PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver George Pickens is frustrated, that much is clear.
Whether or not you care about Pickens’ off-weekend social media activity (from this seat, you shouldn’t), the second-year Steelers receiver has obviously not been happy the last few weeks.
Opposing teams have been double-covering Pickens for most of the season, but now with Diontae Johnson back from injury, Kenny Pickett has a more attractive option than trying to force something to Pickens, and it shows. In the first six games, Pickens averaged 4.5 receptions per game. Over the last two games, he has three total.
The Steelers have expressed how Pickens getting double-covered has helped the rest of the offense. They’ve won three of their last four games. Yet, Pickens again boiled over on the Steelers sideline and then did or did not take to social media with drama on Saturday. He’s clearly frustrated.
Head coach Mike Tomlin acknowledged as much on Tuesday. Tomlin said that Pickens is frustrated by his recent lack of production, that he’s expressed it openly, and Tomlin doesn’t seem to think it’s a bad thing.
“He expresses his frustration all the time, man,” Tomlin said. “He wants to be significant. He wants to be a reason why we’re successful. Man, y’all don’t begrudge that. I want guys who want the football. I want guys who want to be central reasons why we’re successful. And so, that’s a non-issue to be quite honest with you.”
Veteran wide receiver Allen Robinson II was asked about Pickens’ frustration on Monday. Robinson is in his 10th NFL season. He’s seen it all in the league, good, bad and ugly, and while he said the veterans on the team are communicating with Pickens about his frustration, he stopped short of saying it has been an issue for the team.
“The season can be a rollercoaster sometimes,” Robinson said Monday. “It’s one of those things where it’s never exactly where you want it. It’s not going to be easy. We’ve continually talked to him and communicated to him. He’s a significant player in this league and is going to attract a significant amount of attention from defenses trying to take him away. …
“Continuing to talk to him and give him an understanding of that. I get it everyone wants to have numbers, but sometimes based on what defenses are doing… As receivers, you see across the league, you see it can be frustrating sometimes when you are not getting the ball. It’s staying locked in and staying aware of the big picture.”
Robinson would probably not rip Pickens publicly even if he thought the young Steelers star was out of line, but private conversations around the team have not turned up any specific negativity toward the promising young athlete. Pickens is a bit aloof, and definitely marches to the beat of his own drum, but no one on the team is sounding alarm bells about his behavior.
So why is the Steelers fanbase losing its mind about some sideline hotheadedness and a dramatic Instagram post?
Let’s call it AB PTSD.
Steelers fans have seen a star wide receiver go from strange but good to something of a problem to be tolerated, to a player that quit on his team and caused real strife — and then repeated that act across the NFL.
They understandably don’t want Pickens to follow that path and are worried that his frustration about not being more productive, about not getting the ball, represents a slippery slope down.
The problem with that logic is that it doesn’t give Tomlin’s ability to manage the situation nearly enough credit. Antonio Brown was in his seventh season when he broadcast Tomlin’s locker room speech on Facebook Live. He was in his eighth season when he quit on the team. Brown played 130 NFL games for the Steelers and 16 for everyone else before he shirtlessly departed the league in 2021.
Mike Tomlin kept AB in line for most of eight years and no one else could do it for more than one. So comparitively, keeping Pickens on the right path is simple.
“Like breathing, it’s easy,” Tomlin said Tuesday. “I know it’s a cute story for you guys, but it is a pebble in my shoe, to be quite honest with you in terms of the things that I have to do in an effort to get this group ready to play this week. Our focus is on the Green Bay Packers and what we’re all going to do in this football game. And I can’t state it any plainer than that.”
So if Tomlin doesn’t think that Pickens’ frustration is a problem, then it probably isn’t a problem. If his teammates don’t think it’s a problem, then it probably isn’t a problem.
This is the same Tomlin that has benched generally softspoken tackle Chuks Okoafor for some unknown offense during the Jaguars game. It’s not as if he won’t hand out discipline when he sees fit. But his actions back up his words in this case.
Pickens is an emotional player. He’s young. He’s inexperienced. He hasn’t dealt with those ups and downs the way Robinson has. But that doesn’t mean that he’s turning into something worse.
Pickens didn’t choose to play in Pittsburgh. He has expressed no desire to follow in Brown’s footsteps. It’s not fair to him for the baggage of Pittsburgh fans to be laid on his shoulders as he deals with the transition from young player to NFL stardom.