The Steelers could have one of the NFL’s best downfield passing attacks

Seattle Seahawks v Pittsburgh Steelers
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Arthur Smith is about to go bombs away with the Steelers’ offense

While the focal point of the Steelers’ hiring of Arthur Smith is what the run game will look like- specifically heavier personnel, an offensive line that will have at least one new starter, and a healthy dose of both Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren.

However, the passing game will look a lot different, as well, as I covered more in depth earlier this week.

Specifically, the deep passing game is going to be a more integral focus for the Steelers, and George Pickens will benefit greatly from it.

Ryan Tannehill’s production with Arthur Smith

If we look at the 2019 Titans, Arthur Smith’s first season as Tennessee’s offensive coordinator (and the season in which the Titans went to the AFC Championship Game), their downfield passing game was amongst the best in football. Their ability to set up second-and-short situations with their run game was the perfect compliment to Ryan Tannehill and the play action pass game. Tannehill was third in the NFL in completion percentage on passes that came off play action on second down (min. 25 attempts), per Sports Info Solutions. He was also second in on-target percentage and yards per attempt in that situation. Overall on play action that season, Tannehill was second amongst all quarterbacks in completion percentage and touchdown percentage (min. 25 attempts). He was also fourth in average throw depth, meaning the Titans were launching the ball downfield frequently off play action- enter A.J. Brown.

Brown had 15 receptions of 20 or more yards, and 11 receptions of 30 or more yards (3rd in the NFL), and he led the league in receptions of 40 or more yards with eight. This was the formula for the Titans’ success- ground and pound early to set up short-yardage situations and force defenses into heavier box sets. Smith tried to do the same thing in Atlanta, but didn’t have the quarterback to do it successfully.

The Falcons’ QB woes hurt Smith’s offense

Last year, Desmond Ridder and Taylor Heinicke combined for 154 pass attempts off play action. Combined, that would put them at fourth in the NFL behind Jared Goff, Dak Prescott, and Tua Tagovailoa. They completed about 62 percent of their passes off play action, which collectively place them around 33rd in the NFL. So it’s not as if Smith wasn’t trying to do what was proven to work with the Titans, he just didn’t have the guys under center to make it work. Out of 45 quarterbacks with at least 25 passes off play action, Ridder and Heinicke were 40th and 42nd, respectively, in catchable pass percentage as well as 26th and 38th in passer rating off play action. For comparison, Russell Wilson was 12th in passer rating off play action. This also leans into what many Steelers fans have been saying to those on the outside- Pittsburgh’s new offense doesn’t need Wilson, or Justin Fields for that matter, to all of a sudden become top 10 quarterbacks, they just need them to be competent in order for the offense to have consistent success.

The Steelers are going to live off play action this season, and prey on teams on second down and short. Which means Smith will be trying to make George Pickens his A.J. Brown. And if Pickens has proven anything, it’s that he can secure those deep shots when his number is called. So while we have grown painfully used to short throws and basic schematics, the 2024 Steelers are going to play bombs away football in the passing game. If executed properly, it will lead to Pittsburgh having one of the best deep ball attacks in the NFL, and won’t that be refreshing?

Steelers Still Looking For WR Help, Inquired About Brandon Aiyuk

Despite adding big names at quarterback like Russell Wilson and Justin Fields, the Steelers’ passing attack this year will still depend on their wide receiving corps. After trading away Diontae Johnson and watching Allen Robinson depart in free agency, Pittsburgh has been on a search for another veteran receiver to pair with budding star George Pickens, per Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

It’s not like the Steelers haven’t addressed the position since Johnson and Robinson’s departures. The team has added experienced receivers like Van Jefferson and Quez Watkins, but despite strong sophomore campaigns from both players, neither has shown the ability to be a consistent, reliable supporting wide receiver. Perhaps Pittsburgh plans to return Cordarrelle Patterson to his wide receiver roots, but more likely, the team will continue looking to add an experienced veteran.

We’ve seen the Steelers kick the tires on plenty of such free agents so far this offseason. They brought in division-rival Tyler Boyd, who played at nearby Pitt in college, but are reportedly out of the running after making a disappointing offer. The team also brought in former Chargers veteran Mike Williams, who could’ve worked well alongside Pickens after spending years as WR2 behind Keenan Allen, but Williams ultimately landed with Aaron Rodgers and the Jets.

Now, Dulac reports that we can add Brandon Aiyuk to that list of veteran wideouts that have piqued the Steelers’ interest. Aiyuk is not a free agent, so this isn’t a situation in which Pittsburgh can host the 49ers receiver and evaluate him in person. Also, despite the two sides being far apart in extension negotiations, Aiyuk has not delivered a trade request to the 49ers. In fact, San Francisco is reportedly actively rebuffing trade inquiries from outside parties.

As much as the Steelers would like to lure Aiyuk to Pittsburgh, there’s only so much they can do without the 49ers deciding to relent and participate. Until then, Pittsburgh will have to continue taking swings elsewhere. Boyd remains available. As do free agents Hunter Renfrow, Odell Beckham Jr., Michael Gallup, and Michael Thomas. Several veteran names are sitting in free agency. The Steelers just need to determine if any are the right fit for their new-look offense.

Steelers Eyeing OL Draft Additions

The Steelers have been active on both sides of the ball in free agency, but a few notable vacancies remain on their roster ahead of the draft. That includes the offensive line, a unit which could see multiple rookie additions later this month.

Mark Kaboly of The Athletic notes Pittsburgh is interested in drafting a center and offensive tackle, which comes as no surprise given the team’s current setup along the O-line. The decision to release Mason Cole left the Steelers without an experienced option in the middle, and as such the team has frequently been linked to a center being selected in the first two rounds. The same holds true at the right tackle spot, particularly on Day 1.

“I can’t tell you the player, but I can tell you it’ll be an offensive lineman,” a Pittsburgh source informed ESPN’s Matt Miller regarding the team’s first-round pick (No. 20). A number of options will be available amongst blockers at all positions at that point, even with a number of the top tackles likely to come off the board before the Steelers are on the clock.

Graham Barton (whose stock is on the rise) has positional flexibility based on his usage at Duke, but he is expected to play at center in the NFL. He, along with the likes of Oregon’s Jackson Powers-Johnson and West Virginia’s Zach Frazier could be in play for Pittsburgh. The right tackle spot, meanwhile, currently belongs to 2022 first-rounder Broderick Jones. The Georgia product could move to his more natural spot on the blindside with the addition of a new RT prospect.

Miller names Tyler Guyton (Oklahoma) and Amarius Mims (Georgia) as options who could still be on the board when the Steelers are due to pick. Both players have drawn praise for their athletic upside, although limited playing time in the latter’s case in particular could be a cause for concern – something which was also the case for Jones last year. Mims’ injury history is also seen as a red flag.

The Steelers are viewed around the league as being content to wait until Day 2 to select a receiver, Miller adds. Pittsburgh has generated a reputation for finding valuable players at the WR spot beyond the first round, and continuing along that path could pave the way to a high-profile addition up front. It will be interesting to see if general manager Omar Khan follows through with the internal expectation an offensive lineman will be the team’s first addition.

Steelers Sign K Matthew Wright

Matthew Wright is set to begin another stint with the Steelers. The journeyman kicker signed with Pittsburgh on Wednesday, per a team announcement.

Wright originally joined the Steelers as a UDFA in 2019. It was one year later that he made his regular season debut, one which came after a brief spell in the XFL. The Central Florida product played in three games in 2020, making each of his kicks.

That led him to the Jaguars, the team with which he spent the 2021 campaign. Wright played 14 games with Jacksonville, but he found himself on the move once again in 2022. After beginning that season with Kansas City (and appearing in a pair of games), Wright was signed off the Chiefs’ practice squad to return to Pittsburgh. Filling in for an injured Chris Boswell, a the 28-year-old connected on 12 of 14 field goal attempts and went seven-for-seven on extra points.

This past season, Wright continued to bounce around the NFL, finding himself on the active roster and practice squads of the Chiefs, Panthers, 49ers, Falcons and Patriots. His lone regular season action came with Carolina. For his career (24 games), Wright has a field goal accuracy of 85.1%. He has made all but two of his 37 extra point attempts.

Pittsburgh still has Boswell on the books for the next three years, and the 33-year-old posted a field goal accuracy rate above 90% for the sixth time in his career last season. The reunion with Wright is therefore simply a depth addition which will give the Steelers another option at the position during training camp.