Saunders: Clutch Play from Kenny Pickett Shouldn’t Be a Surprise
PITTSBURGH — Approaching the end of his rookie NFL season, it would be a stretch to say that Pittsburgh Steelers first-round pick Kenny Pickett has been good.
Pickett enters play in Week 18 as the 32nd-best passer in the league by passer rating, with a 76.5. QBR is slightly more forgiving and lists Pickett as 22nd with a 49.9
Pickett is 21st in completion percentage, 33rd in touchdown percentage, 23rd in interception percentage, 29th in yards per game, and 33rd in adjusted net yards per attempt.
None of that is good. But he has certainly been clutch.
Pickett has now led three fourth-quarter comebacks and four game-winning drives in his 11 starts. He’s led the Steelers to victory in each of the last two games when they needed a touchdown in the final minute, and done so with the team’s season hanging in the balance.
This has been surprising to some, with former Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger saying he underestimated Pickett on Thursday. It was not surprising to Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, who said that’s the kind of performance that he expected from Pickett when the team drafted him.
“I don’t think any of us are surprised with those intangible things that Kenny shows us,” Tomlin said after the Raiders win. “I think that the proximity that we had to his college experience kind of makes us extremely comfortable about our knowledge of those things. I expect to see it, I think we all expect to see it.”
Really, anyone that followed Pickett’s career at Pitt should have seen this coming.
Pickett first became the starter at Pitt at the very end of the 2017 season, and that continued through the 2018 season. In those two seasons, in a run-heavy scheme that was left behind by Matt Canada and run by new offensive coordinator Shawn Watson, Pickett’s passing numbers were dreadful.
In 2018, his first full season as a starter, he was 88th in passer rating, 75th in FBS in completion percentage, 79th in yards, tied for 82nd in touchdowns and 83rd in adjusted yards per attempt.
His passer rating was 120.3. Some notable comparisons for that: Miami Dolphins third-stringer Skylar Thompson had a 125.3, Las Vegas Raiders backup Jarrett Sidham had a 137.7, Arizona Cardinals backup David Blough had a 146.9, Denver Broncos backup Brett Rypien had a 156.0 and West Virginia’s Will Grier, who is now on the Dallas Cowboys practice squad, had a 175.5.
Pickett’s 2018 season was capped off by an appearance in the ACC Championship Game that saw him pass for his jersey number: 8 yards on 4 of 16 passing, with an interception.
Clearly, Pickett got a lot better along the way at Pitt, and that process started with the addition of Mark Whipple’s more passing-oriented offensive system in 2019. That first season in Whipple’s scheme was only a moderate improvement for Pickett. He threw for 3,098 yards, but completed just 61.6% of his passes and his passer rating — weighed down by nine interceptions — got only up to 122.4
But while Pickett wasn’t good early in his Pitt career, he was clutch. In his first two full seasons as a starting quarterback, Pickett led Pitt to a game-winning touchdown drive in the final minute of regulation or in overtime six times.
To put that number into perspective, the previous career high for Pitt was three by Pete Gonzalez, dating back to the advent of play-by-play data in 1970. Dan Marino only ever had one.
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As Pickett’s career went on, those clutch moment’s didn’t necessarily pile up — he had just one more, an overtime touchdown to Lucus Krull to beat Sam Howell and North Carolina in 2021 — but that’s because he didn’t need them anymore.
In Pickett’s redshirt senior season, he threw for 4,319 yards, 42 touchdowns and had a passer rating of 165.3. Of Pitt’s 11 wins with Pickett in 2021 — the program’s most in 40 years — none were by less than a touchdown and only one was decided in the game’s weighty moments.
As a college quarterback, Pickett was clutch, and then he was great. As a pro, he’s certainly following through on the first half of repeating that paradigm with late-game heroics at Indianapolis and against the Raiders and Ravens the last two weeks.
Will he follow through with the other half, and become a dominant NFL quarterback like he did in college? That remains to be seen. But at the very least, more of what has gotten the Steelers to six wins in their last seven games should be expected to continue.