PITTSBURGH — Through his first five games, there was a pretty large discrepancy between the way people felt about Pittsburgh Steelers rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett and what the statistics said about him.
Entering the Steelers’ second half of the season, which started with the team’s Week 10 home game against the New Orleans Saints, Pickett was 34th in the NFL in passer rating, 27th in QBR, and 35th in adjusted net yards per attempt.
If you’re not up on how those statistics work, I can break it down pretty simply for you: Coming into Sunday, Kenny Pickett was the worst quarterback in the NFL this season.
Most Steelers fans and people that follow the team didn’t see it that way. It’s easy to see the production and the potential and forgive the turnovers as mistakes of youth. Lots of the turnovers weren’t even explicitly Pickett’s fault.
There are lots of things that Pickett can improve on as a young quarterback in his first season in the NFL. His deep ball accuracy, his ability to read defenses and his decision-making on when to leave the pocket and when to stay are all areas where he can get better. Those improvements are extremely difficult for young players to make. Plenty of quarterbacks come into the league and never get significantly better in those areas.
The interceptions, however, have been an outlier. Most quarterbacks don’t throw eight interceptions in five games. Taken across an entire season, that pace would have challenged Peyton Manning’s rookie record of 28.
When Pickett and the Steelers got introspective over the bye week about what could be improved in Pickett’s game, the interceptions were an obvious target.
In Sunday’s win against the Saints, it was pretty clear that Pickett got the message. Instead of forcing passes down field under duress, Pickett used his legs more than he has at any point this season, rushing eight times for 51 yards.
When the Saints weren’t fooled by the particular route combination called by Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada on a particular play — which happened multiple times on Sunday — Pickett either ran or he threw the ball away, or he just took a sack, as happened six times. That’s OK. A sack is better than interception. Punts are better than interceptions. Living to fight another day is a part of football, even if it’s one that doesn’t come naturally to everyone.
“You’re battling, you’re a competitor, you want to make a play, but it’s got to be smart,” Pickett said. “You’re always balancing and always fighting the urge to make a play. Felt like I did a good job today taking what they gave me.”
That’s an extremely mature response for a rookie, and Pickett’s experience as a multi-year starter at Pitt probably plays into that outlook. But even if he’s aware of that fact, it’s not easy to do, especially when the team is losing.
Pickett’s donut in the interception column was the biggest single improvement of a Steelers player form Week 8 to Week 10 and even with the return of T.J. Watt, him holding onto the ball was the single biggest reason the Steelers got back in the win column.
“I thought it was a step in the right direction,” Pickett said. “:We took more shots. Obviously, want to hit more than we did. The one to Diontae [Johnson] was big, but we need a lot more than that. But I thought guys played really hard today. Feels good to be up here after a win.”