PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver George Pickens is well known for his athletic ability to use his feet to leap into the air and make spectacular, acrobatic catches, even in traffic.
Tuesday, he put his foot in his mouth.
Speaking with the media on Tuesday, Pickens said, among other things, that he wouldn’t do anything differently when he didn’t block for Jaylen Warren as he was attempting to go into the end zone on Saturday, that the reason he didn’t block for Warren was that he was afraid to get hurt, and that criticism of him has been unwarranted because it has come from members of the media that didn’t play the game.
But let’s back up to put the entire thing into its proper context.
Pickens has been pouting, sulking and shouting on the sideline for much of the 2023 season. As things have gone sideways for the team the last few weeks, his antics have been noticeably more pronounced, and I saw on the tape some concerning lack of effort.
Last Monday, I asked head coach Mike Tomlin if Pickens’ behavior was a problem for him or for the team. Here’s what Tomlin said:
“You know, it’s a problem because it’s not solution-oriented. You know, we’re all frustrated, but we got to manage our frustrations in a professional and mature way. And when it’s not done that way, it’s not necessarily pushing us toward solutions. And so, from that perspective, certainly. …
“I think it can happen to anybody when things aren’t going well, to be quite honest with you. We care a lot. We put a lot into it. And so, frustration is a natural human response. But I’m also completely comfortable asking these guys to do unnatural things, because they’re professional athletes. Man, that’s our job to do the unique things and make it look regular. To make it look ordinary.”
The fact that Tomlin even addressed it was a bit of a surprise to me. For him to say it was a problem was fairly unprecedented in my coverage of the team.
Then, Tomlin took it a step further. On Saturday morning, a story was posted to Steelers.com, the team’s own website, Tomlin took extreme lengths to explain why Pickens’ behavior was wrong, why it needed to changed, and why it was harmful to Pickens and the entire team.
Tomlin said that Pickens was taking himself out of the game with his attitude and his mindset because of frustrations.
If I thought acknowledging it in a press conference was unusual, a five-paragraph quote in a team-website interview is a giant, waving red flag to a player that his behavior has been unacceptable.
Saturday against the Colts, it got worse. Not only did Pickens continued his sideline demeanor, but his effort on the field was lacking, as well.
Pickens refused to block for Warren, as the running back was nearing the goal line on what could have been an important first-quarter touchdown. The Steelers eventually scored, but only just barely, as Mitch Trubisky nearly fumbled before crossing the goal line on fourth down. The non-block almost cost the Steelers six points.
So after his head coach publicly addressed his behavior in not one but two forums, Pickens went out there on Saturday and doubled down and even worsened his behavior. In addition to being a pain in the butt off the field, he was a problem on it, too.
That was bad. Asked again about Pickens on Monday, Tomlin said, “I thought he was better but still has obviously, room for continued improvement.”
Pressed for details about the Warren play, Tomlin said, “That’s one of the examples that I’m talking about in terms of still obvious room for improvement.”
Then came Pickens’ explanation on Tuesday. Which was worse.
Asked about the play where he was supposed to be blocking for Warren, and specifically whether he would do it differently if he had to do it over again, he said “no,” and then explained that he was trying to avoid a “Tank Dell situation,” referencing the Houston Texans wide receiver who had his season cut short by a broken leg two weeks ago.
“I ain’t want to get an injury,” Pickens said. “You stand up and block someone and you can get ran up on very easily.”
When asked how he would respond to people that were questioning his effort, Pickens said it was because they don’t play football.
“They don’t play football, they do what y’all do,” Pickens said. “Everybody that got opinions are all media surface guys. None of them play football.”
Which is interesting, because a lot of the criticisms of Pickens have come from his own locker room. Not to mention his own head coach.
Pickens had the audacity to sit there and say that he didn’t block for Warren, because he was afraid to get hurt.
The Jaylen Warren that went to junior college, transferred twice, made the team as an undrafted free agent, has been fined so much for how hard he plays that he’s barely getting paid this year and has been a better running back than Najee Harris all season but only gets a half-share of playing time?
The Jaylen Warren that was taking on three players at the same time, trying to will himself into the end zone, carrying on his back the tattered hopes of the Steelers’ 2023 season while Pickens stood there and watched?
Pickens loves to talk about people that don’t play football. It’s hard to call what he was doing there playing football. Maybe Pickens prefers two-hand touch.
— Alan Saunders (@ASaunders_PGH) December 20, 2023
The fact that Warren hasn’t already taken a swing at Pickens makes him a better person than I am.
I have no idea how Pickens will be able to function in the Steelers locker room or offensive huddle after just unapologetically and brazenly admitting that he doesn’t care to give an effort, he doesn’t about his teammates and he doesn’t care about winning.
As furious as his teammates have to be with him, how must Tomlin feel? The head coach has gone out of his away over and over again to show Pickens the way, that he must change, and that his behavior was a problem.
Asked about his meeting with Tomlin about his attitude, Pickens said that he didn’t have such a meeting.
With regards to Pickens pointing fingers at the media, Tomlin had this to say on that topic on Monday:
“This is professional football,” Tomlin said. “What we do gets analyzed. If you’ve been in this business any length of time, you know and understand that and hopefully you embrace that. The competitor in you better embrace that.”
Is Pickens listening when Tomlin is speaking? It sure doesn’t seem like it. I have no idea how the head coach can continue to put Pickens on the field.
Minkah Fitzpatrick played through a broken hand. Kenny Pickett is attempting to come back two weeks after surgery. Patrick Peterson, probably a Hall of Fame, just played a game of safety for the first time in his career. It’s a disservice to hard-working members of the team if Pickens continues to play.
There are three games left in the 2023 season. Pickens is still under contract for two more. He is 22 years old. He is insanely talented. He has the potential to be one of the best wide receivers in the entire NFL.
But his attitude, his effort and now his mouth have made it nearly impossible to envision that happening in Pittsburgh.