With the Pittsburgh Steelers making a switch at quarterback, how will that affect the target distribution in the passing game moving forward?
I wrote an article during the offseason about how we could see the target distribution get a shake-up from what it has been in the past. Over the last two years, Ben Roethlisberger has heavily favored Diontae Johnson in the passing game, while every other receiver essentially became an afterthought.
So far, this shake-up hasn’t occurred. In his first three-and-half games as the quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mitch Trubisky still saw a heavy dosage of his passes go to Johnson, but this obviously didn’t equate to a successful offense. However, that could truly change with Kenny Pickett at the helm.
Head coach, Mike Tomlin, made the choice to turn to Pickett coming out of the tunnel in the second half against the New York Jets in Week 4. Immediately, we noticed a difference in the target distribution among Steelers pass-catchers.
According to Pro Football Reference, George Pickens and Pat Freiermuth led the team in the second half with 4 targets each. Meanwhile, Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool both saw just 2 targets and found very little success, while Zach Gentry saw 1 target. Pickett didn’t pass to a Steelers running back in his NFL debut.
Could this target distribution continue for Steelers?
What we have to remember is that this is a remarkably small sample size — just two quarters of play, to be exact. There aren’t guaranteed to be any major paradigm shifts in the pecking order. However, it wouldn’t shock me if there were.
Pickett seemed to be much more comfortable targeting Freiermuth over the middle of the field and deep down the seam, while he routinely looked for George Pickens whenever he was single-covered. This coincides with his passing chart in his final year at Pitt.
Unlike many of the other quarterbacks in this year’s draft class, Pickett preferred to throw the ball over the middle of the field in college and didn’t target the sidelines nearly as much as the average passer. In fact, Pickett was top-two in the nation in both yards and passing attempts over the middle of the field.
In college, he favored his top receiver, Jordan Addison, in this area often while also stretching the seams with tight ends Lucus Kroll and Gavin Bartholomew. Addison took the nation by storm with 100 catches for 1,593 yards and 17 touchdowns, while the pair of tight ends combined for 66 receptions, 777 yards, and 10 touchdowns, via Sports Reference.
Could Addison and Krull/Bartholomew be equivalent to Pickens and Freiermuth for Kenny Pickett? It’s way too early to tell. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he favors these two players heavily in the passing game moving forward.
If Matt Canada continues to call plays where Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool are designed to go to the sideline, perhaps Pickett builds his chemistry with other pass catchers on the team. It’s entirely too early to tell how this will shape up, but there are some good reasons to believe that the wide receiver target distribution and pecking order could see a shift moving forward with Pickett as the quarterback of the Steelers.