Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett had a knack for getting it done late in games with a cool demeanor this past season. But what was going through his head on those game-winning marches against Las Vegas and Baltimore down the stretch?
“Just find a way to win, man, that’s it,” Kenny Pickett recently said to teammate Cam Heyward on the latter’s ESPN podcast, Not Just Football with Cam Heyward. “I don’t care how the hell it has to get done. You saw it early on, I was struggling with (the) two-minute drill against you guys all the time. I was always trying to hunt that big play instead of letting the big play kind of come to me as the drive would go.”
Changes in Approach
It was hard to picture Pickett struggling while he was under the bright lights in prime-time contests. There was a process to the success, though.
“I was just failing week after week,” Pickett said. “I was getting so pissed off, man, on those Friday practices against you guys. Everyone was happy we were getting into the weekend and I’d be freaking pissed walking into the building because we didn’t win (the drill).”
Pickett added that he’d dink and dunk down the field while playing for the nearby University of Pittsburgh. After picking up each first down, the clock paused until the chains were moved.
That luxury doesn’t exist at the next level. It shortens the time frame that a signal-caller has to make things work.
“Coming into the league, it’s your first time,” he explained. “You don’t realize how much time you have in the two minutes at the college level versus the pro level … At the pro level in practice, I was taking the short stuff, taking the short stuff. Then I would make it real hard on myself to get in the end zone because I wasn’t chasing that chunk play and getting that one big play to kind of change the field.”
Along with quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan and offensive coordinator Matt Canada, words of wisdom from Brian Flores simplified things. The senior defensive assistant and linebackers coach broke it down into three parts for the rookie passer.
“I would talk to (Flores) after every single one,” Pickett said. “He’s like, ‘You know, you’re going to need that one chunk play, and after you get that big chunk play, you should be good to just take what they give you down into the red zone. And then you’ve got to make that big-time throw to score.’ … That kind of mindset clicked with me and it kind of stuck with me as the season went.”
What he’d learned was on display in Week 17 at Baltimore. He and the Steelers started at their own 20-yard line, trailing by four with 4:16 left to play. The rookie triggerman made not one — but two — splash plays, on consecutive snaps. He picked up 20 yards by hitting tight end Pat Freiermuth on first-and-10 from the 30, then slung a pass to Steven Sims for another 28.
Then, he avoided any mistakes until six plays later, when he looped the game-winning strike to Najee Harris after escaping the rush. It was a textbook classroom-to-grass application.
Pickett succeeded Ben Roethlisberger, who notched the third-most fourth-quarter comebacks (41) in the NFL since 1960. It seems that Kenny Pickett will provide his fair share of excitement, too.