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Kenny Pickett is not a franchise quarterback. But he can be.
The Pittsburgh Steelers must do whatever it takes to properly build this year’s 20th overall winner and position him to succeed.
That’s not the case right now, despite Monday’s 24-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts.
At best, the win showed how far away the Steelers are from being a consistently competitive team and how much the offensive needs to improve both in terms of structure and personnel.
Dueling an inept Colts offense led by a severely restricted Matt Ryan is not a feather in the Steelers’ cap. Sure, every win is a good win. At the same time, both teams struggled throughout the competition, especially when asked to move the ball regularly.
To Pickett’s credit, the rookie put together a good performance. He completed 71.4 percent of his passes for 174 yards, earned an 87.5 passer rating, and rushed for 32 yards.
Those numbers might seem meagre at first glance, but Pittsburgh’s wide receivers dropped multiple passes after Pickett made accurate throws. Its ability to lengthen plays also served as a critical component in lengthening some drives.
“He’s getting better every week,” Tomlin told reporters. “It’s very natural because of the experience. He’s a competitor. He is smart. But there’s still plenty of meat on the bone. It’s just a process.
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“But like I always say, he’s good enough and we’re good enough to win while that’s happening. So we don’t rate him or us on a curve. We recognize he’s very much in development… with every snap bringing revelation. Hot guys, guys who are competitors grow on these things.”
All in all, the signal caller played football more efficiently in the first year than it should have been, as the Colts constantly utilized soft zone coverage and typically sent four men to rush the passer.
In fact, Pickett hasn’t committed a turnover in three straight games despite the fact that he can do so much more when given the opportunity. At the moment, all offense is limited, and these problems don’t necessarily fall at the feet of the beginner.
The scheme is predictable, overly simplistic and uninspired. Head coach Mike Tomlin needs to find a replacement for offensive coordinator Matt Canada after this season.
“We gave them plays,” Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Germaine Pratt told CBS Sports just last week after his team clinched a 37-30 win over the Steelers. “We knew what they would do. They like to play the same pieces over and over again.”
Tomlin and Canada downplayed the comments by the squad’s subsequent preparation for the Colts.
“They did [the Bengals] say when they’re successful and they don’t say it when they’re not,” said the head coach. “I don’t think too much about that. I focus on things that are within our control.”
Canada said: “I was made aware of what was said. I’ve known Pratt since he was in high school. Because you do all your research, sometimes there is more to the stories. It is what it is. I will not win the game. We weren’t good enough in the second half.”
It turns out that winning or losing doesn’t matter in this case based on what happened on Monday.
A Colts defender was over us during the TV showyells, “They’re the same pieces.”
Unoriginality and lack of schematic creativity in a league geared towards attack is totally unacceptable. Staff can admit they run “some iteration concepts” at will. Yes, all theater designers have their favorite calls.
But having multiple opponents knowing what the Steelers are doing in back-to-back weeks is highly problematic, especially when a rookie quarterback is trying to navigate these turbulent, shark-infested waters.
And were it not for Indianapolis’ own offensive ineptness, the Colts defense played well enough to win the contest.
Still, a new system is only as effective as those implemented in the field. Pittsburgh’s problems with drops at wide receivers and inconsistencies along the offensive line remain stumbling blocks.
Investments at wide receivers have already been made, with Diontae Johnson signing a two-year, $36.7 million extension in August after drafting George Pickens in the second round. From this point on, two things should happen.
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First, Pickens should be treated as the team’s #1 wide receiver. The 6’3″, 200-pound target has excellent body control and ball-tracking skills. He’s a typical X-receiver who can handle a 100-catch season. Drops can rear their ugly heads every now and then, but those can be forgiven , thanks to some spectacular grabs along the way.
Johnson might get paid like the Steelers’ top wide receiver, but he’s just not consistent enough to be treated as more than an addendum — a very good one when things are going well, but an addendum nonetheless.
In addition, Chase Claypool’s trade to the Chicago Bears opened the door for another wide receiver pick in the draft.
This time, the Steelers can focus on a reliable hand catcher that can eventually serve as Pickett’s safety blanket. SMU’s Rashee Rice, Boston College’s Zay Flowers and North Carolina’s Josh Downs are some names to keep in mind as the draft cycle picks up steam next year.
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The aforementioned prospects are currently projected as Day 2 options. Pittsburgh’s top priority should once again be the offensive line.
Dan Moore Jr. may only be 24 years old, but he looks outclassed at times. A first-round investment in the premium position would help Pickett in hopes of relieving the pressure at the back.
Even with Monday’s result, the 4-7 Steelers are still in a deadlock for a high draft pick. They currently hold the 12th pick overall, according to the Tankathon, and should be within reach of one of the top offensive tackle prospects, be it the likes of Northwestern’s Peter Skoronski or Ohio State’s Paris Johnson Jr.
A new offensive approach with Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren and Benny Snell in the backfield paired with Pickens, Johnson, another talented wide receiver and tight end Pat Freiermuth, and an upgrade in left tackle should give Pickett everything he needs to be successful.
The Steelers don’t have the next Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen behind center. Still, Pickett can be good enough to help the team win consistently as long as he’s placed in the right situation. So far he isn’t.
The setup should change drastically in the coming months.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. follow him on twitter, @brentsobleski.