Study: 2022 Steelers Explosive Pass Plays And Distances

Today I wanted to look at and provide another angle with my 2022 Steelers Quarterback Passing Locations I charted throughout the season. The goal for this article is viewing every explosive pass play, and layering it with their pass distances to evaluate quantity, how the yardage was obtained, and see the good and bad as we look forward to the 2023 season. The visual lists the receiver and quarterback initials:

Right away we see a sparse top of the chart, highlighting the lack of double explosive plays on the year. Pittsburgh had only three in the pass game, and the two longest plays came on non-explosive pass distances. First was tight end Pat Freiermuth’s 57-yard gain, making the catch at a pass distance of nine yards from Pickett and providing the highlight of the Steelers’ season in terms of YAC. Most of us are well aware of Pittsburgh’s struggles in that department thanks to the Terrible Podcast, and this play was a seldom breath of fresh air with Freiermuth providing an impressively tough double explosive 48 yards after catch in week 13 against the Falcons.

The second longest pass play of the year also came on a non-explosive pass distance, where Trubisky found tight end Connor Heyward at a pass distance of 13 yards wide open, and he took advantage of the Bucs’ defensive lapse with 32 yards after catch for a 45-yard gain. The third longest gain of the season was the final double explosive pass play of the 2022 season, and was the only one with an explosive pass distance of 37 yards from Trubisky on an underthrown go ball, but wide receiver George Pickens was still able to corral the contested catch and 42-yard gain.

These plays emphasize a huge and needed change for the Steelers’ offense in 2023. Having only three double explosive pass plays last season obviously does not cut it in today’s NFL, and with only one of those coming from Pickett on a short pass, we first must see a more aggressive quarterback connecting down the field in year two. To illustrate this point further, all three double explosive gains in the pass game last season got Pittsburgh into the red zone and led to touchdown drives, with Heyward’s play coming on a timely fourth-quarter drive that led to the Steelers holding on for a win.

Second, a picture is worth 1,000 words and provides more context to the overall YAC issues, with only three other non-explosive pass plays above the mean yards gained and overall lack of plays on the bottom left (short pass, lots of YAC), which must improve through scheme and execution next year. Two highlights were the Trubisky to Gentry screen pass in the season opener against the Bengals, making the catch three yards behind the line and providing 35 in YAC. Running back Jaylen Warren’s lone explosive catch of the season also came on a screen in week 10 against the Saints, making the catch a yard past the line with 25 in YAC.

Next let’s look at the top right of the chart, with five other pass plays standing out above the rest, all to Pickens and Johnson. Three came from Trubisky, each having the edge in yardage and pass distance, while Pickett completed two of them to each receiver. These were largely go routes and all along the sideline, with Pickens having the most YAC of seven yards out of these plays. Interestingly, seven of the nine longest pass distances last season came week 10 or after, highlighting an encouraging element of improvement after the bye in explosives that can hopefully be more consistent in 2023.

Seeing Pickens lead the explosive catch rates his rookie season is not surprising, having 17 catches which accounted for 38.6% of these plays, and the only two explosive passing touchdowns on the year. He also had a whopping eight of the 11 catches on the top right of the chart (72.7%), and hopefully, he and Pickett continue their already strong connection as they embark on year two, providing even more than their 11 explosive plays.

Also hoping Pickett and Johnson can develop a stronger connection in these terms in 2023. Johnson only had seven total explosive catches with five coming from Pickett. Pickett and Trubisky had similar completion rates on explosive pass distances this season at 39.1 and 39.3%, but went 5/25 to Johnson (20%), and Pickett only connecting with him on 3/16 at only 18.8%. For comparison, Pickett to Pickens connected on 10/17 of their explosive pass distances (58.8%). Wow. One last thing that jumps out is Freiermuth’s catches, with all nine of them coming at a pass distance of 20 yards or less. While his distance of target did improve in 2022, seeing this hopefully build a bit more down the field is another hope for a passing offense looking to take the next step.

What are your thoughts on how the 2023 passing offense can improve in explosive plays? Thanks for reading and let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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