‘More Critical This Year:’ George Pickens Says Steelers Have Emphasized Winning On First Down In 2023
The Pittsburgh Steelers may aim to be a ball-control offense that slowly and methodically moves the ball downfield, but George Pickens says there’s a slightly different tune being sung in the offensive meeting rooms this year. Speaking to reporters following Wednesday’s OTA session, Pickens said winning on first down is at the top of the team’s list.
“The biggest thing from a gameplan standpoint from last year that’s totally changed,” Pickens said in audio provided by the team. “First down is more critical this year. Because it sets up go balls.”
Pickens’ answer came in response to a question about the Steelers offense being more explosive than a year ago. Which is a low bar to clear. In 2022, Pittsburgh registered just 52 total offensive plays of 20+ yards, tied for 24th in the league. And no team found the end zone less often through explosive plays. Just two of the team’s touchdowns were 20+ yards and they didn’t have their first explosive play touchdown until Week 10. Their longest touchdowns of the year were tied: Minkah Fitzpatrick’s 31-yard pick-six in the season opener and Pickens’ 31-yard touchdown in the season finale.
While big plays can come on any down, Pickens says the offense is focusing on moving the ball more efficiently on 1st and 10.
“First down, that’s one of the things we’ve been talking about in the meetings, too,” he said. “So the first initial down is probably the most important now.”
Pickens clarified that it wasn’t a directive from OC Matt Canada but something the players as a group have discussed. Regardless of the messenger, it’s advice that should be heeded.
In 2021, the Steelers finished last in the NFL in yards gained on first down at just 4.1. Things didn’t improve much in 2022 as they tied for 30th at 4.7 yards per play. It’s a pattern that can’t repeat itself in 2023 if the Steelers’ offense wants to, at the least, be an average-ranked unit.
While Pittsburgh is trying to counter high-flying offenses it can’t match by controlling the tempo of the game and keeping those potent groups on the sideline, it’s hard to win in the modern NFL without big plays. The Steelers don’t have to lead the league but averaging one more explosive play per game and putting a couple of those in the end zone will be key.
Though it’s a different era, in 2005 the Steelers were built in a similar way but were better in these categories. They averaged 5.9 yards per play on first down, 22nd in the league. Their explosive play rate also fared far better, 11th in the NFL that year, on their way to winning the Super Bowl on the backs of their run game and defense. Those are better targets to reach this season. Pickens can certainly help reach that goal, a downfield and big-play receiver who averaged more than 15 yards per reception last year.
As Mike Tomlin has referenced many times, splash plays erase the need for perfect gameplanning. A field-flipping moment doesn’t require a methodical, 10-play drive where the quarterback can’t throw an inaccurate pass, a false start ruins the flow of a drive, a dropped pass or missed assignment forces an offense to settle for a field goal instead of a touchdown. The best offenses today can score at a moment’s notice. While the Steelers won’t be that type of team in 2023, they can work towards that goal and see how close they get.