Pittsburgh now sits at 2-2 after a painful 30-6 loss to Houston. For the second season, I am charting, visualizing, and providing takeaways for the all-important quarterback position for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
A couple of notes before we jump in. Thanks to Thomas Mock for his great work that helped me learn much of what I’m using in the series visually. Spikes and clear throwaways are removed due to being the correct situational decision, along with batted passes at the line of scrimmage that impact the intended pass location. This week, one throwaway was removed.
It was a bad day for the Steelers offense, particularly QB Kenny Pickett and the passing game. On the stat sheet, he was 15-of-23 (65.2 percent) for just 114 yards, no touchdowns, an interception, 59.0 passer rating, and three sacks. There are several ways you can dice up the horrendous stats.
Only three passing first downs the entire game was extremely infuriating. Four first-quarter throws, seven yards, and the pick. Just three completed air yards in the first half (49 all game). Pickett was locking onto his first read and forcing throws. Most painful was the continual issue of bailing clean pockets, running into the sack that he was injured on, exiting the game and potentially longer.
Cue QB Mitch Trubisky, who got his first playing time in 2023. He played the fourth quarter, going 3-of-5 for 18 yards, no touchdowns, interceptions (one nearly picked), or sacks, and a 67.1 passer rating.
Let’s start with a simple view of the 27 charted passes, with a number of throws at each pass distance for the game:
The most common pass distance was 0-5 air-yards (37-percent). The first pass of the game was on a roll to the right, high to TE Pat Freiermuth on an out incomplete against tight coverage. Wide receiver George Pickens caught a first-quarter out as well, then fumbled it out of bounds. On a third and ten, Pickett was hit as he threw (pressure allowed by OT Broderick Jones), getting the line of scrimmage dump-off to RB Jaylen Warren for just two yards on the fail.
In the second half, Pickett ran right into pressure off play-action, luckily able to get it off to Freiermuth in the flat along with a bit of churn and four yards. An enjoyable play was another play-action, rolling left and hitting TE Darnell Washington wide-open in the flat for his first NFL catch, with good YAC on the chain mover. Trubisky had a low throw against tight coverage on an in-breaker from Pickens, on another well-defensed pass.
Second most was 10-15 air yards (22.2 percent) for the second week in a row. One was a third and eight in the second quarter on a post to Pickens, accurate but well defended once again and broken up. Houston’s pass defense deserves credit, covering Pickens well again on a comeback that was undercut.
Pittsburgh finally got their first chain-moving pass at 13:19 in the third quarter, a nice throw and outside-the-frame catch on the corner route by WR Calvin Austin for 12 yards. The next example was one of the few highlights, a third and four scramble drill where Pickett threw a dart to RB Najee Harris, making a great catch to the ground at 11 air yards, popping up and adding explosive YAC on the 32-yard conversion. The sad part is Harris led the team in receiving yards on his lone catch. The following pass was Pittsburgh’s only red zone opportunity, with Pickett going back-shoulder to Pickens, who wanted it higher as it was broken up yet again.
More behind-the-line passes this week at 18.5 percent, which is confusing being down the whole game. The first was a horrid TE screen off of play-action to Freiermuth, with the defender all over it and a loss of six. The next screen was to Warren, catching it five yards behind the line, and churning for a two-yard gain despite a missed facemask call. On the following third and eight, it’s a dump-off to Warren with valiant YAC but stopped a yard short, and noted Freiermuth open over the middle.
A total of 14.8 percent were 5-10 air yards. Couple out routes early, to WR Allen Robinson II and Pickens. In the third quarter, it’s third and goal on the five-yard line, and Pickett is locked on to Robinson who is double covered and throws it anyway as he takes QB hit(s) (C Mason Cole & Jones both beat on a twist), and TE Connor Heyward was open in the corner of the end zone.
The team’s 15-20 air yards came in at 11.1 percent. One was Pickett bailing a clean pocket, a scramble drill where he locked on to Harris who was well covered and incomplete, and noted Heyward open over the middle. Trubisky’s near pick came at this distance, where Pickens became the defender and was thankfully able to knock it away.
Just 3.7 percent were explosive (one attempt), the least common distance once again despite the blowout. Not only is the frequency infuriating, it’s an interception on the second pass of the game, virtually the same play-call as last week’s touchdown. Predictable and painful.
Here are the dots of completions and incompletions for week four:
Ugh. The lone throw of 20-plus was double explosive air yards but picked. Throws of 15-20 air yards were also a struggle, with both QBs going 0-of-3 including Trubisky’s near interception. Pickett had the only 10-15 air-yard attempts, going three-for-six. So, at 10 or more air yards, Pickett was 3-of-8 (37.5 percent), where five of his seven incompletions came (71.4 percent), yikes. He was 2-of-3 at 5-10 air yards, with Trubisky completing his lone attempt there. A grain of salt was Pickett went 11-of-12 at five air yards or less (91.7 percent), but highlights the struggles downfield. Trubisky was 2-of-3 in that range.
Not too much to glean from sides of the field in terms of frequency. Pickett slightly favored the right going 7-of-9, and was 5-of-7 to the left. Between the numbers was the issue, going 0-of-3 at 10-plus air yards, and his three completions were at two, -5, and -7 air yards. Wow.
Now for the heat maps, with all the charted passes for the game, then completions only:
Miserable. Houston was able to keep a lid on things, but these are atrocious charts, especially being down the entire game. Air yards and explosive plays are a necessity in today’s league, and both were lacking, having to lean on defense and special team perfection. Not a consistent model for winning as we saw on Sunday. History says we won’t see a change, but we should. Coach Tomlin said as much, but was alluding to more physicality, not schematics (unfortunately).
Now let’s look at all 123 charted throws this season, with frequencies by distance and previous averages:
#1. 0-5 air-yards: Season 34.1-percent. Previously 33.3-percent.
#2. 5-10 air-yards: Season 25.2-percent. Previously 28.1-percent.
#3. Behind the line: Season 18.7-percent. Previously 18.8-percent.
#4. 10-15 air-yards: Season 16.3-percent. Previously 14.6-percent.
#5. 15-20 air-yards: Season 13.0-percent. Previously 13.5-percent.
#6. Explosive (20+ air-yards): Season 8.1-percent. Previously 9.4-percent.
No changes in the rankings this week. The biggest change in the rates was 5-10 air yards dipping nearly three percent. 10-15 air-yard frequencies were the highest riser, and explosives have decreased each week, discouragingly.
Considering Trubisky’s low attempts (five), I’ll continue with dots for all Pickett’s 2023 charted throws (118), along with his completion rates by distance:
Behind the line: Season 20/22 (90.9-percent). Previously 16/18 (88.9-percent).
0-5 air-yards: Season 31/40 (77.5-percent). Previously 24/32 (75-percent).
5-10 air-yards: Season 18/30 (60-percent). Previously 16/27 (59.3-percent).
10-15 air-yards: Season 11/20 (55-percent). Previously 8/14 (57.1-percent).
15-20 air-yards: Season 5/15 (33.3-percent). Previously 5/13 (38.5-percent).
Explosive: Season 2/10 (20-percent). Previously 2/9 (22.2-percent).
Expected results considering the week four game. Improved rates at ten air yards or less, and all 10-plus distances dipping. So many issues to this, including lack of creativity, play-calling, slow starts, lack of separation, decision-making, and accuracy on the laundry list the 2023 offense is struggling with.
To close, here are heat maps for all of Pickett’s charted passes in 2023, then completions only:
Virtually the same charts as last week, except for one more deep shot on the first visual (interception). Just two explosive air-yard completions in four games, which is at the bottom of the league. One lone bright spot down the field on the completions-only chart was the explosive 72-yard touchdown in Week Three. The other was to Pickens right at 20 air yards in Week Two.
The lack of frequency and success must improve if this team wants to consistently compete in today’s NFL. Pair this with a poor YAC game, which has been a common difference-maker in wins/losses this season, it’s a recipe for disaster. Only one play with 10-plus YAC this week from Harris. On top of it all is the injury to Pickett, and the question over who will play in an important game against Baltimore. Right now, it seems to be Pickett. Hopefully, we see a much better showing on Sunday and after the following bye week.
Thanks for reading and let me know your thoughts in the comments.