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How the Steelers Got George Pickens Right: ‘That’s What This League is About’



Steelers WR George Pickens
Steelers WR George Pickens against the Cincinnati Bengals, Dec. 23, 2023 - Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

PITTSBURGH — George Pickens made a statement on Saturday night. Pittsburgh’s oft-criticized receiver this week had to respond to his head coach’s calls for improvement. And boy, did he ever. Mike Tomlin was asked if his response was satisfactory, and he described it as appropriate.

“Man, he made some smash plays that was needed. His pedigree showed no doubt,” Tomlin said.

That controversy came upon Pickens after a lack of effort on a Jaylen Warren run that could have been a touchdown. Pickens said that he was trying to avoid a ‘Tank Dell situation,’ referring to the Houston Texans wide receiver who broke his leg getting rolled up on near the goal line. He would bash the media, too, and Tomlin would hold a press conference saying he had to be more mature.

So, the team addressed the play in the locker room. They responded to it and told Pickens that the effort would not be acceptable. The team challenged him to do different the next time a situation like that came around. Pickens responded with his most complete game as a professional receiver.

Allen Robinson II is the veteran in this room. He has grown from a young player to an All-Pro and has seen everything. Pickens is a 22-year-old who is not even through his full second season yet. Robinson and all the other veterans talked with Pickens about that play, what needed to change moving forward, and what Robinson saw as a player who grew.

“Definitely, there was a lot of growth shown,” Robinson said. “He’s a guy who has not even completed his full second year yet. There’s a lot of learning that’s taking place and will take place. As you are moving and taking steps forward to ascending to be a great player but understanding the professionalism and the things that come with that, sometimes it is a learning process. He’s doing that. For us, it’s continuing to deliver the message. We have to continue to talk and communicate and help him be the best version of himself. George, the football stuff, we saw today what he is capable of all year.”

The 195 yards he put up is a new career high for Pickens, as is the two touchdowns. He is the first Steelers receiver to gain at least 195 yards in a game since Antonio Brown had 213 back into n Dec. 10, 2017 against the Baltimore Ravens. But it might be the resilience Pickens showed on Saturday that caught the eye of his teammates, including Robinson.

“That’s what this league is about,” Robinson said. “We were able to talk to him about certain things and it’s going to be a roller coaster in the NFL. At the end of the day, some guys don’t like roller coasters, they get dizzy, they throw up. But in this league, the best enjoy roller coasters. At the end of the day, this league will not give you a picture-perfect season. This is not going to be exactly how you imagined and envisioned. There will be ups and downs. You have to deal with adversity. But it’s how you handle that and bounce back. George showed exactly what he’s made of with this performance this late in the season. In a very meaningful game like this, he performs.”

The guy who Pickens did not block for, Warren, saw the same thing from Pickens, too. Pickens attacked the week with effort, and Warren believes that Pickens responded exactly how it was needed after a week where he came under fire. After his second touchdown on Saturday, Pickens caught the attention of a television camera and made it clear that he had heard the noise surrounding his rocky week and that he wasn’t listening. But Warren thinks the leap he made helped propel the team.

“I really thought he handled it well,” Warren said. “We know how it is. He came in and does what George does and brought his best.”

Najee Harris had a different reaction, but one along the same lines that Pickens did during the week. He says there were never many questions about how Pickens handled himself anyway, and that all of that outside noise does not penetrate the locker room.

“There were no questions that needed to be answered,” Harris said. “He did well today. So, did Mason. It’s different from looking from the outside in. They’re not in this building. Us players, we look at him like we understand. We don’t feel any type of way about him. We all make mistakes, so I feel like there’s just nothing there.”

That does not mean that Pickens is exempt from anything going into the future. But maybe this can be the first step in the road of learning for a young player. Pickens is his own player with a swagger on himself that makes him who he is naturally. There are simply ways to go about expressing frustrations with the offense around him.

That’s the next step of growth for him as a professional football player. and one that will make him as he continues to mature as a player.