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Steelers WR George Pickens: Expect to see more downfield shots on offense this season

Perhaps the most prevalent training camp storyline in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, is the Steelers' downfield passing game.

Well, more like their lack thereof. Pittsburgh has not been an explosive offense for much of the past few years, but the Steelers are attempting to break through that wall in 2023.

Just ask their favorite big-play target, second-year receiver George Pickens, who has been in the crosshairs of Pittsburgh's downfield sights during practice this week.

"That's more of an explosive hint," Pickens said on Friday of Thursday's session, via The Athletic's Mike DeFabo. "Like, we're gonna probably take more shots this year. Try to mix it up a little bit."

Throwing downfield effectively begins with quarterback, of course, so the focus will be on second-year passer Kenny Pickett. The University of Pittsburgh product ranked 32nd in the NFL in passing yards per attempt in his rookie season of 2022, while also finishing 32nd in passer rating and dead last in touchdown-to-interception ratio (among 33 qualified quarterbacks).

But it's not just Pickett who hasn't found a ton of downfield success in Pittsburgh. Since 2019, Steelers quarterbacks have averaged a league-low 6.3 passing yards per attempt. Yes, that means this issue has persisted through the end portion of Ben Roethlisberger's career, and a stretch of Mason Rudolph starts.

Pickens could help change this narrative. He did, in fact, finish second in Next Gen Stat's Catch Rate Over Expected rankings in 2022, proving he can make the difficult grabs -- especially on go routes, in which he led all receivers in CROE on such routes at +23.3 percent.

With time comes familiarity, trust and a better understanding of where teammates will be at specific moments in a play. Last year, Pickett and Pickens produced a handful of highlights, but not often enough to elevate the offense. This year, they're hoping their rapport blossoms into a fireworks display.

"The same plays are the same plays," Pickens said, per The Athletic. "As far as where we're going with the ball, huge change."

Pittsburgh will need this element of its offensive attack to bring balance to its team, which has relied on its defense too often in recent years. If the Steelers can accomplish this, the AFC North could end up proving to be the toughest division in football -- and one the Steelers will believe they can win.

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