The Pittsburgh Steelers breakout star of the preseason with all due respect to the current backup quarterback was George Pickens. The rookie wide receiver has impressed with his work ethic, catch radius and his extremely physical run blocking. It is not just that he is willing to block, he has embarrassed defensive backs who are not prepared for the aggression.
Menace to ̶s̶o̶c̶i̶e̶t̶y̶ ̶ defenses
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) August 29, 2022
Pickens also has displayed an engaging personality and has demonstrated a playful nature in his interactions with the media. He was asked in front of his locker after practice how he would explain his nickname “NFL YoungBoy” to a 31-year-old father:
“I wouldn’t know what [to say to] a father,” Pickens said. “The fans kind of gave me that name. I don’t really have a problem with it. I’m not like, ‘Oh no, don’t call me that.’ I just kind of go along with the flow.”
Pickens has embraced the nickname that fans bestowed on him after his infamous draft night video. The mask he was wearing, as he poked fun at himself in front of a television when he was drafted by Pittsburgh, is reminiscent of the rapper NBA YoungBoy who often wears ski masks. Some fans of the Steelers were initially worried about his draft night antics, but after seeing his interactions since arriving in Pittsburgh, they seem groundless. He was asked about his view of why the nickname had caught and if it had to do with his embracing of physicality during the preseason and training camp:
“That’s literally exactly what I think,” Pickens continued. “It’s the way I play on the field, ’cause off the field, I just be chilling. Blocking can really throw a DB off in his game, then we can hit him with a pass. It’s a double whammy type thing. A DB gets in the game and is thinking work on my technique, work on covering this guy, he’s not really ready for the blocking.”
Diontae Johnson returned to practice this week for the Steelers. Assuming he is able to play on Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, he will match up with Chidobe Awuzie. That will leave the much bigger and stronger Pickens matching up with Eli Apple or Mike Hilton. It will be very interesting to see if the rookie can come out and blow up one of the veterans early on a run play. Hilton especially is fond of blitzing and if Pickens manhandles him early, it could take away the best part of the former Steelers nickelback’s game.
The former Georgia Bulldog was asked what he gets more pleasure from, one-handed catches or pancaking defensive backs? His answer was very revealing:
“Really both,” Pickens concludes. “That’s the thing about the 1-2 combo. Pancaking a guy or making a one-handed catch, you can still be excited.”
The last time the Steelers drafted a Georgia Bulldogs wide receiver, he turned into the best blocking wide receiver in NFL history. Hines Ward played with a smile on his face that other teams hated. The rules were different when Ward was running routes and some receivers kept their head on a swivel and grew alligator arms across the middle. Ward not only made tough catches, but he put linebackers on high alert when he was on the field because they were just as likely to get blown up on a running play when No. 86 went hunting.
The Steelers offensive line is a work in progress, so any additional blocking they can get from tight ends and wide receivers could be crucial early in the season to the offense. Chase Claypool and Pickens are huge bodies for any defense to match up with, and with a proven number one receiver in Johnson, the pair should get plenty of opportunities in the pass game to burn CB2’s and nickel cornerbacks. All Mitch Trubisky should need is a little time to find them.
Opposing teams are going to have quite an issue on their hands all season. Johnson caught over 100 passes last season and he commands attention. If teams have to play Johnson and Pickens straight up or double one of them, Claypool, Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth will feast on linebackers. If teams press the flats and underneath routes, then Pickens and Johnson should find plenty of room down the field on the outside.
NFL YoungBoy is a flashy nickname, and it is likely that the connection and comfort that Trubisky demonstrated in preseason in the rookie’s ability to win his matchups will continue throughout the season. The weapons the offense will be rolling out should prohibit blitzing as teams will have faith that a four-man rush can get home. If it does not, then the Offensive Rookie of The Year Trophy may need to include a tiny ski mask for Pickens.
What do you think, Steeler Nation? Will the Steelers weapons help the offensive line by keeping defenses honest? Please comment below or on my Twitter @thebubbasq.