As of Thanksgiving, the Steelers are out of the NFL basement in most major statistical offensive categories. They’re third-to-last in yards per play (4.8) fifth-to-last in points per game (17) and tied for second-to-last in touchdowns scored (although seven passing touchdowns is tied for dead last).
Of course, that’s no reason for celebration at the start of this holiday season. Clearly, the main course is lacking, but there are some side dishes that might yet make the rest of this seven-game stretch run more palatable.
Let’s start with quarterback Kenny Pickett, who if nothing else is finding himself a deep threat as he navigates the choppy waters of the NFL. Fellow rookie George Pickens averaged 19.3 air yards per target Sunday’s 37-30 loss to the Bengals and now ranks 12th in the league in that stat (14.2) this season. Among those with more than 35 targets, Pickens is third behind only Buffalo’s Gabe Davis (16.2) and Saints wideout Chris Olave (14.7).
“We talk all the time about how he’s evolving into a complete receiver and doing more things — running different routes and having a full route tree that corners have to deal with,” Pickett said. “You become a lot tougher to cover when you have all different ways you can go and you're not just a deep-ball threat, which he’s not. He does a lot of great things for us at the intermediate level, and I think as his game continues to grow, we’ll continue to grow as an offense.”
And if there’s ever a way to unlock a deep passing game, an ability to run the ball will help immensely. The Steelers have rushed for 100-plus yards in three consecutive games. You can throw out the Eagles game, given their ineffectiveness on the ground when it mattered, but Najee Harris has 189 yards combined in the last two weeks.
That’s not dissimilar to last season, when Harris posted four of his five-highest rushing totals after the calendar flipped to November. The weather is turning in Pittsburgh and Harris might be heating up, if the last two outings are any indication, which in turn seems to be giving more confidence to the linemen in front of him.
“The running back position’s really hard because you have to not only run your read, but you also have to feel your blocks and feel where there might be a missed block or a guy coming off the edge,” said J.C. Hassenauer, who had to step in for Mason Cole at center Sunday. “So for him to be able to feel all that and feel how we jell together, it’s just as important for him.”
As much as Pickens and Harris may hold the keys to the offense firing on all cylinders, everyone knows it’s the quarterback who’s the engine. Pickett is having his ups and downs on the field, to say the least, but he’s been just about perfect off of it.
If you’ve paid any attention to what’s going on with the Jets, you’ve seen a young quarterback in second-year No. 2 overall pick Zach Wilson get benched by coach Robert Saleh. Part of that has been his own poor performance as a passer, but he didn’t do himself any favors by how he handled the postgame news conference.
A reporter asked Wilson if he felt like he let the defense down Sunday in their 10-3 loss in New England, and Wilson simply responded, “No.” Contrast that with Pickett’s answer after the Bengals game, in which the Steelers were gashed by Tee Higgins and Samaje Perine repeatedly.
“Our defense did a great job of giving us a chance to win the game and we didn't come through in the second half,” Pickett said. “That's on us. We’ve got to get it fixed and have two strong halves in order to beat a team like that.”
Hassenauer, who worked with Pickett extensively when they were both backups, called the first-rounder “a tremendous leader.”
“I think he’s a good competitor, too,” Hassenauer said. “Coming in as a rookie and starting an NFL football game is not easy at all. Learning a whole new playbook and everything, he’s done a tremendous job of not only leading the offense but leading the whole team. I think he’s taken a big leadership role, and people trust him. ... I can’t say enough good things about Kenny.”