Steelers must see a paradigm shift in the passing game immediately

George Pickens #14 of the Pittsburgh Steelers. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
George Pickens #14 of the Pittsburgh Steelers. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images) /

Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool have dominated the receiving market share over the past two years, but the Steelers need to change that right away.

Just like everything else on the team right now, the passing game isn’t working — this much we know. The Pittsburgh Steelers were only able to put three points on the board against the Buffalo Bills in a blowout loss last week despite 52 pass attempts. Additionally, the Bills were missing almost their entire starting secondary which typically includes quality players like Tre’Davious White, Jordan Poyer, and Micah Hyde.

This isn’t just a one-game sample either. Whether it’s been Mitch Trubisky or Kenny Pickett at the helm, the Steelers are having a remarkably difficult time putting up points through the air. It’s so bad, in fact, that neither quarterback has a single passing touchdown to a Steelers receiver entering Week 6 — a streak that we don’t want to see continue any longer.

Obviously, Matt Canada’s vanilla offense and poor route concepts heavily factor into this. But Canada isn’t going anywhere (yet), and Pittsburgh still needs to find a way to be successful. I would suggest a paradigm shift at the receiver position.

Steelers need an immediate paradigm shift at receiver

While fans have been optimistic about Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool because of the numbers they have been able to put up over the past two years, the evidence is starting to show that they just haven’t been worth targeting as much as the looks they’ve seen in the passing game. In all honestly, this receiver pairing has been downright inefficient.

On the contrary, the Steelers have clearly found the most success when targeting rookie WR George Pickens and second-year TE Pat Freiermuth. The difference is stunning when going to these pass-catchers. Here’s how greatly Pickens and Freiermuth have outperformed Johnson and Claypool in the passing game over the last two weeks, via ESPN stats.

I know that this is just a two-game sample (and not even two full games with Kenny Pickett at the helm), but it’s not hard to see why Pickens and Freiermuth have been far more efficient. For starters, their hands have been rock-solid this year, whereas Johnson and Claypool have struggled to hang onto the football. Additionally, Canada’s poor route combinations typically lead his primary target to the sidelines and don’t allow for many yards after the catch.

While this balance could potentially shift a bit back in the other direction, fans should be on board with making George Pickens and Pat Freiermuth the primary pass-catching options on this team. Though both players are early in their careers, they have been far more consistent and have the look of players who will be around for the long haul.

On the other hand, Claypool has clearly fallen out of favor with the team, and his dismal 4.4 yards per target make him barely worth a few looks per game at this point. Diontae is obviously better, but now in year four, he still routinely struggles with consistency and concentration drops.

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Gone are the days where Diontae Johnson should be seeing 144-169 targets per season as he saw with Ben Roethlisberger in 2020 and 2021. Quite simply, the Pittsburgh Steelers are much more efficient when passing to George Pickens and Pat Freiermuth, and the passing game needs to go through them moving forward.