Steelers passing game is still a major problem entering Week 11

Kenny Pickett #8 of the Pittsburgh Steelers throws a pass during the first half in the game against the New Orleans Saints at Acrisure Stadium on November 13, 2022 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Kenny Pickett #8 of the Pittsburgh Steelers throws a pass during the first half in the game against the New Orleans Saints at Acrisure Stadium on November 13, 2022 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images) /

The Pittsburgh Steelers gave a great team effort against the Saints in Week 10 that resulted in a win, but it was in spite of a lackluster passing game. 

We can’t expect a rookie quarterback to have everything figured out in just his 6th NFL game (5th start). It’s going to take time. Take a look at the 2021 quarterback class that included five first-round picks. The QBs from that class are still trying to find their groove. However, there’s no question that Kenny Pickett needs to start showing improvement.

Many fans have called his game against the Saints the best performance of his short career so far. But was it really a big improvement over what we’ve seen since he took over? In the first half against New Orleans, Pickett was averaging just 4.8 yards per attempt, via ESPN stats. This number was boosted to 6.6 by the end of the game — thanks in large part to a 36-yard connection down the sideline to Diontae Johnson late in the contest.

Outside of that, things were pretty stagnant in the passing game. Roughly half of Pickett’s completions came within six yards of the line of scrimmage and he managed to complete just one pass beyond 13 air yards.

By the end of the game, Pittsburgh’s rookie quarterback finished with a stat line of 18 completions on 30 pass attempts for just 199 yards. Once again, Pickett wasn’t able to connect in the red zone for a passing score. Entering his seventh NFL game in Week 11, the 2022 first-round pick has just 2 passing touchdowns to go with his 8 interceptions (while also rushing for 3 scores).

Steelers QB Kenny Pickett is improving… slowly

Statistically, there was nothing impressive about this game at all from Kenny Pickett. After re-watching the game and examining each play, Pickett definitely missed some wide-open reads and he needs to do a better job scanning the field and going through progressions. The hope is that this will come in time. However, I do think there were minor, subtle improvements in this game that many aren’t talking about.

Let’s start with Pickett’s yards per attempt. Managing just 6.6 yards per throw on the game is certainly less than ideal. For some perspective, if this was a season average, it would still rank just 27th in the NFL this year — right next to Tom Brady and a struggling Buccaneers offense.

However, considering that Pickett managed between 3.7-5.8 yards per attempt in each of his past three starts, this is an improvement. It’s also a step up from his dismal 6.0 yards per attempt on the season so far.

While he was seldom successful when throwing down the field, I think this slight uptick in yards per attempt can be attributed to Pickett’s improvement in connecting with his receivers past the sticks. In Week 10 against the Saints, Pickett was 3 of 7 when throwing beyond 10 air yards, via Next Gen Stats. Though this doesn’t seem great, it’s better than what we’ve been used to seeing from him. Just before the bye, Pickett was just 2/12 with an INT against the Eagles when throwing 10+ yards down the field.

In addition to this, Pickett seemed to make some pretty good choices with his legs — taking off and running with the football to move the chains and put the Steelers in scoring position. Pickett took off 8 times for 51 yards (6.4 yards per carry) and added a goal-line score.

Obviously, there are a plethora of things he still needs to work on. Though he didn’t turn the ball over, there were two passes in this game that could be deemed turnover-worthy plays (though one was negated with a penalty). Pickett also needs to find a way to connect with his receivers in paydirt, as the Steelers simply are not scoring at a high enough rate in the red zone.

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We know that Matt Canada’s bland offense isn’t doing a whole lot to aid Kenny Pickett in his development, but at some point, the talent needs to shine through and he needs to overcome obstacles to prove that he is Pittsburgh’s franchise quarterback. Pickett still has a long way to go, but at least we are slowly starting to see signs of improvement.