Why 2023 should be a breakout year for the Steelers passing offense

Steelers, Pat Freiermuth
Steelers, Pat Freiermuth / Joe Sargent/GettyImages

I recently touched on the latest news surrounding young Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett and why I feel it shows he’s the man for the job. It ultimately boiled down to a combination of his early on-field potential and his strengths in regard to maturity and leadership.

However, while Pickett has wasted no time in becoming the face of Pittsburgh's passing offense, he is not the only one on it who will be making some big-dog plays this upcoming season. In fact, there are multiple names—both old and new—that should have no trouble standing out during the 2023-24 stretch.

But before we start listing off the guys to watch, I feel it is necessary to address why they will likely be worthy of watching to begin with.

In my opinion, the Steelers passing offense should try to ride on one thing in particular, and that is the short game. I’ve spoken up about this in the past, but the variety that it has at its disposal this time around could take the NFL by storm.

If it can routinely capitalize on said variety, especially against some of the more flawed passing defenses they face (12 regular-season foes finished last year in the bottom 10 for two or more PD stats), Pittsburgh’s air attack could be one of the deciding factors in its chances to at least hit postseason status again. With all of that out of the way, let’s get on with the receiver roll call.

Just how many receiving options should we expect to thrive this season?

For starters, let’s shed some light on the guys who have already begun making names for themselves, as there are multiple. The first one up is perhaps one of the easiest to overlook: running back Najee Harris.

Harris is entering his third season as Pittsburgh’s RB1, but his worth has continuously been a subject of debate. One might think that if such a thing can be said about his performance on the ground, how great could he possibly be through the air? Well, “great” might not be the best word, but “reliable” definitely fits.

Over the course of his first two seasons in the league, Harris caught 115 passes for 696 yards and six touchdowns. That means that he is averaging just over six yards per catch and that 30% of all his NFL touchdowns have been off receptions. Regardless of what some folks may say about the standard he’s held to, that sounds like a player I’d want on my short-pass offense.

Speaking of underappreciated reliability, that brings us to a personal favorite of mine, tight end Pat Freiermuth. Similarly to Harris, the 2023-24 run will also be his third in the league.

Freiermuth is a talent that I feel should be one of the first Pickett turns to, as he has the combination of size and physicality to be a menace both outside and through the middle. Despite this, he is someone that has seemingly been underused, and his stats do very little to deny it—especially when compared to those of Harris.

Throughout his NFL journey thus far, Freiermuth has only caught 123 passes, eight more than Harris. He also sits with just nine receiving touchdowns, three more than Harris. A running back and tight end should not share that intense of competition in those categories, especially when the latter has still managed to average a first down per catch.

Simply put, Freiermuth has had enough shining moments with the Steelers to earn him lots of love from the fans, but I’m really hoping that this season will see his impact rise to a level that we’ve never seen before. If used right, there’s no reason he can’t be a Travis Kelce in black by the time the playoffs roll around.

The last two established Steelers I’d like to cover belong to a group that all readers should have expected to hear about as soon as they saw the title: the receiving corps. Their names? George Pickens and Diontae Johnson.

Pickens has only one season under his belt, but that hasn’t stopped him from turning heads with his insane catching abilities. As for Johnson, he has been relied upon more than any of the other aforementioned players, having led the team in receiving yards for each of the last three seasons.

When discussing wide receivers with those factors in mind, it becomes crystal clear that they should be the ones going for the deeper passes, which they are absolutely capable of doing. However, there would be no harm in putting them on a fair share of the shorter routes as well. That mainly holds true for Johnson, who’s been criticized for his more questionable hands while also failing to average a full yard more per catch than Freiermuth.

Who should make the most noise amongst the Steelers newcomers?

It would normally be comforting enough to just see those playmakers on the Steelers offense, but it’s a few of the newcomers who will be joining them that truly drove me to crack this conversation open. The one I’d like to break down first has caught my interest on stature alone: tight end Darnell Washington.

Washington is a 6’7”, 270-lb monster coming out of Georgia with back-to-back national titles. While he did very little in both games (totaled only two receptions for 37 yards) and hit the endzone just three times in three seasons, he still managed to hold a career average of over 18 yards per catch.

His unbeatable build and glimpses of potential were enough for him to get drafted in the third round, and they’re enough for me to declare him a welcome addition to Pickett’s arsenal. If he could knock on the door of 20 yards per catch in the SEC, it should not take him too long to at least hit half of that with a rapidly improving Pickett slinging the rock.

Lastly, we have another pair of Pittsburgh wide receivers to throw into the mix thanks to Calvin Austin III and Allen Robinson II. They have strong arguments for being the most interesting pieces of this puzzle, as they are neither familiar faces nor rookies.

Austin was drafted by the Steelers in the fourth round of the 2022 NFL Draft, but a stubborn Lisfranc injury sidelined him for the entirety of his rookie campaign. Today, the undersized-yet-speedy WR is eager to put the league on notice, and a shorter offensive scheme could very well help him do so.

Standing at around 5’8”, he’s not exactly going to be making a habit of “mossing” guys deep. That likely leaves his best shot at catching the long balls up to full-on burning his defender(s) and/or blown coverage—doesn't sound very practical. So, I feel that a much safer bet would be him trying to create space quicker on more inside routes, giving him easier opportunities to go for grabs in front of his man instead of over him.

That just leaves Robinson, who is the most experienced of today’s subjects, having been in the league since 2014. The Steelers acquired him from the Rams through a trade back in April, and while his last couple of seasons have been lackluster by his own standard, he has nonetheless shown that he can fit into the offense I’ve envisioned.

In both 2021 and 2022, Robinson managed to average just over 10 yards per catch (career average being 12.8). He’s also shown the ability to take a lot of looks, having had three 1,000-yard seasons so far in his career. Considering that the two common themes in today’s conversation have been stats and reliability, that info implies to me that he’s a perfect fit for Pittsburgh.

Next. Best NFL free agents still available for Steelers at slot cornerback. Best NFL free agents still available for Steelers at slot cornerback. dark

When analyzing an imperfect offense like what the Steelers have, it’s refreshing to see the room for improvement that a shorter passing game can provide them. Now that they are in all the better of a position to act on it, a visible step in the right direction should be nothing short of a guarantee.