Steelers Turning Point: Pickens Big-Play Ability Causes Panthers To Be Scaredy Cats

Following each game in the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers season, I will highlight the event or string of events in the game that is the turning point. Not all turning points will be earth-shattering but are meant to give a unique look at how we arrived at the outcome of the game, one that may be hard to see during the first live watch.

Man, that felt good Sunday.  Sitting back and watching a football team that was physically dominant on both sides of the football, a return to “Pittsburgh Steelers football.” They came in with a game plan to run the ball and executed that plan to perfection, tieing a Mike Tomlin-Era record with 45 rushing attempts in the game. The team was using the run game to get ahead of the sticks and make third downs manageable.

That is just the case in this week’s “Turning Point” which may surprise some people.

After two-straight runs, on 3rd & 3, Trubisky is able to take advantage of George Pickens’ 1-on-1 matchup with Carolina’s backup corner, Keith Taylor Jr., who was forced to play due to their starter, CJ Henderson, getting sidelined earlier in the game.

This play was an important third-down conversion on the team’s second touchdown drive of the game, but that’s not the reason I’m pulling it out as the turning point of the game. I believe it’s the turning point of the game because Pickens’ deep ball ability scared the Panthers’ staff so much that they pulled their CB1, Jaycee Horn, off of Diontae Johnson and had him match up with Pickens after this play to finish the drive. While it wasn’t yet permanent, it was a sign of things to come.

Before this play, Horn was following Johnson all over the field. He even moved into the slot with him early in the first half, as you can see below.


Sans this third-down conversion allowed to Johnson, Horn was great against Johnson and only allowed three catches for 16 yards the entirety of the first half.

The Panthers did move Horn back to Diontae Johnson for the next two drives of the first half until another catch from Pickens on Taylor Jr., this time on a curl route.

It was at this point that the Panthers’ staff had seen enough. Pickens only had two catches for 53 yards, but Carolina decided they didn’t want him to beat them.

From this point on, wherever Pickens went, so did Horn. This left Johnson against numerous different Panthers as the Steelers were happy to take advantage of Johnson’s new matchups moving him inside and out.

Coming out of halftime, the Steelers put together a historic 21-play drive, and Johnson took over.

Of their 106 yards on the drive (15 extra due to a Johnson unsportsmanlike penalty), Johnson contributed 54 of them on five catches. Two of those were third-down conversions, helping Pittsburgh keep the drive alive and cap it off with a touchdown.

He wasn’t done yet. The Steelers were up 21-13 late in the fourth quarter and this offense desperately needed a put-away drive.

On 3rd and 14, facing a possible second-straight three-and-out, Johnson stepped up and made possibly the biggest play of the game. With the Panthers’ defense playing with eight guys on the line of scrimmage, it left no high safeties over the top, placing Johnson and Taylor Jr. on an island.

Taylor Jr. is playing with an inside shade pre-snap and opens his gate trying to dissuade Johnson from running anything across the middle of the field. However, with that much cushion and opening the gate that soon, it gives Johnson all the space he needs to easily cross Taylor Jr’s face and be wide open on the five-step post. Then, after the catch, Johnson continues to toy with the cornerback by spinning back and getting the first down.

Three plays later the Steelers have to face another third down. Naturally, they go back back to the well taking advantage of the Johnson-Taylor Jr. matchup yet again.

This time, Johnson wins on a stop route. A play we’ve seen him win whenever he wants. That’s easy money for Johnson and Trubisky. The Steelers would run the ball from here on out, making the Panthers use up their timeouts while getting into field goal range for Chris Boswell to effectively put the game on ice.

It baffles me that after the Steelers’ drive out of halftime, where Johnson lit up the Carolina defense, the Panthers refused to adjust and move Horn back on Johnson. I get wanting to eliminate the chunk plays that Pickens can produce, but those key third-down conversions would have been much harder to come by had Horn been lined up on the Steelers’ #1 receiver. It completely changed the game in Pittsburgh’s favor as they could seemingly get a reception from #18 whenever they wanted.

But hey, at least Carolina didn’t let Pickens beat them! Jaycee Horn held him without a catch in the second half.

What did you feel was the turning point of the game? Leave your thoughts and comments below!

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