The Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2002 offense wouldn’t exactly be accurately described as an aggressive one, particularly with then-rookie Kenny Pickett at quarterback. He ranked 17th out of 36 qualifying quarterbacks, for example, in deep pass attempt percentage, attempting throws of 20-plus air yards on only 12.1 percent of his passes, according to Pro Football Focus. He also had the second-shallowest average depth of target on his deep passes. That won’t necessarily be indicative of the future.
Indeed, the second-year quarterback spoke on a number of subjects yesterday while appearing on 93.7 The Fan with Andrew Fillipponi and Chris Mueller, and at one point he talked about the possibility of being more aggressive. He believes he is getting to that point in his comfort level and wants his receivers to expect to be a potential target on every dropback.
“I think the first two days I’d say that we’re hitting different spots of the field that we want to hit”, he said. “It goes into mastering the system. I was still just learning the plays and ‘Here’s my progressions’ and ‘Here’s my read’. Now I’m at the point where it’s like, ‘If I see this coverage, I have this route, I know I’m gonna attack it, I know this is my shot to hit one deep’.
“I think I’m starting to get to that point now, here everyone’s running to win, everyone knows they have a shot to get the ball. There aren’t just routes where, ‘Hey, just clear it out’. You have a legitimate chance to get it if we get that perfect coverage. That’s the evolution of the offense and the evolution of where I’m at, mastering the system”.
A lot of that does have to do with simply being a rookie quarterback, and especially with being a rookie who spent the entirety of his offseason functioning as a second- or third-string quarterback. Pickett also spent the first month of his rookie season running the scout team as the backup to Mitch Trubisky (who was a more aggressive thrower, indicating that it was less about the offense itself).
Pickett did have his success when he threw down the field, throwing for 477 yards and four touchdowns, though he also threw five interceptions. Most of those came early in his playing time before he settled in and included some outlier plays that weren’t entirely his fault.
He’s never going to have the biggest or strongest arm in the league, but the deep passing component of his game is certainly an area in which he can continue to expand. It should be a more prominent part of the offense in 2023, with perhaps George Pickens being the primary beneficiary. Perhaps it’s an area in which Calvin Austin III can contribute as well.
But, of course, it’s not about just hitting on big plays, as important as they are. The most valuable function of growth in this department is simply the ability to use the entirety of the field and the advantage that comes with forcing a defense to honor every inch of grass. If you open up the deep part of the field, the intermediate areas become more inviting as well. And on and on it goes.