Without top wide receiver Diontae Johnson available for a pivotal Week Two AFC North battle between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cleveland Browns at Acrisure Stadium, the onus fell on second-year receiver George Pickens to deliver on the promise he showed throughout the offseason after a strong rookie season.
Boy, did he ever on Monday night.
Pickens looked like a true star receiver on the night, finishing with four catches for a career-high 127 yards and a touchdown on 10 targets, providing some explosive plays for the Steelers in a grind-it-out 26-22 win on Monday Night Football.
Pickens seized upon the No. 1 wide receiver role and delivered on all the talk from this offseason, one in which he called himself the best receiver in the world.
It helped that he provided significant splash and YAC on a 71-yard touchdown in the second quarter against the Browns.
Running a bang-8 route, Pickens find himself wide open in the middle of the field, making himself a big target for Kenny Pickett to fire a strike while under pressure.
Fifty-five yards after making the catch and forcing a missed tackle from Cleveland cornerback Martin Emerson Jr., Pickens is in the end zone.
For a guy that is continuing to develop as a route runner, this was a very solid route from Pickens with good detail. Good pace to it, sharp snap to hit the bang-8 and then he does a good job continuing across the field into the wide-open soft spot behind the robbing safety in the Cover 2 invert. Big play.
Of course, it’s also important to note this happened on a busted coverage by the Browns. Safety Grant Delpit, in his robber/lurker role, got a bit too aggressive and jumped the crossing route from tight end Pat Freiermuth, with Denzel Ward in Cover 2 with deep third responsibilities. Cover Two invert is a variation off of the famous Tampa 2 defense that has the safety take on some of the linebacker’s responsibilities over the middle of the field.
The Steelers took advantage of that aggressiveness from Delpit as Pickett stood tall in the pocket, took a big shot and delivered a strike to Pickens. The young receiver did the rest of the work, forcing Emerson to miss in space, turning an explosive play into a huge touchdown for the Steelers.
Pickens continued to build off of that against the Browns. But Pickett was a bit inaccurate on one throw late in the half that could have been a nice chunk of yardage, too.
After running just three total slant routes in Week One against the San Francisco 49ers, the Steelers ran a ton of slants on Monday Night Football, especially with Pickens, designed to get him the football on the move.
Here, he does a very good job of snapping that slant route off quickly against off-man coverage from Denzel Ward, creating a ton of space in the process. Though he slows just slightly at the top of his route to sit in the soft spot of the defense for the catch, Pickett misfires and throws it low and into the turf for the incompletion, leading to some frustrations from the young quarterback.
That’s a throw he should be making in his sleep, especially to a guy like Pickens. It’s a layup throw regardless of Pickens slowing slightly on the route or not.
Later in the game, Pickens started to take over as a route runner, especially on his 25-yard catch to spark the offense again.
Good release here from Pickens to get vertical and cause Ward to open up his hips. Once he sees that, Pickens then attacks the inside hip, gaining leverage on Ward to work back inside. Though he gets away with a slight push off at the top of his stem, it’s a very good route from Pickens. He creates a ton of separation and works his way into a wide-open throwing window, leading to the explosive play.
That’s a real teach-tape route from Pickens. Great to see.
His last catch of the night was another good route from Pickens. He runs a square out, finding the soft spot in the zone.
Though you’d like to see Pickens snap this off a bit sharper at the top of his route, he runs it with good pace overall and throttles down just enough to sit in the soft spot of the zone for the strike from Pickett.
Throughout the night Pickens showed very good feel for what the Browns were trying to do against him from a coverage standpoint. He attacked leverages very well, ran rather crisp routes and was adept at working his way into clear throwing windows. That all helped him put up a career high in receiving yards and helped him deliver on some of the noise he made this offseason about believing in his abilities.
With Johnson out another three weeks, let’s see if Pickens can continue to take his game to a new level in the Steelers’ passing attack in the No. 1 role.