Kenny Pickett has officially been named the starting quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The 20th overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft played in the second half of Pittsburgh’s loss to the New York Jets Sunday afternoon. Pickett went 10/13 for 120 yards, three interceptions, and two rushing touchdowns in the loss.
Now that the Kenny Pickett era has begun, let’s take a look at how we got here, and what we can expect moving forward.
With Ben Roethlisberger retiring much was made about what the Steelers would do in the 2022 NFL Draft. Would they draft a QB? Or would they take care of other positions, and address the signal-caller next year? We’ll never know exactly what their plans were, other than knowing they got their number one QB on their board.
For the first time since 2013 the first quarterback taken was selected outside of the top ten. So despite this being a “weaker” quarterback class having one not be selected until the 20th overall pick was a surprise.
There were some questions about Pickett going into the draft. Many questioned his overall arm strength – primarily on the deep ball. Another concern, and my biggest one, was his pocket presence. At Pitt he tended to fade back in the pocket. Making sacks for big losses seem like a looming problem.
On the positive side – Pickett was considered the most “pro-ready”. Pickett showed accuracy, proficiency on “money downs” and the ability to command a pro-style offense in college. Traits the Steelers valued.
Pickett started the offseason as the number three quarterback. He was behind recently signed Mitchell Trubisky and team veteran Mason Rudolph. That changed after the first preseason game. Pickett went 13/15 for 95 yards and two touchdowns. He also led the game winning touchdown drive with time expiring.
From there, Pickett became the backup to Trubisky. He continued to show improvements in pocket presence while continuing to be an accurate passer. For the preseason Pickett went 29/36 for 261 yards and three touchdowns.
The Trubisky Factor
The elephant in the room all season was this, “When was Kenny Pickett going to supplant Mitch Trubisky?”. From opening day of training camp fans could be heard calling for Pickett to start and Trubisky to be benched. But this was always going to be Trubisky’s job to lose rather than Pickett’s to win.
The Pittsburgh Steelers believed in Trubisky. Now retired GM Kevin Colbert was the only GM at Trubisky’s Pro Day (per Steelers Depot). The Steelers signed him within minutes of free agency being opened – and they gave him a two year contract. Head Coach Mike Tomlin entertained no conversations with media about when Pickett would start, or if Trubisky should be benched.
I believe Tomlin was still comfortable with Trubisky – but you could see clear as day his teammates were ready for a change. Wide Receivers Diontae Johnson and George Pickens in particular were visibly frustrated with Trubisky after errant throws. Becoming more and more upset as the weeks went on.
I believe Tomlin read the room. Despite his own beliefs, despite what the media thought, he cared about the team in the locker room. When he sensed Trubisky losing the team he (Tomlin) could see the writing on the wall. It was time to turn it over to Kenny Pickett.
Pickett’s debut was a strong one – despite the three interceptions and loss. Pickett looked comfortable from his first snap. And the team looked comfortable with him being out there. Pickett’s biggest advantage over Trubisky was this: Pickett was able to play with no fear.
In Sunday’s loss, Pickett was quick to action. The ball would snap, he’d diagnose the field ahead, and make a throw. The plays and offense moved quickly. With Trubisky you could all but see him second guess himself mid-play. Thus holding onto the ball longer, missing throws, or taking pressure.
Pickett was also willing to throw receivers open. Whether it was a back-shoulder throw to Pickens or something in the middle of the field – Pickett gave his guys a chance. Trubisky would often make catches more difficult for receivers in favor of keeping the ball further away from defenders.
Pickett – most important of all – was willing to hang in the pocket. Watch this throw with Quinnen Williams making a beeline for him:
Trubisky was not willing to do this. Often bailing out of clean pockets – and yet not looking often enough to scramble.
All of these examples scream that Trubisky was afraid to make a mistake. Throw an interception, take a sack, etc. Whereas Pickett was willing to make a play despite the consequences.
Those consequences came in the form of three interceptions on Sunday. However it’s not actually as bad as it sounds.
Interception #1 was a deep crossing route to Chase Claypool. The ball was underthrown, but hits Claypool in the hands before getting popped up to the defensive back. Would a better ball have led to the same result? Probably not. But Pickett gave his receiver a chance.
Interception #2 was a little more egregious. On a second and long Pickett faced pressure in the pocket. And what felt like for the only time in the game he faded back in the pocket. Pickett then decided to throw a pass short to Tight End Pat Freiermuth. Once again the ball bounces in Freiermuth’s hands, goes up, and comes down in the arms of a Jet. My issue with this one was Pickett probably should have thrown the ball out of bounds and lived for another down. Instead of risking the turnover for potential one-yard gain.
Interception #3 was the final Hail Mary. Nothing to see here.
These plays were typical issues you expect from a rookie. And we can expect to see more of them moving forward.
We are now in the Kenny Pickett era of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Unfortunately for him it’s not starting at a great time. Pittsburgh is 1-3 with games against the Buffalo Bills, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Miami Dolphins and Philadelphia Eagles coming before the bye week. Honestly going 2-2 in those games would feel like a miracle. But Buffalo is still banged up in the secondary. Tampa is finding their way offensively. And Miami could still be on their backup QB by then.
The back half of the schedule looks a little more Pickett-friendly. And coming out of the bye with these experiences upcoming should give Pickett a lot to work on. It might be a tough few weeks, or even year, but at least the holding pattern is over. Welcome, to the Kenny Pickett era.
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