When Diontae Johnson went down against the San Francisco 49ers, it was time for George Pickens to show the Steelers he could be trusted as the top option in an NFL offense. Four games later, and with the return of Johnson impending, life will get easier for Pickens. But without Johnson, Pickens had two one-hundred-yard receiving games and one clunker against the Texans. But the tape tells it all — Pickens is breaking out before our eyes.
Since entering the NFL, Pickens has the most receiving yards on the sideline in the NFL, and it’s not close. He has 327 receiving yards on those sideline targets since the start of 2022. The second closest receiver is Stefon Diggs, with 198.
That’s how vast the gap between the two players is, and it’s because of the route tree that Pickens has played. He’s run an absurd amount of go routes, with most of the other routes working off that being curls and comebacks.
This year, they have expanded their route tree for George Pickens. He can separate over the middle and beat cornerbacks even with inside leverage. But it’s how Pickens has won this year that makes this encouraging. On Sunday, he won through contested catches and vertical stemming. Yer this year, he has won through route running (yes, he can separate), YAC, and has created magnetism for other players.
Whenever the first defense backed off to dare go against the bracketing strategy employed by other teams, Pickens made them pay. That’s what good players do. Pickens has arrived.
On Sunday, his contested catch skills showcased themselves once again. The Ravens went heavy man coverage down the stretch and decided against bracketing Pickens. Pickens saw some legitimate one-on-one options for the first time since Johnson went down, and he told the Ravens never to do that again. A lot of guys sink when given this chance. For all the hype about Pickens, he swam in every way possible.
Now, with Johnson coming back, he should have more single coverage. And if defenses decide to focus on Pickens, then Johnson can expect himself to get a heavy amount of targets upon his return to the field.