The Pittsburgh Steelers lost a football game on Sunday, a game that was entirely winnable. Yet even with the loss, they might have achieved something in defeat.
Clarity about the quarterback position.
Rookie passer Kenny Pickett took over for Mitchell Trubisky in the second half, and while he was not perfect — far from it in fact — he offered something the Steelers had not seen almost the entire season. He offered promise and potential, and the hope that the offense could be something more in his hands.
The numbers spoke for themselves when Mike Tomlin made the switch.
As the Steelers entered the locker room at halftime Sunday during their game against the New York Jets, their offense was struggling. Dating back to the second half of their Week 3 loss against the Cleveland Browns, the Steelers offense had managed just three fields goals. One in the second half against the Browns, and two Sunday in the first half against the Jets.
Parsing it out over possessions made things worse for Pittsburgh:
Steelers past 12 offensive possessions over their past 4 quarters played (equivalent of a full game):
1 fumble lost (albeit a desperation fluke)
12 first downs
187 net yards gained
— Chris Adamski (@C_AdamskiTrib) October 2, 2022
Pittsburgh turned to their rookie quarterback to start the second half, hoping for a spark.
Pickett threw a pair of interceptions, including on a Hail Mary on the game’s final play, but he scored a pair of rushing touchdowns in the loss to the Jets. By the end of the game the crowd was in his corner more than ever before, and the Steelers were back at .500 on the season.
The first interception came on a deep shot in the direction of Chase Claypool. Pickett came out of a run fake and used a half-roll to his right, before throwing back to Claypool on a deep post route working from right-to-left. The pass was slightly underthrown, which might have given Claypool an advantage on the play, but the receiver could not haul in the throw, and safety Jordan Whitehair pounced on the tipped ball:
It was an aggressive decision from Pickett, which showed a lot of trust in Claypool on the other end of the throw. At the same time, however, these are the kinds of aggressive decisions that have been missing from the Pittsburgh offense in Trubisky’s hands.
But the Steelers defense picked up their rookie quarterback. Just a few plays later Pittsburgh took advantage of a tipped pass, as Minkah Fitzpatrick pulled in the football after it went through Tyler Conklin’s hands, returning it deep into Jets’ territory:
That set the stage for Pickett’s first rushing touchdown of the day, coming on a quarterback sneak from the one-yard line:
But that is when Pickett started to flash in the passing game. On this third-down conversion from late in the third quarter, the rookie connected with another member of Pittsburgh’s draft class, wide receiver George Pickens, on this impressive back-shoulder throw:
Everything about this play is great from the pair of rookies. From Pickett you see timing and placement while Pickens delivers with the footwork and body control along the sideline. Furthermore, this shows the chemistry between receiver and quarterback that has already developed early in their rookie seasons.
Then early in the fourth quarter, Pickett delivered the kind of play that will endear him not just to Steelers fans, but the coaching staff along with the entire locker room:
On this third-down play, defensive tackle Quinnen Williams breaks through the interior and has a free shot at the rookie, but Pickett bravely stares down the pressure, before finding tight end Pat Freiermuth up the seam to move the chains.
From this replay angle, you can see the rookie stare down the pressure and stand tall, hitting his tight end and then sharing some thoughts with the Jets defenders after the play:
This is pretty awesome from Steelers rookie Kenny Pickett. Holds strong under pressure (and takes a huge shot) on third and 8 to find Pat Freiermuth down the seam. Pickett ran it in himself the very next play. pic.twitter.com/tPeZcoKUZ4
— Bobby Football (@Rob__Paul) October 2, 2022
That set the stage for Pickett’s second touchdown run of the afternoon:
After the game, the tight end highlighted this moment from the rookie quarterback, calling him a “gamer:”
Pat Freiermuth on this play from Kenny Pickett: “Yeah, he’s a gamer. I mean, that’s why they drafted him the first round is to make those plays and he’s gonna stay in his pocket, deliver it when needed.” #Steelers https://t.co/W0n92hkkVf
— Steelers Depot 7⃣ (@Steelersdepot) October 3, 2022
The game would not be finished with providing interceptions off of tipped throws, however, and Pickett’s second interception came on one such moment:
Rookie cornerback Sauce Gardner broke on the ball, intended for Freiermuth, and Michael Carter was able to grab the football, giving the Jets a chance to tie the game late in the fourth quarter.
There was a window here for Pickett to target Claypool on his dig route, behind the linebackers and in front of the two-deep safeties. But he did not make the throw, perhaps due to the pressure starting to form on the edges, and he pulled the ball down to try to create space before targeting his tight end in the flat. The throw was high, and while Freiermuth could have secured this pass, it was an ill-advised decision late in the play that Pickett might like to have back.
It also overshadowed another aggressive decision that came a few plays prior, as Pickett and Pickens connected to move the chains on another third-down situation:
The rookies connect on a fade route out of the slot, with Pickett giving the fellow rookie a chance to make a play against man coverage. Pickett puts the throw to the outside, given the leverage of the defender, and the receiver makes another great adjustment to the throw, giving the Steelers a fresh set of downs.
Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, the interception set the stage for Zach Wilson and the Jets offense to score the go-ahead touchdown in the game’s final minutes. Despite the loss, however, the Steelers would be wise to forge ahead with the rookie at the helm of their offense. Even with the interceptions, the offense showed more explosive potential in his hands, and analysts along with Tomlin himself conceded there was more energy on offense with Pickett in charge:
— Steelers Depot 7⃣ (@Steelersdepot) October 2, 2022
Pickett’s performance also needs a bit of context. While many thought this would be an ideal week to let him start his first NFL game, with the Steelers coming off the mini-bye after playing on Thursday night in Week 3, instead Trubisky got the start, and the rookie did not even get first-team snaps in practice. He then came into the game cold, with his team trailing by four, and put them in a position to win:
In a vacuum I thought Kenny Pickett played better than his numbers indicate today. When you consider the context — no first-team reps in practice, coming in cold at half, down by 4 — it wasn’t a bad debut. Going back to Mitch Trubisky now would be, well… pic.twitter.com/nwtFTgMnXX
— Brian Batko (@BrianBatko) October 3, 2022
Of course, he also made some mistakes that put them in a position to lose. But that is to be expected with a rookie quarterback, particularly in this situation.
After the game, Tomlin remained non-committal about the quarterback position:
#Steelers coach Mike Tomlin noncommittal at QB after benching Mitch Trubisky for Kenny Pickett.
“I thought we needed a spark, man. We didn’t do much in the first half, not enough offensively, and I thought he could provide a spark for us.
“We’ll deal with next week, next week.”
— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) October 2, 2022
Part of that might be the coach looking ahead to the next few weeks. Over the next four games, here is what the Steelers face: Away against the Buffalo Bills, home against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, then a pair of away games against the Miami Dolphins and the Philadelphia Eagles. That is a tough four-game stretch for any quarterback this year, let alone a rookie.
Then the Steelers have a bye week before facing the Saints at home in mid-November.
Perhaps Tomlin wants to get through this gauntlet before handing the keys to the rookie, and wants to take advantage of the bye week to give Pickett an extra week to prepare. But how patient will the fans, and the locker room, be if Tomlin waits? For perhaps the first time in months the offense showed potential in his hands, and while Pickett made some mistakes, those are to be expected in a rookie’s hands.
Winning games in the NFL is hard, as is playing quarterback. Pickett will face tough games over the course of his career.
It is time to see just what he can be, and how much of a gamer he is.