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The Steelers need to keep working in play action to establish offensive success

Through three games, the Steelers find themselves situated at 2-1, in a three-way tie for first place in the AFC North. The team’s record and standing would indicate a unit that’s kept pace well with the Ravens, Bengals and Browns, all of whom have legitimate playoff aspirations, and two of which have looked dominant at times. But, that really couldn’t be further from the truth.

Pittsburgh has truly eked out those two victories — and probably should be 0-3 based on how its offense has played alone. Despite scoring touchdowns on every possession its starting O played in the preseason, Matt Canada’s unit is 30th in EPA/play, 29th in success rate and has scored 56 points in three games, with 14 of them courtesy of defensive touchdowns.

The blame along the Steelers’ offense can be attributed to a multitude of factors. For one, the injury of Diontae Johnson removed the team’s top receiving option, and a legitimately elite route runner who consistently found himself open. On top of that, the team’s revamped offensive line has not gelled thus far in either pass- or run-blocking, ranking dead last in pass-blocking and 28th in run-blocking, per PFF. Further, Canada’s play-calling has still lacked synchrony and, at times, logic.

Ultimately, though, the largest concern through three games has been sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett. Pickett played better against the Las Vegas Raiders on Sunday night, but, through three contests, is 29th in adjusted EPA/play and in completion percentage over expected (CPOE). If PFF grades are more your cup of tea, Pickett sits 29th in overall and passing grade among signal-callers to play 75+ dropbacks. No matter if you utilize stats or analyze the film, Pickett has struggled mightily with accuracy, unnecessarily leaving clean pockets and reading the field.

I mentioned, though, that Pickett appeared to have made some improvements in Allegiant Stadium. A large component of that came through play action. On such plays, Pickett went 6-for-8 for 61 yards, a touchdown and an aDOT of eight yards.

Against the Raiders, Canada dialed up play action on 26.7% of Pickett’s throws; for context, that figure was at 15.6% facing the Browns, and only 5.8% (!) against the 49ers. Admittedly, the quality of those two elite defenses probably inhibited slower-developing plays, but that’s a significant jump — with a clear correlation to growth.

Following a third quarter interception of Jimmy Garoppolo, the Steelers’ offense came out firing and ultimately augmented the team’s lead to 23-7. Pittsburgh marched right down the field, amassing 81 yards on only six plays, with four being passes — gaining 17, 16, 14 and 13 yards, with the latter a touchdown from Pickett to Pat Freiermuth. Three of those four throws were off of play action, which seemed to enable Pickett to better read and manipulate defenses, plus for Pittsburgh to attack vacancies in the middle of the field.

Aside from a smaller sample size of one possession against the Raiders, the broader concept of Pickett’s success off play action has been substantiated more fully across three games.

PFF grades Pickett with a 79.8 offensive and 78.1 passing grade when a ball fake is utilized, a gaudy jump from a 47.5 overall grade and 45.8 passing without one. Likewise, the second-year QB is ninth in offensive grade and 10th in passing grade for quarterbacks under play action (minimum 75 dropbacks).

The Steelers’ offense looked slightly more like its unblemished preseason form in Las Vegas, but there’s still considerable work to be done in almost all facets. As the team prepares to play a Texans defense that’s 23rd in EPA/play and allowing 24.3 points per game, opportunities should present themselves for a continued upward climb.

If last week is any indication, that progress needs to be aligned with the inclusion of play action. Not only does the concept appear to better play to Pickett’s, and the team’s receiving options’, strengths, but it also helps establish balance with a run game that’s still looking to find its footing.

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