Next step for Pickett: Mastering the Red Zone

The Steelers moved the ball consistently throughout last Sunday's 20-10 win over the New Orleans Saints at Acrisure Stadium, posting a season-high 379 yards and holding the ball for almost 39 minutes.

But, as has often been the case this season, they bogged down when they got into red zone. While they scored a pair of touchdowns in the game, they made five trips inside the New Orleans 20, coming away with all 20 of their points in those situations.

For a team whose longest touchdown of the season is from just 8 yards out, scoring touchdowns in the red zone, especially in goal-to-go situations is a must. They're averaging a respectable 331.2 yards per game in Pickett's five starts. But the points haven't necessarily followed suit.

The Steelers are converting just 46.2 percent (12 of 26) of their red zone trips into touchdowns. And while they've gotten nine field goals in the trips in which they didn't reach the end zone, it hasn't mattered whether it's Pickett or Mitch Trubisky, who started the first four games of the season at quarterback, that ratio isn't good enough.

"We're not where we need to be," said rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett. "Obviously, there's less grass, so it's tighter windows, the timing, everything is faster. I've got to meet the guys at certain spots with the ball and they've got to get there on time. The game changes when you get down there. The calls change. The system changes. There are definitely things we need to get better at. I think we definitely had improvements, but we're not where we need to be."

The numbers bear that out, as Pickett has completed 9 of 22 passes in the red zone for 52 yards and a pair of touchdowns, way too low for a quarterback who is completing 66.7 percent of his passes overall. On the very positive side of things, he hasn't turned the ball over in any of those situations.

Inside the 10, he's 4 of 9 for 22 yards and two scores.

Getting better in those situations is something the rookie definitely wants to improve.

"There are things that we like and things I know I've got to improve and get better at," he said. "It's knowing what those are, finding that out and then attacking that."

As the Steelers showed on Sunday, getting there is more than half the battle.

The Steelers did score twice in three goal-to-go situations as Pickett and fellow rookie George Pickens both scored from the 1.

The rushing touchdown was the third of the season in those situations for Pickett, who has shown an affinity for making plays in those situations. He not only has scored three touchdowns from the 1, he's 3-for-3 in third-and-1 rushing.

He's shown to be more than just a guy who falls forward in those situations, as well. In such a situation late in Sunday's win over the Saints, he stepped to the line of scrimmage, saw New Orleans had stacked three defensive linemen right over the center. Instead of simply trying to push his way into the end zone, he took the snap and went outside of right guard James Daniels to get into the end zone.

"It's easier late in the game than it is early on. Early on, you've got to get a feel for it, what they're doing," Pickett said. "You're taking an educated guess and going from there. Toward the end of the game, you've got a pretty good feel for how they're playing it. That's why I took it and stepped to the right. I felt like there would be a free gap, and luckily there was."

It's little things like that which show Pickett is learning. After all, he still has just five NFL starts under his belt going into Sunday's game at Acrisure Stadium against the Cincinnati Bengals (5-4).

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

Sunday's game will mark the first time in his career that he'll get an opportunity to prepare for a team twice.

Though Pickett didn't start the regular season opener in Cincinnati, a game won by the Steelers, 23-20, he obviously saw how the team prepared for that game and was part of the game planning as the No. 2 quarterback.

"We'll definitely try to use the experience we had that first week as a team and an offense and try to go off of that," Pickett said. "I've got to learn from that film and adjust."

So far, he's been a quick learner, something his coaches and teammates can see on a daily basis.

"You see it at practice, and you practice how you play," said wide receiver Diontae Johnson. "I feel like his preparation throughout the week is continuously showing up on film."

The next step in the progression is scoring more points.

"I think his general growth, if you ask me to summarize the rate of growth and the range of growth, it's been really impressive in all areas, and I think it's reasonable to expect it to continue," said Coach Mike Tomlin.

Get out and vote: Voting is now open for the 2023 Pro Bowl Games, which will be a completely different format than in the past.

The traditional Pro Bowl game will be replaced by four days of activities, which will culminate with an AFC vs. NFC Flag Game at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Nevada on Sunday, February 5.

Leading into the game there will be skill competitions, giving fans a fun look at all of the league's top players.

Fans can vote for their favorite Steelers players now through Dec. 15. A social aspect of voting will be available beginning on Dec. 1, so keep an eye out for that.

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