Steelers Quarterback Passing Locations: Week 16 Vs. Raiders

Week 16 is in the books, and it’s time to provide my quarterback passing locations charting for the game and the regular season thus far. In case you missed the previous articles, I will be charting, visualizing, and providing takeaways for the all-important quarterback position for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Thanks to Thomas Mock for his great article that helped me learn much of what I’m using today. A couple of notes before we jump in. All yardage referenced are air yards from the line of scrimmage and bats at the line of scrimmage, spikes, and clear throwaways removed. This week’s charting has a whopping three throwaways and a batted pass removed.

Quarterback Kenny Pickett had an up-and-down performance, going 26/39 on the stat sheet for 244 yards, and a 66.7% completion rate was his third-best mark of the season, but highs and lows with accuracy through most of the game. Encouragingly Pickett did not take a sack but was antsy leaving the pocket early on several occasions, along with a bad interception, coming back to his left before he could scan the coverage and threw it right to the linebacker. I also noted a whopping four near picks (with another debatable one as well), one to Johnson that was nearly undercut by the defender but was able to just zip it by on the out route to Johnson with YAC down the sideline on a chunk pickup of 15. The second was to tight end Pat Freiermuth after being flushed from the pocket (tackle Dan Moore pressure), with the target going a bit high but definitely catchable that bounced off his hands dangerously into the air. The third was on an indecisive play from Pickett, pumping to running back Najee Harris, then staying glued to him and directing him for the pass that goes off the defenders’ hands, though the Raiders did have good overall coverage. The final one was also to Harris, high on the dump-off pass with center Mason Cole allowing looping pressure in his face, and thankfully is able to get a hand on the would-be interception.

Pickett led a nice drive when it mattered most, marching down the field methodically on the final drive with passes of ten yards or less, where Freiermuth and Harris were the primary playmakers with a couple of good YAC gains as well. On the first, Pickett was able to elude pressure up the middle with guard Kevin Dotson not picking up the twisting rusher, with a great find and throw on the run to Freiermuth who got open in the zone for nice YAC on the gain of 17. The other was a dump off to Harris who had ample separation given the situation, and valiant effort after the catch to break three tackles in route to the gain of 19. Pickett also converted two timely quarterback sneaks on fourth and one, with the latter setting up his only passing touchdown, which was also timely as they come, splitting two defenders on the slot slant over the middle to wide receiver George Pickens on a great throw and incredible play with 50 seconds left for the win.

Couple notable patterns in the game, starting with third downs where the team was 5/10 excluding the batted pass, with each fail on targets short of the chains. To start the third quarter, Pickett threw a whopping ten straight passes outside the left hash. Only one red zone trip, on the aforementioned timely game winning drive. This is a big element I’m eager to see play out the last two games, seeing if the Steelers can increase their opportunities and not fizzle out as often near the red zone, which has unfortunately been a reoccurring theme.

Let’s look at a simple view of the 35 charted passes, with number of throws at each pass distance for week 16:

The most common pass distance, as it is most weeks, was 0-5 yards at 40% compared to 35% and 23.3% the two previous weeks. Third down fail examples to start here, with Pickett seeing a bit of pressure and taking the dump off to Gentry at one yard, but tackled quickly for only one yard on third and ten. Another was on third and five in the third quarter, taking another dump off to Harris at one yard, who showed great effort but can’t churn the five corralling defenders on the failure that resulted in the second missed field goal. A late third-quarter example Pickett encouragingly targeted Johnson on a slant, but was a bit high and goes off his hands incomplete. A confusing one in this range was on a third and ten in the fourth quarter, with Pickett targeting Pickens on the quick slant at only two yards and dropped immediately, frustrating with the team still trailing.

31.4% of passes were 5-10 yards compared to 35% last week. On Pickett’s first pass of the game, Pittsburgh had double in routes to the left side, hitting Johnson on the outside one at eight yards, and cut inside for a bit of YAC for the third and four conversion on the gain of 11. Another enjoyable concept especially given the situation came in the second quarter, a third and two where the Pickett to Pickens connection was utilized on a slot slant, with a great throw and contested catch at seven yards and churned for another on the gain of eight. In the fourth quarter, Pickett moves the pocket and targets running back Jaylen Warren at three yards on the leak out, making the catch after providing a solid chip in pass pro and intelligently backpedals for more positive yards on the gain of seven to pick up the third and five conversion.

More behind-the-line passes this week, at 20% which matched last week’s percentage on far fewer attempts, and eclipsing a previous mark of 6.7% in Pickett’s last opportunity. The highlight was to Harris on a dump off three yards behind the line, with ample cushion to start his stellar YAC effort, hurdling cleanly over the defender in route to the 17-yard gain. Another highlight was a nice play design, a play-action slot screen from a bunch formation to Freiermuth early in the game, with tight end Zach Gentry and wide receiver Miles Boykin out in front with nice blocks springing the gain of eight. One play-action example was from a heavy set, but edge rusher Maxx Crosby came free and got a hit on Pickett, forcing the sidearm throw that fell incomplete at tight end Connor Heyward’s feet five yards behind the line. One was a dreaded running back screen which is rarely successful for this team, with Harris catching it five yards behind the line and unfortunately catches the backward YAC bug for a loss of six. Another running back example was to Warren on a swing pass but is off-target high and behind off his hands, and likely would have gone for a loss anyways.

17.1% 10-15 yards, up from 15% the previous game and 23.3% before that. One highlight came late in the game at the two-minute warning, where Pickett made a nice throw on the run, giving Freiermuth a chance to make the play on the sideline, initially bobbling it but great job securing the catch just in time before going to the ground out of bounds for a ten-yard gain. Pickett enjoyed a good pocket and got one to Johnson, who got great separation on the stop route just past the sticks. One example early in the third quarter was an overthrow to Johnson, leaping and just able to tip it off his outstretched hand, which could have gone in the near interception category, but Pickett seemed to expect a deeper slant and considered this more of a route miscommunication. The following play was also a ten-yard target, this one to Freiermuth on an out with great separation and adding five more in YAC, which was huge to get most the yards back on a second and 20 due to a pass interference called on him a couple plays earlier.

8.6% at 15-20 yards now, down from 10% last game and none the game prior. The highlight by far was Pickett’s go-ahead touchdown on the end zone target to Pickens at 19 yards. One of the most impressive throws was on the longest gain through the air of 25, on a back shoulder where Pickett impressively got it off despite intense pressure in his face, and Pickens had great timing to slam on the breaks and create separation for the grab at 17 yards, then cuts inside for another eight in YAC. Another positive play was a third-and-eight conversion in the third quarter where Pickett had plenty of time to survey, eventually finding Johnson on the crosser at 16 yards, but all too familiar backward YAC makes it a gain of 14.

No explosive passes this week and only one last week. A lot of this has to do with encouragingly winning more games but obviously would love to see a more explosive offense moving forward.

Here are the dots for the charted throws for week 16 as we add more context:

Right away we can see several of Pickett’s passes came on or between the numbers. He went 13/21 (61.9%) in this range, where all but one of his charted incompletions came. Great completion rates outside the numbers, 5/6 (83.3%) to the right and a perfect 8/8 to the left. We also see the higher rate of behind-the-line passes, and particularly the lack of success going 4/7 (57.1%), with the three incompletions surpassing his two total on the season through week 15. Pickett had good completion rates at ten yards or less per usual, going 11/14 (78.6%) from 0-5 yards, 9/11 (81.8%) from 5-10 yards, and interestingly all his incompletions in this range were on or between the numbers. In the intermediate range, Pickett had a strong completion rate as well, going 7/9 (77.8%) along with a perfect 3/3 from 15-20 yards that included the game-clinching touchdown, which was also the longest pass distance of the game at 19 yards. Hopefully, Pickett can continue to find success in the intermediate game, considering his lower rates for much of the season which I’ll highlight in a bit.

Now for the heat maps, first with all the charted passes for the game, then completions only:

Not a big change in the two charts in terms of pass distances, with Pickett completing several of his intermediate passes. The slight change comes on the right side with one incompletion at 12 yards and another at -6 behind the line, narrowing the range on both ends. His most targeted area was from the right hash to the left numbers at two-seven yards, and the biggest change we see is his most competed area pushing outside the left hash to outside the numbers from one-six yards. This emphasizes the lack success near the left hash in this game, along with the avoidance of passes between the hashes continuing to be a common theme.

Now let’s look at the 480 charted throws on the season for Pickett and fellow quarterback Mitch Trubisky:

There was a change in the pass distance ranking order this week, with behind-the-line passes surpassing explosive rates for the fourth most common distance on the season. Will be interesting to see where the extreme ends of the pass distances pan out to end the season. The most common pass distance is still 0-5 yards at 35.6%, an uptick compared to a previous average of 35.3%. 28.1% from 5-10 yards now, a slight increase from a season average of 27.9% last week. 10–15-yard passes are now at 15.6%, a 0.1 increase from last week and an increase from Pickett’s last two opportunities at 14.9%. Explosive pass rates have been diving in recent weeks and expectedly following this game, now at 12.9% which is down a full point from last week’s season average. The least common pass distance is still 15-20 yards as it has been for most of the season, now at 9.2% which remained the same as last week after dropping several weeks prior.

Here are the dots for the 2022 season through week 16:

On the stat sheet, Pickett is now 217/333 (65.2%), improving slightly from his previous average of 65 that was tied with Trubisky through week 15, along with five touchdowns and nine interceptions, adding one of each this week which broke his interception-less streak since the bye week. In comparison, Trubisky is 117/180 (65%) along with four touchdowns and five interceptions. The touchdown/interception ratios still need to improve, and would be great to see a multi-passing touchdown game that neither quarterback has achieved this season, along with more red zone trips considering the final drive last game was the only one of the game.

In terms of pass distances, Pickett is now 183/224 (81.7%) at ten yards or less, which came down a few points from a previous average of 84.1%, highlighting more misses than usual against the Raiders. In comparison, Trubisky 82/107 (76.6%) which improved his last opportunity in week 15. In the intermediate range, Pickett now is 25/65 (38.5%) a vast improvement from his previous completion rate of 32.1, increasing of over six percentage points, very encouraging but still well below Trubisky’s stronger 32/49 (65.3%). With no explosive passes this week, the rates remained the same with Pickett at 13/34 (38.2%) and Trubisky with the slight edge on deep targets going 11/28 (39.3%). Hopefully, the opportunities and particularly the success continues, and can’t wait to see how the passing game fares the last two games.

To close, here are the season heat maps of all attempts, completions only, and a pass locations comparison for the quarterbacks on all charted throws for the season:

What are your thoughts of Pickett’s performance against the Raiders? What about how the Steelers quarterbacks have compared to date? How do you think things will play out the remainder of the season? Thanks for reading and let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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