The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Cleveland Browns in the regular season finale on Sunday, winning by a final score of 28-14. It was an ugly game for all intends and purposes as the passing game for either team struggled to get anything going along with the referees getting involved due to several penalties enforced on both sidelines. Still, Pittsburgh managed to find a way to victory as they have throughout the second half of the season, extending HC Mike Tomlin’s non-losing season streak another year, but failing to make it into the postseason.
Rookie WR George Pickens capped off his 2022 season with a strong performance, catching three passes on six targets for 72 yards (24.0 YPR) and a TD. While watching the game, it was easy to pick out Pickens’ TD as the play to gravitate to as he 31-yard reception for the score was Pittsburgh’s longest scoring play on the year.
When watching the play, however, there wasn’t anything spectacular about the catch-and-run itself. Pickens lines up in the slot on the right side of the formation and runs straight up the seam with the nickel defender dropping to the flat and the safety staying put in the middle of the field with his eyes locked on Kenny Pickett. Pickens blows straight by the defender who recognizes too late, catching the wide-open pass from Pickett at the five and jogs in for the score.
Prior to that play, Pickett and Pickens had some trouble getting on the same page as the two failed to connect on two targets before the TD. One of those missed attempts comes on this play where Pickett drops back to pass as Pickens runs up the sideline at the top of your screen, slowly rounding his route off at its breaking point inside toward the middle of the field. Pickett sails the pass well over Pickens’ head having the pass fall incomplete. Still, we have been critiquing Pickens and his route running since he has come out of Georgia, and the lack of urgency at the top of his route in this clip makes it look like he wasn’t expecting to get the pass thrown his way.
Shortly after the TD reception to Pickens, Pickett went back to his fellow rookie two of his next three pass attempts during their next possession. The first play Pickett connects with Pickens on the left sideline for a 24-yard gain on second down where Pickens works up the sideline against CB #23 Martin Emerson. Pickens starts to stack Emerson vertically when Pickett throws a back shoulder pass to Pickens who comes back to the ball and makes the along the sideline in-front of Emerson. Emerson wraps up Pickens, who is clearly in-bounds, but tries to pick up additional yardage before being shoved out with #22 Grant Delpit coming in to help force Pickens out.
The very next play, Pickett goes to Pickens again running down the left sideline with Emerson in coverage. This time, however, Emerson stays in good position with Pickens through the entire play, covering him tight as the ball arrives. Still, Pickens manages to locate the football while battling for position with Emerson and makes a twirling grab, snagging the ball as it gets thrown near the boundary as he attempts to drag his toes in-bounds. Sadly, the pass is ruled incomplete as the referee rules that Pickens didn’t have both feet down when he made the catch prior to falling out of bounds.
As you can see from the previous clips above, Pickens is a receiver that thrives in contested catch situations. His size, leaping ability, hands, and body control make him the ideal acrobatic catcher of the football. While Pickett and Pickens were unable to connect on a second consecutive sideline throw, they did manage to connect later in the second half on this pass attempt where Pickens once again matches up with Emerson at the bottom of your screen as he looks for the back shoulder throw. The two get into a hand fight, leading to Emerson yanking Pickens to the ground as the ball arrives. However, Pickens manages to secure the reception while falling to the ground, moving the chains for the Steelers’ offense.
Emerson had a problem with being too grabby throughout Sunday’s contest, yanking on Pickens on several occasions. He got called for it here on Pittsburgh’s statement drive in the fourth quarter, getting flagged for pass interference as Pickens breaks inside on a slant route on the goal line. The flag gives Pittsburgh a fresh set of downs, setting them up for the Derek Watt TD to put the game away.
Despite Pickens having to deal with Emerson’s grabby tendencies in this game, I came away wanting more from him in terms of executing like a well-rounded wide receiver. We saw the play above on the miss from Pickett where Pickens didn’t have the cleanest route, and on this missed opportunity down the field, we see Pickens struggle at getting off press coverage and adequately generate separation. Pickens gets an inside release on this play as the defender gets hands-on with him at the top of his route. This causes Pickens to stumble, leading to him slowing down and not effectively separating from coverage. Pickens is unable to accelerate forward on the deep ball attempt from Pickett that falls just in-front his hands.
Overall, Pittsburgh Steelers WR George Pickens had himself a strong first season in the Black and Gold. He finished the season catching 52 passes on 84 targets for 801 yards (15.4 YPR) and four TDs while chipping in three carries for 24 yards and another score. Sunday’s game was a great snapshot at Pickens’ season and what he consistently did well as well as the areas of his game he needs to improve on heading into his second season. His physical talents are immense, being open when he’s technically covered thanks to his jump ball skills. Still, he needs to improve his route running and ability to separate at the top of his routes to take that step forward as a potential WR1 in the league.
Looking at George Pickens, you would say that he has the traits, frame, and demeanor to become a prototypical alpha receiver in the NFL. Given the fact that he had an abbreviated offseason coming off an ACL injury that cost him most of his final college season and had to learn on-the-fly amid a tumultuous offense and a QB change, Pickens produced about how you would expect a talented rookie would in his first NFL season. Still, now the Steelers and the rest of the league knows what talent Pickens possesses, and it will be up to him to take that step forward to secure his first 1,000-yard season and cement himself as one of the best young WRs in the game in 2023.
What are your thoughts on George Pickens’ performance against the Cleveland Browns? Do you think he produced about how you would expect his rookie season would go? What does he need to improve on to take a step forward in 2023 and what would be a reasonable stat line for him in Year Two? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!