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Saunders: Steelers Absolutely Have to Start Kenny Pickett If He’s Healthy



Pittsburgh Steelers QB Kenny Pickett
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett on the sideline, out with an ankle injury during his team's win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Dec. 23, 2023. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph saving the day, two days before Christmas is the kind of thing that would happen in a Hallmark Movie.

The sappy ending, with the Steelers fans feting Rudolph with reindeer carols as captain Cam Heyward presented him a game ball after the victory was straight out of central casting.

In a season that is all about good feelings and heartwarming endings, Rudolph’s story packs a powerful emotional punch.

But this isn’t the Hallmark Channel. The NFL stands for many things, among them Not For Long and No Fun League. Next Sunday, it’s more likely than not that Rudolph will be back on the bench, and that will be an easy decision for Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.

The Steelers have invested a significant portion of their future in their attempt to develop Kenny Pickett into the team’s next franchise quarterback. The fact that Rudolph, in his first game action in three seasons, just played a better game than any in Pickett’s career, does a very good job of illustrating how far Pickett still has to go in that journey.

But it’s not one that the Steelers are even remotely close to giving up on. Pickett is going to get a chance to prove in 2024 with a new offensive coordinator, and every opportunity that he doesn’t take the field is a wasted one for the entire organization.

Despite his strong performance on Saturday, no one thinks Rudolph is the starter of the future. The only thing that Rudolph playing well changes it the level of hurriedness the Steelers will approach Pickett’s injury with.

Remember, Tomlin didn’t rule Pickett out of this week’s game until after practice on Thursday. So he can’t be too far away from being medically cleared to participate, if he hasn’t been already.

But maybe if Pickett looks like his movement will be hampered by the injury, even if he is cleared to participate, the team might hold him back until fully healthy now that they’ve gotten a good performance out of a backup.

If they had another outing like Mitch Trubisky’s last three, Pickett might be taking the field in Seattle with one foot in a cast if that’s what it took.

But there’s no question who the starter is, no question of the representative roles of the players, and there will be no blinks in the locker room when Tomlin announces that Pickett will start when he’s healthy.

And while Rudolph’s big day was better than Pickett’s best, it’s not like Pickett has been far away from that kind of performance. The difference between his dicing up of the Bengals four weeks ago and Rudolph’s Saturday night basically comes down to Rudolph getting a whole bunch of George Pickens YAC, the defense getting more turnovers, and a little more success in the red zone — all of which came on the ground, anyway.

This game could very well have been the one where Pickett finally announced himself as the franchise quarterback in waiting that everyone has been waiting for. Every opportunity that he has to do that, that he doesn’t get, is a waste for his development and a waste for his franchise. 

That will make Tomlin’s decision this week an easy one.