PITTSBURGH — Kenny Pickett is not a finished product as an NFL player, and nearing the end of his rookie season, it’s still to soon to say how good he will be eventually be as the Pittsburgh Steelers starting quarterback.
There are plenty of issues with Pickett’s game that have been revealed by his first season in the NFL. His deep ball needs some work. He has a tendency to leave the pocket too soon. He’s had a tough time identifying blitzes and free blitzers. He’s thrown more interceptions than touchdown passes.
There’s plenty of football for Pickett to work on for the rest of this season, this offseason and for the rest of his career. But one thing that Pickett needs absolutely no help with is his poise under pressure and ability to rise to the moment and make things happen when it really matters.
We saw some glimpses of that against the Indianapolis Colts on Monday Night Football earlier this season, when with the entire league watching, Pickett led the Steelers on a go-ahead touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter for a comeback win.
Saturday at Acrisure Stadium, he turned the difficulty way up. Playing a far better defense with elite pass rusher Maxx Crosby, in blisteringly cold conditions, with the Steelers trailing by four points and under three minutes on the clock, Pickett took the ball.
The Steelers offense had done next to nothing the entire game, with just six points to show for the first 57 minutes and change. Pickett struggled throughout to gain any kind of rhythm or consistency. He looked jumpy and un-confident at times and threw his first interception in six games.
His team needed a win in order to maintain its hopes to make the 2022 NFL playoffs and keep its streak of non-losing seasons that dates back to 2003.
Oh, and let’s not forget the focus of the game, as the Steelers retired the No. 32 jersey of Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris at halftime, just days after his death on the eve of the 50th anniversary of his Immaculate Reception.
Pressure? It’s only the a game honoring the legacy of a franchise icon, with his widow and son in attendance, and the whole season in the balance. No pressure at all.
“You try to keep your emotion together,” Pickett said. “You’ve got to stay even-keeled through it. … We wanted to go out there and get the win for (Franco).”
In the end, perhaps fitting for the 8-degree kickoff temperature, Pickett showed that he has ice in his veins. He led the offense on a methodical 76-yard scoring drive, finding fellow rookie George Pickens in the end zone with 46 seconds left to give the Steelers an unlikely win.
There weren’t crazy Patrick Mahomes-style scrambling passes or long bombs down the field. Pickett didn’t win with overwhelming athleticism or overwhelming arm strength or really overwhelming anything.
He just kept his cool (heh) went about his business, and got the job done. Pickett might not be a great NFL quarterback. But he is absolutely a quarterback that be counted on to deliver under pressure.
“We didn’t want to put it all on the rookie’s shoulders,” defensive captain Cam Hayward said. “But he did a hell of a job tonight. We needed seven at the end. We needed that touchdown. For him to answer the bell, that whole offensive group to answer that bell, was pretty special.”
“There were a lot of things that happened tonight that were heavy,” head coach Mike Tomlin added. “We just wanted to be a part of it. There’s some nights you get an opportunity to etch your small place in Steelers lore. I’m so happy our young guys had an opportunity to do that in some small way tonight.”
Pickett showed poised and composure well beyond his years and level of experience in leading his team to a dramatic victory on the biggest of stages. The future remains a question mark, but right now, the Steelers have to be pretty happy with the player they drafted in the first round this April. The Steelers have championship aspirations as an organization, and part of that is having a quarterback that can get it done in those weighty moments.
“I don’t think any of us are surprised with those intangible things that Kenny shows us,” Tomlin said. “I think we all expect to see it.”