become well-accustomed to seeing them avoid the middle of the field like it’s the plague. Some of that is the scheme itself but Pickett has hit two seam benders over the middle of the field against split safety looks this season which have been encouraging.
The latest one against the Ravens was flat-out awesome and a worthy candidate for his best throw of the season.
With the Steelers running a 4 verticals variation against cover 6 (quarter/quarter/half) coverage, Pickett gets his eyes in the right spot and drills a throw down the pipe to Steven Sims who’s running the bender route in between the two deep safeties. This ball needed to be in the exact right place because Kyle Hamilton, who has incredible length, has pretty solid coverage on this one but Pickett just beats him with better ball location and precise accuracy down the field.
There hasn’t been enough production over the middle this season but this was a really encouraging rep in the crunch time. There’s no doubt that this is one of, if not the, outright best throws of Pickett’s rookie campaign.
Pickett played a clean game while offering more splash plays and flashes of starting quality traits against the Ravens and he has an opportunity to finish the season on a really high note with a another strong performance in the regular season finale against the Cleveland Browns. The biggest takeaway was that he was able to have success playing his own brand of football.
We can question the process of how he got to those decisions but the results were outstanding this week and he deserves plenty of credit for that performance. The overall arrow on his development is absolutely pointing upwards and that alone makes the second half of the Steelers season a win, even if they are unable to make the postseason.
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