Where are the Steelers splash plays going to come from?
The Pittsburgh Steelers offense desperately needs to produce more splash plays in 2023.
Rarely, if ever, is there a statement that generates unanimous approval like that one does. Achieving that objective should be the Steelers next step towards their final destination: putting consistent production on the scoreboard.
The Steelers offense struggled mightily out of the gates last season. They hit rock bottom during blowout road losses to the Eagles and Bills. They had nowhere to go but up, but how? They lacked any semblance of explosiveness, and were being led by a rookie quarterback. While their situation looked bleak, I saw a glimmer of hope on the horizon.
I wrote an article listing ways the Steelers offense could take realistic baby steps in the right direction. There were no quick fixes or easy answers. The Steelers needed to focus on the basics. Fundamentals and execution. Reduce penalties and eliminate turnovers. Play clean football, and for heaven’s sake, improve their time of possession.
I truly believe that the Steelers coaches felt the same way, and focused their bye week attention on improving the aforementioned areas under their control. The results speak for themselves. The Steelers offense led the league in time of possession over the second half of the season. This sustained success shortened the games, and kept their defense well rested.
The Steelers offense strived for improved execution, and for the most part, mission accomplished. Far fewer missed blocks and failed assignments. However, even with the improved execution, they still struggled to put the ball in the end zone.
So the Steelers offense is fully committed to a new objective in 2023, and they appear to have a focused plan in place to achieve it. Omar Khan appears to have done a masterful job this offseason acquiring specified talents in the biggest areas of need. Size, strength, speed, and experience.
Now it’s up to the coaches to maximize the talent at their disposal, and for the players to execution to the best of their abilities. The process will inevitably take time, but the talent appears to be there.
Speaking of talent, there are multiple players that I believe are capable of producing substantially more splash plays than the Steelers ground and pound offense was able to produce last season. Let’s take a closer look at a few candidates.
Calvin Austin III
If speed kills, then Austin should be an assassin. His 4.32 forty confirms his elite track level speed, but his elusiveness and instant acceleration makes him extremely dangerous. If he’s even, he’s leaving, because few players can match his extra gear.
Talent is only part of the equation needed to generate splash plays. Plenty of chunk plays are the result of defensive miscues. Mismatches, missed tackles, and communication issues are the precursors of numerous big plays; but only if you have the attributes to fully exploit defensive mistakes.
This is precisely why I believe that Austin’s speed will benefit the Steelers bigtime in 2023. A slip by a defender here, a missed tackle there. All he needs is a sliver of daylight to take it the distance. A handful of these game changing plays would do wonders for the Steelers plodding offense of 2022. Every drive doesn’t have to be tedious and time consuming.
Speed isn’t the only way to create splash plays. Exceptional size and strength often produce mismatches that can be just as dangerous. Those qualities describe Washington to a tee. Now I am not suggesting that Washington doesn’t have adequate speed, because he does, especially for his gigantic size, but his stature and strength are his biggest advantages.
Washington is a 6’7″ skyscraper, with superior athleticism and mobility. He will cut his teeth in the NFL by rag-dolling defenders in the running game, but he will eventually abuse smaller or slower defenders down the seams and in the red-zone once he becomes more accustomed to the NFL game. Simply put, Washington is an instant mismatch the instant he steps on the field. All he needs is patience and persistence.
Heyward actually made a handful of splash plays last season, even though he was TE3 on the depth chart, and rarely saw the field on offense. However, he showed a knack for producing chunk plays in his limited opportunities.
An unexpected scenario developed this offseason. The Steelers decision makers decided to split up the Watt brother’s family reunion, and allow Derek to leave via free agency. Connor Heyward appears to be one of the reasons why, and for a couple of logical reasons.
Heyward is extremely versatile, and has every attribute needed to be an excellent H-back. Plus, Canada has proven very efficient at utilizing his H-backs at previous places of employment on his collegiate resume. The man may have no idea how to scheme his wide receivers open, but he can work wonders with a tight end or H-back.
I envision a much more explosive Steelers offense in 2023. Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren breaking off frequent 10+ yard runs, operating behind the Steelers much improved offensive line. Kenny Pickett capitalizing on the surging rushing attack, which dictates and limits the creativity of opposing defenses, by generating numerous chunk plays off of play action against overmatched and indecisive defenses. Diontae Johnson, George Pickens, and Pat Freiermuth finally put in favorable circumstances to create splash plays.
That being said, I have a sneaky suspicion that the three candidates listed above will provide the field stretching proficiency that has been missing in action for the Steelers offense over the past couple of seasons.