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The Steelers offense will be more diverse than expected this season

One of the mantras we heard about the Steelers this offseason was they were building an offense that would use the run to set up the pass. The coaching staff talked about it, the Steelers’ beat writers wrote about it, I wrote about it. It was pretty much accepted as gospel that to alleviate pressure on young quarterback Kenny Pickett, and to shorten football games by controlling the clock, we’d see a ground-and-pound attack in Pittsburgh.

And why not? There was plenty of evidence to support that notion. The Steelers brought in big, physical offensive linemen Isaac Seumalo and Nate Herbig in free agency. They used their top draft pick to select massive offensive tackle Broderick Jones out of the University of Georgia. They drafted Jones’s equally massive teammate, tight end Darnell Washington, an accomplished run blocker, in Round 3. They barely acknowledged the receiver position, choosing not to select one in the draft for only the third time since 2005 and making one under-the-radar signing late in free agency when they acquired veteran Allen Robinson. A great deal of attention was paid to the run game, which was already the strength of the offense. The passing game? Not so much.

And yet, as we sit here today, the situation feels quite different. Pickett is coming off of a preseason where he was about as good as a quarterback can be: 13-15 passing for 199 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, a perfect passer rating and five touchdowns on five possessions. The receivers looked spectacular. George Pickens is emerging as a superstar and proving almost uncoverable in one-on-one situations. Diontae Johnson looks as sharp as ever as a route-runner and should find more space to operate given the fact defenses will have to rotate their coverage towards Pickens. Calvin Austin III, who missed last season with an injury, has been everything Steelers’ fans hoped he would upon his return. He is fast, dynamic and a threat to score every time he touches the ball. Robinson, the veteran free agent thought to be little more than a mentor to the young receivers, has emerged as the starting slot receiver whose experience provides Pickett a security blanket in the middle of the field. Tight end Pat Freiermuth continues to progress in his third season and has developed into a Top 5 player at his position. Washington’s run blocking is ahead of his pass catching at the moment, but the 6’7 rookie seems destined to become a receiving threat, particularly in the red zone. Oh, and the running backs can all catch the ball, too. Throw in the fact that Pickett was flawless at reading coverage and delivering accurate, catchable throws, and the picture that emerged was of a passing game that was more impressive than the rushing attack.

This isn’t to suggest the Steelers will suddenly morph into the Chargers. L.A. attempted 750 passes last year, or an average of about 44 per game. By contrast, Pittsburgh averaged 33 passes per game. When the Steelers threw more than 33 times per game, they went 1-5. When they attempted less than 33 passes, they were 8-3. Clearly, establishing an effective run game, and accompanying it with good defense, was a formula for success. To abandon that seems impractical.

But, for those who expected the Steelers to line up almost exclusively in big personnel groups, pound the rock on first and second downs and let Pickett throw quick routes on 3rd-and-4, things may be shaping up differently. Throughout the preseason, the offense was both wide open and unpredictable. Yes, it continued to feature Matt Canada staples, like the jet sweeps, zone runs and timing routes with which Steelers’ fans have become familiar. But the team strayed from its run-run-pass formula, and unlike last season, they weren’t afraid to to push the football down the field.

An example: on Pittsburgh’s first drive of the preseason, they went 83 yards in 10 plays to score a touchdown against the Buccaneers. Pickett threw the ball on the first three plays of the drive. They were short passes that accumulated just 13 total yards, but they represented an attempt to get him into a passing rhythm immediately. The drive culminated in a 33-yard touchdown strike from Pickett to Pickens where Pickett hit the receiver in stride over the middle of the field, an area where neither operated much last season. Pickens used his athleticism to do the rest:

As Warren Sharp pointed out in his Twitter post, Pickett looked left to widen the linebacker (#58) to create room for Pickens up the opposite hash. It was a subtle but nuanced gesture on the part of the young quarterback, but showed the growth he has made that should allow the Steelers to throw these sort of in-breaking routes. Last year, the mandate from Mike Tomlin was to protect the football and not lose the game on offense. This year, Pickett’s maturation as a pocket-passer should allow them to get more aggressive.

Another example: in the second preseason game against the Bills, Austin brought a punt back 54 yards to the Buffalo 25-yard line midway through the 1st quarter. Rather than run the ball on 1st down, Canada took an immediate shot to the end zone. Again, he attacked the middle of the field, this time with Pickett throwing a beautiful back-shoulder ball down the seam to Freiermuth that was away from the linebacker in coverage and in a spot where only Freiermuth could catch it:

Final example. Preseason week 3 in Atlanta. After a holding penalty on the opening kickoff backed the Steelers up to their own 8-yard line, they faced a 3rd-and-5 from the 13. In previous years, their M.O. in that situation would be to run some sort of “sticks” route — a hitch, slant or speed-out that gained the necessary yardage for a 1st down. Here, though, facing press coverage from the Falcons, Pickett and Johnson checked to a fade route. Johnson won at the line with his release, and Pickett placed a ball perfectly along the sideline in the hole between the trailing corner and the safety. It was a 33-yard completion that kick-started an eventual 92-yard touchdown drive:

In all three of these examples, we see an aggressive mindset by Canada and a willingness to let Pickett push the ball down the field. The latter point is particularly interesting. Last year, Pickett averaged just 6.2 yards per attempt, which was 37th among quarterbacks who threw at least 150 passes. This pre-season, while Pickett attempted just 15 passes, his yards-per-pass was a ridiculous 13.2. That won’t hold for the regular season, but the Steelers certainly appear to be more aggressive and more explosive in the passing game.

For those who drafted Najee Harris on their fantasy team, all is not lost. Harris leads the NFL with 691 total touches over the past two seasons, which is 30 touches more than anyone else. He will still see the football a great deal. But alleviating his workload, both with the passing game and an increased role for his backup, Jaylen Warren, seems both practical and likely. In his previous two seasons, Harris carried the load because the Steelers had few other options. This season, that is not the case.

To that point, in the five possessions for which Pickett was in at quarterback this pre-season, here was the distribution of the football in terms of touches and targets:

TOTAL PLAYS: 28. Harris (8 touches); Warren (6); Johnson (4); Pickens (3); Robinson (3); Freiermuth (2); Austin (2).

There will be games this season, where the Steelers have a lead in the second half, for example, and want to run the football to control the clock, where Harris and Warren will receive the majority of touches. But if the pre-season is an indicator, Pittsburgh is poised to spread the football around. They are constructed to be more diverse on offense, and that diversity should make life harder on opposing defenses.

We’ll find out soon enough, as the Week 1 kickoff against San Francisco is little more than a week away.

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