PITTSBURGH — The Steelers have many concerns. Pittsburgh’s offensive line looked porous in both pass protection and the run game. Their run defense got carved up by Christian McCaffrey. Brock Purdy and Brandon Aiyuk diced up the secondary. But none of those concerns even come close to the most significant concern coming out of their 30-7 loss — Kenny Pickett.
Pickett never looked comfortable on Sunday. Maybe the 49ers’ fearsome pass rush got to him and spooked him out of his comfort zone. Indeed, a five-sack performance by the 49ers defensive line led by Nick Bosa would rattle most quarterbacks. But this went beyond that for Pickett. Breaking it down at a macro level, it is hard to say what Pickett did right. He looked the worst he has in the NFL, by my measure.
The accuracy that you can usually count on with Pickett faded. He overthrew guys, looked wild around the field, and could not play in structure. With his progressions, Pickett would drop his eyes if he ended up shunned from the pocket. He missed multiple open players for potential big plays. The mental side of his game, which looked sharper in the preseason, faded away. There was no excellent, calm, collected side of him today. His eyes were rolling around, and Pickett never settled into his game.
It’s rare to see this type of look from Kenny Pickett. His out-of-sync play is concerning. He is not the only person to blame for this offense, but he is the one who hurt them the most. Opportunities were there for the Steelers, but Pickett fell back into bad habits and missed plays that were there. This missed touchdown to Pat Freiermuth is the most egregious example of what Pickett did on Sunday. His progression from last year to this year went out the window.
There were a few but this was the most perplexing decision of the day from Kenny Pickett, IMO.
Why are we turning this down? This is an easy touchdown on Sundays, man.
Freiermuth on the option route, breaking outside vs inside leverage. You have to throw this. pic.twitter.com/yMEqL13Ncr
— Derrick (@Steelers_DB) September 10, 2023
In an NFL stadium, only the Eagles game from last year, which boasted a similar talent level and a defensive line that could frazzle him, was comparable to this performance—his time at Pitt reminded me a lot of the 2018 ACC Championship game, where the Clemson defensive line forced Pickett’s process to collapse completely. That is something similar to what happened today, and Pickett knew it.
“Yeah, we just didn’t execute honestly. I think it was more us than them. I felt comfortable with what I was seeing and what they were doing. We just didn’t execute like we needed to,” Pickett said.
The stat line does not perform Pickett justice. He was 31 of 46 for 232 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. But Pittsburgh could have made it much worse. Pickett’s entire process broke down, and after a summer where he looked like a quarterback ready to take that leap, that is concerning.
The good news for the Steelers is this — it is Week 1. Sometimes, teams just lay duds this early in the season. Quarterbacks take time to get in rhythm and feel out the season in a live pocket. That can happen at times. But there is little excuse for a second-year quarterback coming out and hurting his team as much as he did on Sunday.
His execution of the concepts dialed up, no matter how questionable at times, was subpar. Pickett ripping a ball up the seam to Connor Heyward against Tampa 2 with Fred Warner as the pole defender is another decision that shows how off Pickett was on Sunday.
He could improve, and maybe this is an outlier. But when the Steelers return to the tape, the biggest concern that should come out of this game was the performance of their young quarterback.