Kenny Pickett and George Pickens pick up where they left off for the Pittsburgh Steelers

If Friday night’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is any indication, second-year players Kenny Pickett and George Pickens are picking up right where they left off for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Over Pickett’s final eight starts last season for the Steelers — six of which Pittsburgh won to put themselves into the playoff race — the rookie quarterback threw five touchdown passes, against just one interception. Of those five touchdowns, three went to Pickens, the fellow rookie wide receiver.

In limited action on Friday night in Pittsburgh’s first preseason game, it did not take long for the two to connect again.

Facing a 3rd-and-8 at the Tampa Bay 33-yard line, Pickett dropped into the pocket and hit Pickens on an in-breaking route in the heart of the defense. From there, the receiver did the rest, breaking through a tackle attempt and then making the safety miss in space for the catch-and-run touchdown:

Diving into the play a little deeper, you see impressive growth from both second-year players. We can start with the sophomore passer, and to highlight what we see from Pickett on this play, we turn to the end-zone replay:

The Buccaneers are in Cover-1, which is single-high man coverage with a free safety in the middle of the field, and an underneath “hole” defender, linebacker K.J. Britt. Pickens runs an in-breaking route from the right.

As you can see on the end-zone angle, Pickett uses his eyes and his full body to move Britt, and create a throwing lane. As the quarterback executes his drop, he looks to his left — Britt’s right — and veteran wide receiver Allen Robinson, running a route out of the slot. Pickett even has his shoulders and feet aiming in that direction. All of this tells Britt that the throw is coming to Robinson, and the linebacker slides in that direction.

But just as Pickett finishes his drop, he snaps his eyes and feet towards Pickens, and makes an on-time, in-rhythm throw with pristine accuracy.

Now we can talk about Pickens. For the bulk of his rookie season, Pickens was utilized as a vertical receiver, doing most of his work outside the numbers. Take this chart from Next Gen Stats, showing his route chart against the Miami Dolphins in Week 7 last season:

Another example is this chart from Week 18 against the Cleveland Browns:

As you can see, the majority of his targets came on routes outside the numbers. But on this play, you see Pickens working the middle of the field, and his quarterback hitting him in stride for a big play.

Pickett finished the night hitting on 6-of-7 passes for 70 yards and the touchdown. This was PIckens’ sole catch, but it was certainly a big one.

The AFC North could be a buzzsaw of a division, with all four teams having talent on both sides of the football. But Steelers fans can take solace in plays like this, because if their sophomore duo has a big year, Pittsburgh could surprise in one of the NFL’s toughest divisions.