Kenny Pickett was expected to be the No. 1 source of buzz at Steelers training camp during the 2022 NFL offseason.
Instead, it was Steelers wide receiver George Pickens who stole the show.
Pickens enjoyed a great training camp that had Steelers players, fans and coaches excited about what he could do as a rookie. He was dynamic during the preseason, catching eight passes for 84 yards and a touchdown in limited action, and that allowed him to win the starting receiver job vacated by JuJu Smith-Schuster.
However, Pickens’ preseason success hasn’t carried over to the regular season. Through two games, he has just two catches on six targets for 26 yards while playing 78 percent of the snaps. That doesn’t quite compare with the target share that veterans Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and tight end Pat Freiermuth are getting.
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Pickens isn’t expressing displeasure with his role in Pittsburgh quite yet. He understands that he is a rookie and it is going to take time to get himself integrated into the Steelers’ offense.
“It’s not really a big thing to me because it’s my first year,” Pickens told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “It’s how coach [Mike Tomlin] said it, there are just a lot more games to be played. You can’t define it by one game.”
But why isn’t he being targeted much by Mitch Trubisky? Here’s what to know about Pickens’ role in the Pittsburgh offense.
Why George Pickens isn’t getting many targets from Mitch Trubisky
If you ask Pickens, his target share isn’t low due to lack of separation. He estimated that he was open “90% of the time” during the Steelers’ loss to the Patriots but was targeted just three times during the contest.
“I just say that because I’m a big guy that runs in the low 4.4s,” he explained. “I always have a step on somebody and my step is naturally longer than the other person, and I’m actually fast. I’m always [going to] have a step and always feel like 99% of the time I’m open even though the ball gets there in the air and [the defender] gets time to catch back up. … But I’m open as soon as I get off the line.”
Pickens has seen only six targets this season. As such, he doesn’t qualify for Next Gen Stats’ yards of separation per route run metric, so it’s hard to know exactly how his separation compares to that of other receivers.
However, there is an explanation for his dearth of targets. It’s all about how Pickens’ role meshes with Trubisky’s strengths and weaknesses.
Pickens’ average depth of target is coming at 23.5 yards down the field. That’s good for the highest mark in the NFL, per Player Profiler. Comparatively, only 10 of Trubisky’s 66 pass attempts have traveled more than 20 yards in the air, and just three of them have been completed.
Simply put, Trubisky isn’t a high-volume or high-end deep-ball passer. As such, it may be on the offense to find more ways to get the rookie receiver involved in the short-to-intermediate passing game.
Of course, Pickens could also discuss his target share with his quarterback. That’s something he hasn’t done yet.
“I’m new, and he’s a new quarterback,” Pickens said. “I just go by my day, run my right route. The good thing about football is you have another play, another drive. I take it one play at a time. If I get the ball, it’s cool. If I don’t, it’s cool because you’re not going to get the ball every time.”
But even if he does, there’s no guarantee that will change his role or Trubisky’s tendency to avoid deep passes. That falls more on the quarterback and Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator Matt Canada.
What Mitch Trubisky has said about George Pickens
To his credit, Trubisky seems to know that he needs to get the ball to Pickens more than he has so far. The veteran quarterback explained that the rookie is “doing a great job” for the team and blamed himself for not getting Pickens involved in the offense.
I think earlier I can take shots downfield. I think I could look for 14 more often. George is doing a great job for us. I’ve just got to get these playmakers the football. Whatever we’re out there running, I’ve just got to get them the ball. It really comes down to me making better decisions, being aggressive and putting ourselves in that position.
Canada has also expressed a desire to give Pickens increased opportunities.
“I’d love to get George more involved,” he said.
Those who have been at practice and at camp know how talented he is.
It may be tough for the Steelers to find a way to change Pickens’ involvement in the game plan on Thursday night. The Steelers are coming off a short week and the weather in Cleveland isn’t supposed to be great, as there may be up to 21 mph wind gusts during the contest.
Still, that Trubisky and Canada want to get Pickens the ball is a good sign for him moving forward. Either the quarterback can target him deep downfield more often or Canada can change his involvement as an every-play deep threat.
Whatever happens, expect the Steelers to try to get Pickens going at some point in the coming weeks.