Over the bye week, we wondered what changes the Pittsburgh Steelers offense would make in an attempt to turn things around for the second half of the season. Although it wasn’t exactly fireworks, they moved the ball around and put some points on the board, tying their season-high 20 points against the New Orleans Saints.
After browsing the All-22 this morning, here are some of the takeaways from the movie theater.
Welcome back, Najee Harris
To say that this game against the Saints was Harris’ best of the season would be an understatement. In the first half, the sophomore running back snapped a massive 36-yard gain on a cutback with the Steelers executing a shotgun split zone, crushing defenders in the process.
Harris just looked more decisive that day, understanding when to be patient and when to put his foot down and head north.
As if averaging almost 5.0 yards per carry wasn’t enough, Harris also stood out in pass protection.
There were two separate occasions when he was able to identify and neutralize free blitzes down the middle. His only target came on a wheel road near the end zone that could have been caught, but he still could have been a factor in the passing game due to his blocking.
After a disappointing second campaign so far, let’s hope this performance catapults him back on track.
Diontae Johnson and George Pickens ripped the cover of Man
At the start of the week, I mentioned that the Saints played more men’s coverage than any NFL team and that led me to feel pretty confident that the Steelers receivers would be successful.
Due to factors beyond their control, the numbers weren’t really indicative of the extent of the trouble these two caused around corners of the Saints’ borders.
Johnson tormented Saints corner Paulson Adebo several times throughout the game and Pickett hit him on a ball down the right sideline in the second half for their longest scrimmage play.
The book has been out on Johnson for quite some time as he is well known at this point to be one of the best splitters against the man’s cover. But we can’t forget George Pickens either. With him in the fold, Pittsburgh rightfully has two receivers who can easily beat media coverage, and that’s a luxury few teams are blessed with.
From racing breaking routes to trying to win vertically, Pickens had an impressive day on film despite having limited targets. With two dynamic weapons on the outside, Pittsburgh is in good shape for the foreseeable future.
Kenny Pickett’s uneven day
Pickett’s day was full of ups and downs for a plethora of reasons.
Let’s start with the positives which mostly revolve around Pickett’s ability to make plays as a runner. The rookie caught the Saints in their patented 2-man look in the second half and decided to call his own number, to the tune of a 23-yard run. He also converted a few quarterback stealths that moved the chains.
He was precise and decisive on the quick game passing concepts he sometimes struggled with against Philadelphia. Probably a point of attention from the coaching staff, he looked after the football well. After a dangerous pass on a route to Pat Freiermuth early in the game, he played clean football and failed to return the ball for the second time this season.
While it was nice to see Pickett scatter a bit more on Sunday (7.7 average target depth), the results weren’t great when he did, as he was only 1-5 on shots. throws that have traveled more than 15 yards downfield.
He’s still a little hesitant to pull the trigger when throwing between numbers or in tight windows on the field. The Saints did a good job throwing out a bunch of pre-snap disguises, which was confusing as you would expect from a rookie.
Overall, he left a few big plays on the court, but finished with his first positive EPA game (points added expected) as a starter, which is progress nonetheless.
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Kevin Dotson’s struggles continue
Personally, I’m past the point of hoping Dotson will return to the promising player he looked like as a rookie in 2020. While we’re not expecting an impact player at this point, it’s not unreasonable to ask for a quality game. We haven’t gotten much this season from Dotson and this week has been more or less the same, unfortunately.
Pass pro has usually been where Dotson makes his money, but there were times against the Saints where he looked lost and confused.
On the first down, he was beaten for a sack inside the red zone where he was caught lunging and losing his balance. There was at least one other time where it looked like he was at fault by not understanding his mission and slipping the wrong way in the pro pass.
The left side of the offensive line is very clearly bogging down this unit, and if the Steelers want to turn things around this season, that has to change. Either way, upgrades, left tackle and left guard should be high on Omar Khan’s priority list in the offseason.
Some accessories for Matt Canada
In an effort to be fair, Canada (and whoever was involved, potentially Mike Sullivan) deserves some credit for their call and game plan, both of which were rock solid.
It was not something revolutionary. They didn’t set the world on fire or anything, but it was progress nonetheless.
That’s the most cruisers I’ve seen implemented into the offense since the Patriots’ Week 2 game. In his postgame presser, Pickett mentioned they were running more in routes of rupture that were evident on film even when the results weren’t always there. It looked like they were more receiver looks too, cutting the field in half for Pickett. He even called an action play from the gun where the linebacker bit the fake and Pickett threw right behind him.
There were also plenty of half-court reads for the quarterback, which made life pretty easy for Pickett in the quick game. They executed the spot concept multiple times, the last of which went to Jaylen Warren on third down in the red zone that resulted in a first down.
At the end of the film session, I came away with the idea that Canada gave Pickett the necessary answers for the looks he was seeing on the majority of the snaps, which is what you expect from an offensive coordinator. If not for the missed chances on the field, they could have scored at least one more touchdown.
All the above things are what we asked for. There’s still a long way to go before anyone starts clamoring to return for a third season, but it doesn’t seem fair not to acknowledge the progress after the bye week.
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