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Heitritter: Why Pittsburgh Won’t Have A 1,000-Yard Receiver In 2023


Last season, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ passing game was objectively bad. They ranked 24th in the NFL in passing yards (3,411) and dead last in TDs (12) while finishing 25th in adjusted nets yards per passing attempt (5.6).

To be fair, Pittsburgh went through some growing pains on offense, including a QB change in Week 4 from Mitch Trubisky to Kenny Pickett while also dealing with the ups and downs of a Matt Canada-led offense. Due to this, none of Pittsburgh’s pass catchers cracked four digits in receiving yards, with Diontae Johnson, George Pickens, and Pat Freiermuth all failing to surpass even the 900-yard mark.

With Pickett entering his second season and another year with the offense gelling together in Canada’s offense, one would expect either Johnson or Pickens to crack 1,000 yards in 2023, right? While I think both are capable to accomplishing such a feat, there are a lot of factors suggesting that it may be more of the same in 2023 and that Pittsburgh may fail to have any pass catcher get to 1,000 yards.

When looking at the weapons in the passing game, Pittsburgh is sitting pretty compared to a season ago. They have Calvin Austin III coming back from injury and traded for veteran WR Allen Robinson II, adding a proven, reliable receiver who should be able to produce if he is healthy. They also selected TE Darnell Washington in the third round of the 2023 NFL Draft, adding an enormous blocker and pass catcher into the fold who will factor into the improvement of this team’s running game as well as give Pickett a large target over the middle and in the red zone.

While these new options added to the passing game should help this offense take a step forward in 2023, it could hinder any one pass catcher from standing out. The Steelers have an assortment of passing game weapons to choose from now with Johnson, Pickens, Freiermuth, Robinson, Austin, Washington, and RB Najee Harris all likely drawing targets along with Connor Heyward and Jaylen Warren factoring in to some degree. There are only so many targets to go around, especially in an offense that wants to embrace bully ball and establish the run. It’s hard to expect this offense to surpass 600 pass attempts next season.

If that’s the case and Pittsburgh does become more run heavy and feel the need to throw less in 2023, it’ll be hard for Johnson or Pickens to garner enough targets consistently over the course of the season to top 1,000 yards, especially if the YAC and route tree concepts fail to improve in the passing game. Another key factor to consider is that Pittsburgh now has a legit WR3 in the fold with Robinson, who soaked up targets at a large rate during his time in Chicago and Jacksonville. He gives the Steelers a far better third receiver than Steven Sims was last season after Chase Claypool was traded.

Throw in the fact that Austin should see some looks in specific packages and in 4-WR sets, this is the deepest this WR corps has been in some time. Look back to 2020 when Pittsburgh had JuJu Smith-Schuster, Johnson, and the rookie Claypool with Ben Roethlisberger throwing for 3,803 yards and 33 TDs on 608 attempts. Johnson got the closest to 1,000 yards with 923 on 144 targets, but no receiver surpassed the 1,000-yard mark despite solid contribution from several of the weapons in the passing game.

I think there’s a legit chance we see the same in 2023 when Pittsburgh has several receivers go over 500 yards but no one surpasses the 1,000-yard benchmark. Do I think that Johnson, Pickens, and even Freiermuth can accomplish such a feat. Definitely. Still, with the sheer number of viable targets in the passing game, the quality of options at Pickett’s disposal, the focus on being a run-first offense, and the lack of reliability in Canada, there’s a strong argument that Pittsburgh will go without another 1,000-yard pass catcher again for the second-straight season.

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