Rookie WR George Pickens was made available to the media the other day after mandatory minicamp practice had concluded and spoke about several topics, including working from the slot and what he has been learning from Diontae Johnson. According to a video interview with Pickens via the team’s YouTube channel, Pickens wasn’t even expecting the deep ball to come his way, rather doing his job to clear out the safety to open things up underneath.
George Pickens on Diontae Johnson, Mitch Trubisky, adjusting to playing in the slot and more. pic.twitter.com/IKjdKiblVw
— Steelers Live (@SteelersLive) June 8, 2022
“Oh, it just developed for sure,” Pickens responded when asked whether the deep bomb touchdown was called or just developed as the play progressed. “Before that play, it was like I was saying love for the game, so just clear it out and let the other guys get open behind me. You know what I mean? It really just developed. I looked up and the ball was in the air and then I turned on the speed, so I wasn’t expected to get it at all.”
According to reports from mandatory minicamp as well as the video above, Pickens hauled in the long touchdown in a team drill session at practice. Pickens’ prowess as a deep ball receiver shouldn’t go understated, as his ability to win with speed down the field and elevate into the air to win contested catches against defensive backs made him one of the best receivers in this draft class at those aspects of the game. Andrew Shaver of Steelers Depot stated as much after doing an analytical breakdown of Pickens shortly after he was selected, stating that Pickens’ success going deep at the college level should likely continue now with Pittsburgh:
“Pickens’ success on Go routes may have caught the Steelers’ eye particularly. As a team last season, Pittsburgh managed to haul in just one TD from a true Go route. Pickens’ talents should help to improve upon on that number with his arrival based on his success at the college level.”
When asked about QB Mitch Trubisky specifically and if Pickens foresees him pushing the ball down the field often in this offense,
“He’s been one of the quarterbacks to release it, for sure,” Pickens answered regarding Trubisky on the deep ball. “You only have so much opportunity, but yeah, he’s been launching it, for sure.”
Pickens made sure to preface the question by acknowledging that there have only been so many opportunities in terms of the distribution of reps amongst all the QBs at OTAs and mandatory minicamp as well as the chance to attack down the field based on what play is called and how the defense is playing them. However, it can be a good sign for Pickens to acknowledge that Trubisky is “launching it”, for whatever that is worth.
According to Pro Football Reference, Trubisky has average 5.62 adjusted net yards per passing attempt thus far in his NFL career, with 6.00 yards coming during his last starting action back in 2020. For comparison’s sake, Ben Roethlisberger had an adjusted net yards per passing attempt number of 5.43 last season and was up to 6.27 the year prior in 2020. Thus, while Trubisky may have more of an arm at this stage of his NFL career than Roethlisberger last season, he hasn’t made the attempt to actively push the ball down the field as much as you would like to see.
During OTAs and mandatory minicamp, the passing game should look good. Receivers should be making acrobatic catches on air, and QBs shouldn’t have the ball hit the ground. Therefore, it can be expected that Trubisky has looked good so far in terms of pushing the ball down the field with receivers running on air or in a practice setting where the defense is in shorts rather than on live reps.
Mitchell Trubisky was accurate on 19 of 38 deep passes that arrived outside the numbers. The fifth-most accurate quarterback to that area of the field. pic.twitter.com/Kxe5bbV5lh
— QB Data Mine (@QBDataMine) April 17, 2020
Still, given Pickens’ ability to win down the field as a vertical threat and his acknowledging that Trubisky has been pushing the ball down the field a fair amount on the limited reps they have had this far, I remain cautiously optimistic that the deep passing game will improve in 2022 compared to last season given the fact that Pittsburgh has added both Trubisky and Pickett who have more youth in their arms than Ben did at the end of last year, as well as the additions of Pickens, Calvin Austin III, and Miles Boykin who all have the speed and athleticism to win down the field and hopefully make more splash plays in the passing game that Pittsburgh desperately needs.