The Pittsburgh Steelers already have one of the best-receiving cores in all of football. The group is young and still developing but they have great potential. Yet, the entire offense has been struggling under the direction of coordinator Matt Canada. Plus, rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett, who took over the reins from Mitch Trubisky in Week 4, has played rather poorly to begin his career. Pickett has shown flashes of talent and potential but still has a long way to go. And with that, his receivers are going to struggle too.
Pittsburgh Steelers Receivers on Pace For Historically Poor Season
The Steelers have had no recent struggle to find good, promising receivers. The team has been blessed with great talent at the wideout and tight-end positions in recent times. In the past 15 years, Steelers fans have been able to watch Antonio Brown, Santonio Holmes, Hines Ward, and Heath Miller, to name a few. Plus, great and consistent quarterback play from Ben Roethlisberger helped these receivers become some of the best of all time.
In the past 15 seasons, the Steelers have had a 1000+ yard receiver in 12 of those years. And in all 15 years, there has been a 700+ yard receiver each season. Pittsburgh has also been fortunate enough to have two receivers eclipse the 600+ yard mark in each of the past 15 seasons. As of now, the 2022 Steelers do not have a singular receiver over the 482-yard mark yet. All three of their featured receivers have 450 or more yards already but there is still work to do to match this historical run. The Steelers will have seven more games to keep this record going but their offense has been limited, so it’s something to pay attention to.
This is by no means a knock on any of the Pittsburgh Steelers receivers because they’re all tremendously talented. Instead, it’s pointing out that this offense has been incredibly inefficient and is on pace to set a new low after nearly two decades of astounding play.
Current Receiving Situation for Pittsburgh
Diontae Johnson’s Year Four Setback
Veteran wide receiver Diontae Johnson paces the team in targets (86) and receptions (51) this year and falls second on the team with 456 yards. Unfortunately, Johnson has not been able to reach the end zone this year, something he did eight times last year. In 2021, the ex-Toledo Rocket was a Pro Bowler behind 107 receptions and 1,161 yards in his third NFL season. Johnson and Pickett have not been able to hook up much and it’s clear that he’s not the favored target. However, he is open quite a bit and lowered his drop percentage to just 3% this year, among the league’s best.
Johnson has not had a 100+ yard game this year, a feat that occurred three times in 2021; something has to change for him. He is simply too talented to not be racking up yards and touchdowns. He doesn’t seem to work well in Matt Canada’s scripted offense and things are going to have to change in order to maximize his potential.
George Pickens’ Stalled Breakout
Wide receiver George Pickens, the rookie phenom out of Georgia, has since heated up following an underwhelming start. Pickens had just 65 yards in the first three games but has since eclipsed 60 yards in four of seven games. He has started to assume the Pittsburgh Steelers receiver one role but is putting up numbers below the average for an NFL WR1. Pickens has tremendous deep-play ability but has struggled recently with drops. He had two big missed opportunities against the Bengals in the seven-point loss but also contributed by adding 83 yards and a touchdown. Pickens has 453 yards already and is on pace to end up with around 800 yards. Whether Kenny Pickett keeps feeding him or not will determine if he reaches a solid mark in his rookie season.
Pat Freiermuth Missingfrom Red Zone
Tight end Pat Freiermuth is in his second season and is already one of the most important weapons in Pittsburgh. The tight end out of Penn State currently leads the team in receiving yards with 482 so far in 2022. Freiermuth only had 497 yards last year and is close to breaking that mark already, but his red zone presence has been absent this year. Last year, he found the end zone seven times but has only scored once this year. However, the Steelers have only had seven passing touchdowns this year, which is also on pace to set another low record.
The Search for a WR3
The Steelers don’t absolutely need a great WR3 but it’s good to have another option. The guy who has the fourth-most receiving yards this year is no longer on the Steelers. Chase Claypool had 311 yards with Pittsburgh before being traded to Chicago. After that, Gunner Olszewski, Steven Sims, and Miles Boykin combined for 13 catches and just 68 yards. There really is no clear third receiver, and only having two good wideouts to cover is easier for opponents. Perhaps having someone else break out will loosen the coverage on Johnson and Pickens and allow them more catches.
What Needs to Happen
None of the Steelers’ receivers have reached that 700-yard mark yet and are at risk of breaking the streak. Simply put, the planning and play calling from Matt Canada and Kenny Pickett’s execution have to step up. The offense is ranked among the league’s lowest in most categories and as a result, the players are suffering.
The Steelers need to start using the middle of the field more and just get it to their receivers. There is no need to have Kenny Pickett having 50 pass attempts if he’s only going to end up with just over 200 yards. The receivers have enough talent to get open and get some extra yards, and Pickett just needs to find them more frequently. After watching their games, I noticed that Pickett seems focused on only one target or one side of the field every play. Either he has poor field vision that needs to be worked on, or he is being held back and told to throw it to certain people. Once the offense is freed, one way or another, the team can start to string together success on that side of the ball.
Each one of these three featured receivers should be getting no fewer than eight looks/targets per game, especially if Pickett is throwing 35-50 times a game. There is simply no excuse to not get the ball out to your playmakers, especially when you have some of the league’s best.
Rest of the Season
The Steelers’ final seven games will give their receivers a chance to shine in the team’s home stretch. They will play the Indianapolis Colts, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Las Vegas Raiders, Cleveland Browns, and Baltimore Ravens twice to close out the year. Almost all of those teams have good or at least decent secondaries and will likely cause some problems for Pittsburgh. But if the Steelers start spreading the ball around more and use all of their best options fairly, they will start to see massive improvements on offense.
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