As the Pittsburgh Steelers’ season continues to unfold, the progression of first round rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett has been a joy to watch. The transition from college to NFL is not easy, especially for quarterbacks. From learning how to read defenses to learning a new offense, most don’t make the transition well. During a Wednesday press conference on Steelers.com, the rookie quarterback was asked what the most difficult concepts to learn, and pointed out a few differences.
“We do a lot more under-center play action than I’ve done in previous years,” Pickett said when asked about his transition to an NFL offense. “So I think that was number one for me. A lot of the concepts are very similar to the west coast concepts, so I feel really comfortable there. It’s just working under center and the play actions and stuff like that was probably the biggest learning curve.”
Playing under center is more common in the NFL than college football, and it’s something that many young quarterbacks have to adjust to. In fact, All-Pro Kansas City Chiefs’ quarterback Patrick Mahomes recently stated that playing under center was a key part of his transition to the NFL.
So far in his rookie season, Pickett plays under center on 26.9% of snaps, and 81.1% of his passes from the formation are play action. While play action passes are common in some college offenses, Pickett did not run them at a high rate relative to the college average. Indeed, according to PFF’s premium stats, he only ran play action on 21.5% of his drop backs, which was 27th least out of over 140 quarterbacks. So far his rookie year, he is running play action on 18.1% of drop backs, which ranks 30th in the NFL. When he does, he has a passer rating of 73.1.
One thing that certainly hasn’t hurt Pickett’s understanding of concepts is his offensive coordinator. Up until being hired by the Steelers as quarterbacks coach in 2020, Matt Canada coached college offenses since 1997. Canada brought many west coast concepts to Pittsburgh, which Pickett specifically mentioned as helpful in his learning curve. While Canada’s play calling and offensive philosophy are no strangers to criticism, the benefit of Pickett’s familiarity with his concepts is noteworthy.
All in all, for Pickett to only mention one passing concept as a learning curve in his transition is a good sign. The rookie quarterback is growing every week, and has demonstrated an excellent understanding of the offense as well as chemistry with his playmakers. With a running game that ranks 5th in the NFL in yards since Week 10, play-action passing may just become a more common concept for this offense, especially under-center.