The Hinson Angle: Pickett to Pittsburgh

The Panthers star may not have won the Heisman, but he’s certainly a first-round prospect, and he could be our franchise turnaround.

Oliver Hinson, Co-President, web manager

Don’t get me wrong. I love Ben Roethlisberger.

In no way am I seeing that he needs to go, or that he shouldn’t be a starting NFL quarterback. He clearly remains one of the smartest QBs in the league, and watching him come back during the second half of the most recent matchup against the Vikings was something special. I am saying, though, that his decision makes sense. If I was 39 years old, past my physical prime, and playing for a team that is clearly discombobulated, I would retire too. Ben is simply not the quarterback that he used to be, although this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. He is still an intelligent, veteran presence behind center, and while his touchdown to interception ratio is not nearly as prolific as last year (17:9 compared to 33:10), it’s still better than anything Mason Rudolph (16:11 career) or Dwayne Haskins (12:14 career) has shown thus far, and an assertion to the contrary is simply blasphemous (though I wouldn’t expect much less from Steelers fans).

Roethlisberger’s decline is mostly seen in other areas of the game, and it is mainly a product of his situation. Seemingly every part of the offense around him has changed, from his offensive coordinator to his running back, as well as the men that are supposed to protect him. The losses of Markice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Alejandro Villenueva, and Matt Feiler from the offensive line resulted in not only a decline of talent, but also of cohesiveness, a much more important element when it comes to blocking. Roethlisberger took only 13 sacks over the entirety of the 2020 season, but 14 weeks into 2021, he has already totaled 30, and he’s heading for his highest sack total since 2013, a time when fans weren’t collectively worried every time he went to the ground. Ben used to be one of the most resilient QBs in the NFL, despite not being the fastest, and his toughness allowed him to find the best option on the field and complete a lot more deep passes. Nowadays, the entire offense seems to be based on check down passes, with not much risk being taken at all. 

Additionally, the deterioration of the O-line has led to a complete demolition of Pittsburgh’s running scheme, something that is commonly blamed on Najee Harris. The Steelers run offense currently ranks 27th in the NFL at 88.4 yards per game, which is albeit an improvement from last year, when they were dead last, but this should not be taken as a sign of growth. Harris was a phenom at Alabama, and although he certainly has room for growth in his own game, he has been hindered by his linemen in every way. Often, it seems like he is met before he even passes the line of scrimmage, and he rarely has a hole to follow. If Harris had come up last year, he could have been a star right off the bat, but he was doomed to face the challenges of this year. Combined with a declining quarterback, Pittsburgh’s offense is firing on none of its cylinders.

So, where does Pickett come into this? The Steelers will have a plethora of options coming into 2022, and they aren’t necessarily keen on drafting quarterbacks, especially in early rounds. Placing a franchise turnaround on the back of a college kid is a tremendous risk, but I wouldn’t trust anyone more than Pickett. The fifth-year senior was tremendous this year, throwing for over 4,300 yards and 42 touchdowns with only 7 interceptions. He has firmly placed himself in Heisman contention and NFL Draft discussion, along with names like Bryce Young, CJ Stroud and Matt Corral. It’s entirely unclear whether Pickett will even be available by the time the Steelers are up to draft, but in the event that they are, I would highly recommend they do.

There’s no one arguing against his talent, to be sure. He’s been slotted as the best quarterback available in some mock drafts, for good reason, and if he is drafted by the Steelers, he will likely be the immediate first-string option. Mason Rudolph was never the most talented quarterback, and even with a couple of years to grow behind Roethlisberger, he hasn’t grown all that much. There’s more to be argued in terms of experience. He’s only 23 years old, after all, and he’s never played in an NFL setting. However, Rudolph himself is only three years older, and he has only played in 16 games, most of which have been unproductive, to say the least. Pickett has shown vision unlike any other prospect in the draft, especially when throwing downfield, as he has completed over 65 percent of his passes over 20 yards, while Mason Rudolph went 2-4 on such passes in his only appearance this year, a disappointing tie against the Lions. With more confidence in the long ball, Matt Canada could switch up the offense a bit and provide more variability, which could result in an astounding increase in success.

Moreover, Pickett has shown that he is used to the problems that currently plague Pittsburgh. While Izzy Abanikanda is by no means a bad running back, he certainly hasn’t done much to attract attention, only tallying 635 yards on the season, and the Panthers’ offense hinges much more on passing than it does on running. Yes, Pickett has had some incredibly talented receivers in Jordan Addison and Jared Wayne, but that doesn’t change how well he is able to place the ball. Plus, he will have similar help at the NFL level in Diontae Johnson, whose speed is often wasted on short routes, as well as Pat Freiermuth and Juju Smith-Schuster, the former of which has been a welcome surprise during his rookie season, and the latter of which has been injured for nearly all of 2021. Pickett has the potential to bring back the Steelers’ passing attack next year, if we let him.

Additionally, Pickett has a weapon that Roethlisberger simply doesn’t have anymore: mobility. I think it took all of one play in the ACC Championship to realize that the QB has the legs to back up his crafty playmaking, and the realization has been backed up this whole season, as he has rushed for over 200 yards. His ability to independently get a first down is vital when the offensive line collapses, and if he arrives in Pittsburgh with a similar Steelers team, this talent will be put to the test.

Lastly, he has shown that he is able to overcome the struggles of a lackluster defense, which Pittsburgh has unfortunately experienced this year. They rank 26th in the NFL in yards allowed per game at just over 370, an unthinkable statistic when considering last year’s success. The Panthers have had a similar year, though; although they may not be at the bottom of their league, their rank of 44th in the FBS when it comes to opponent points per game is considerably less impressive than their top ten ranking in offense. Pickett’s squad scores north of 40 points per game, largely due to his efforts, and if he can continue this production, no bad performance by the Steelers’ defense will be able to hinder his success.

So, who knows if the Steelers will take a chance on Pittsburgh’s favorite prospect? Who knows if he will even be available? Definitely not me. But if we have a chance at him, the stats show that he’s a smart pick, and he’ll certainly fill Heinz Field every week. Pittsburgh desperately needs a franchise turnaround, and I have faith in the option that’s right under our nose.