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Film Room: A Deeper Look at the Pickett to Pickens Game-Winner

Steelers fans had to wait a while on a frigid Christmas Eve night for their team’s first lead and touchdown of the game, but I’m sure if you ask any of them it was well worth it. Directly after a 4th and 1 QB sneak that required a strong second effort from rookie Quarterback Kenny Pickett to pick up the conversion, the Steelers went to the air for the kill. Pickett was able to connect with his fellow rookie Wide Receiver, George Pickens, with a 14-yard scoring strike.

While it looked like a relatively easy pitch and catch for the two young guns, that’s rarely the case with any football play, especially in the NFL.

Let’s take a closer look.

The Steelers Offensive Coordinator, Matt Canda, loves running this smash concept out of a trips formation. Traditionally, the smash concept is a hitch route from WR1 and a corner route from WR2. However, their version of smash is two mini-digs from WR1 and WR2 with a corner route from WR3, which in this case is George Pickens.

As you may remember, Pickens doesn’t run a corner route on the play. While it’s possible it was a “built-in” call for Pickens to run a post, the majority of routes run in the slot are dependent on the defense’s coverage. This is likely no different.

You don’t want your slot receiver running directly into coverage when he has a two-way go on the inside.

Therefore, the WR3 on this play likely had an option tag:

  • vs. 1-High coverage = Corner
  • vs. 2-High coverage = Post

The slot is going to run where the defense is not. The weakness of a 1-high coverage (also called “middle field closed”) is going to be the sidelines or outside the numbers, so the slot would run a corner. The weakness of 2-high coverage is going to be the middle of the field as defensive backs are patrolling their deep halves of the field, so the slot would attack that part of the field with a post.

While teams can disguise coverages with different pre-snap looks compared to where they move post-snap, there was no disguise here for the Las Vegas Raiders. They showed 2-high presnap and played 2-man (2 deep safeties with man coverage underneath). Therefore, Pickens knows he’s going to be running a post.

I’ve personally been tough on Pickens’ route-running but he runs this route to perfection. I often talk about Diontae Johnson mastering the art of messing with DBs’ leverage at the top of his routes, getting them to lean one with stems at the top of his route routes before breaking out.

Pickens must have been taking some tips from Johnson. He bends this route outside around the 10-yard line to further expand the defensive back covering him then explodes inside around the five-yard line. The move effectively gave him & Pickett even more room to attack middle the of the field.

Now that we’ve broken down how the play is drawn up, let’s a take look at the play in full.

The quarterback and receiver are on the same page, and Pickett rears back to deliver a strike directly between the two Las Vegas defenders.

For what it’s worth, I have no idea why the Raiders DB covering Pickens is playing this with outside with an outside shade. Normally in two-high coverages, the slot defender walls off the inside, forcing a throw over the top. Playing this with outside leverage makes the already open middle of the field a glaring hole.
Hall of Fame Quarterback and NFL Network commentator, Kurt Warner, was losing it in the booth (rightfully so) about how the Raiders left the middle of the field wide open. It’s a terrible blunder in coverage during crunch time. Luckily for Pittsburgh, the two budding stars in black and gold were able to take advantage.
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