AP Photo/Michael Conroy
Kenny Pickett isn’t a franchise quarterback. But he can be.
The Pittsburgh Steelers must do what’s necessary to properly build around this year’s 20th overall draft pick and place him in a position to succeed.
That’s not currently the case, despite Monday’s 24-17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts.
If anything, the win showed how far the Steelers are from being a consistently competitive team and how much the offense needs to improve, both schematically and from a personnel standpoint.
Outdueling an inept Colts offense led by a severely limited Matt Ryan isn’t a feather in the Steelers’ cap. Sure, any win is a good win. At the same time, both teams struggled throughout the contest, particularly when asked to move the ball with any regularity.
To Pickett’s credit, the rookie pieced together a fine performance. He completed 71.4 percent of his passes for 174 yards, earned an 87.5 passer rating and rushed for 32 yards.
Those numbers may seem meager on the surface, but Pittsburgh’s wide receivers dropped multiple passes after Pickett made accurate throws. His ability to extend plays also served as a critical component in extending some drives.
“He’s getting better every week,” Tomlin told reporters. “It’s in a very natural way because of experience. He’s a competitor. He’s smart. But there is still a lot of meat on the bone. It’s just a process.
AP Photo/Michael Conroy
“But like I always say, he’s good enough, and we’re good enough to win while that happens. So, we’re not grading him or us on a curve. We acknowledge that he’s very much in development. … With each snap comes exposure. Sharp guys, guys that are competitors, grow from those things.”
All in all, the first-year signal-caller played efficient football when he should have since the Colts continually utilized soft zone coverage and typically sent four men to rush the passer.
In fact, Pickett hasn’t committed a turnover in three straight games, though he can do so much more if given an opportunity to do so. Right now, the entire offense is limited, and those issues don’t necessarily fall at the rookie’s feet.
The scheme is predictable, overly simplistic and uninspired. Head coach Mike Tomlin must find a replacement for offensive coordinator Matt Canada after this season.
“It was us giving them plays,” Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Germaine Pratt told CBS Sports just last week after his squad captured a 37-30 victory over the Steelers. “We knew what they were going to do. They like to do the same plays over and over.”
Tomlin and Canada downplayed the comments through the squad’s subsequent preparation for the Colts.
“That is what they [the Bengals] say when they’re having success, and they don’t say it when they are not,” the head coach said. “I don’t worry much about that. I focus on things that are in our control.”
Canada said, “It was brought to my attention what was said. I’ve known Pratt since he was in high school. As you guys do all your investigating, sometimes there is more to stories. It is what it is. We didn’t win the game. We were not good enough second half.”
It turns out that winning or losing doesn’t really matter in this instance, based on what occurred Monday.
A Colts defender was overhead during the telecast, yelling, “It’s the same plays.”
Unoriginality and lack of schematic creativity in a league built to favor offenses are completely unacceptable. The staff can admit to running “some repeat concepts” all it likes. Yes, all play-designers have their favorite calls.
But multiple opponents knowing what the Steelers are doing during back-to-back weeks is highly problematic, especially with a rookie quarterback trying to navigate those turbulent waters infested by sharks.
And if not for Indianapolis’ own offensive ineptitude, the Colts defense played well enough to win the contest.
Nonetheless, a new system is only as effective as those on the field executing. Pittsburgh’s issues with drops at wide receiver and inconsistencies along the offensive line remain stumbling points.
The investments at wide receiver have already been made, with Diontae Johnson signing a two-year, $36.7 million extension in August after drafting George Pickens in the second round. Two things should occur from this point forward.
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First, Pickens should be treated as the team’s No. 1 wide receiver. The 6’3″, 200-pound target has elite body control and ball-tracking skills. He’s a typical X-receiver capable of a 100-catch season. Drops may rear their ugly head once in a while, but those can be forgiven, thanks to some spectacular grabs along the way.
Johnson may be paid like the Steelers’ top wide receiver, but he’s simply not consistent enough to be treated as anything more than a complementary piece—a very good one when things are going well, but a complementary piece nonetheless.
Furthermore, the Chase Claypool trade to the Chicago Bears opened the door for yet another wide receiver selection in the draft.
This time, the Steelers can concentrate on a reliable hands-catcher who can eventually serve as Pickett’s security blanket. SMU’s Rashee Rice, Boston College’s Zay Flowers and North Carolina’s Josh Downs are a few names to keep in mind as next year’s draft cycle gains momentum.
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The previously mentioned prospects are currently projected as Day 2 options. Pittsburgh’s top priority should once again be the offensive line.
Dan Moore Jr. may be only 24 years old, but he looks outmatched at times. A first-round investment in the premium position would go a long way to help Pickett in hopes of cutting down backside pressure.
Even with Monday’s outcome, the 4-7 Steelers still find themselves in a logjam for a high draft pick. They currently own the 12th overall selection, according to Tankathon and should be in range for one of the top offensive tackle prospects, whether it’s someone like Northwestern’s Peter Skoronski or Ohio State’s Paris Johnson Jr.
A new offensive approach with Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren and Benny Snell in the backfield, coupled with Pickens, Johnson, another talented wide receiver and tight end Pat Freiermuth, as well as an upgrade at left tackle, should give Pickett everything he needs to be successful.
The Steelers don’t have the next Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen behind center. Even so, Pickett can be good enough to help the team consistently win as long as he’s placed in the right situation. As of now, he isn’t.
The setup should drastically change in the coming months.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.
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