Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver George Pickens spent Sunday afternoon covered more in irrelevance than by the Atlanta Falcons secondary. Despite the 6-foot-3 freakishly athletic WR facing what should have been wildly advantageous coverage matchups, he was targeted only twice in the Steelers’ 19-16 win.
Pickens was a little miffed.
“Throw me the f*cking ball,” he screamed over and over on the sidelines.
First, it’s an offensive coordinator’s folly to not exploit single coverage on a receiver like Pickens. It is maleficence. A few high-point balls and the Steelers offense might have scored more than three points in the final 30 minutes, their second straight second-half dirt nap after establishing a healthy lead by halftime.
Sure, a WR wants the ball.
Sure, a WR will lobby or get angry when he has less to do than a third-string QB pretending to scribble notes on a clipboard.
Coach Mike Tomlin called the stories about the incident “silly.”
“That spirit, that competitive spirit, I want that guy … We’ve got competitors,” Tomlin said on Monday. “This is professional football. These guys know they have to deliver. For a guy who wants to do that, I am not going to make that a negative, no matter how silly I think the commentary is.”
That’s one way to spin it.
The other is a broken offensive system causing such frustration among players that even a rookie is popping off in obnoxious, overheated ways.
“Don’t try to make something out of nothing when there’s nothing there,” Pickens said on Tuesday. “You look at other players, literally every receiver in the past, you got T.O. and so many more names. It’s what you go out there and make it out to be.”
Oh, as long as famous malcontent Terrell Owens and other problematic wide receivers did it, then it’s just fine.
George Pickens taking behavioral cues from Owens is a pretty bad idea.
Further, a rookie spouting strident toxins without fear is yet another indictment of Mike Tomlin’s discipline.
Pickens exploding and getting praised is lightyears from the urban legend of Chuck Noll waiving a WR who took his parking spot (You don’t mess with a man’s spot). Pickens’ outburst is also too reminiscent of the beginning of the cultural downturn that began nearly a decade ago with Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell.
It was those two who permanently severed Tomlin’s control. After they were done with the Steelers’ room in 2018, the culture has never been the same. They fought, whined, and moaned their way out of Pittsburgh, and it was abundantly clear that Tomlin tolerated such behavior. To the Steelers’ detriment, a string of lesser players has followed with petulance or me-first attitudes in public settings.
How many playoff games have the Steelers won since those two wreaked havoc on the franchise? (Three in the last 11 years, none in five).
This isn’t complicated.
On a smaller level, it’s a coaching failure to ignore an offensive weapon, especially as the offense is struggling. It’s a massive coaching failure, really.
On a larger level, sit down, shut up and play. It’s the Pittsburgh Steelers, and a WR doesn’t need to cause a distraction on the sideline in the heat of a tight game, regardless if he’s right.
Save the anger for private time. The team does not need distractions in a close game.
A head coach on top of his team would have fixed both issues quickly.
Tomlin seemingly fixed neither. He tacitly encouraged such nonsense because he “wants that guy.”
Instead of getting on top of the situation, he mocked commentary and coverage of the event and the aftermath. By the miracle of miracles, the Steelers may make the playoffs. The Baltimore Ravens are hobbled without Lamar Jackson, and the Steelers’ remaining schedule is full of winnable games.
Tomlin, Pickens, and Kenny Pickett can downplay the event. Pickens referencing one of the most divisive and problematic wide receivers in recent NFL history tells you what you need to know.
This IS a problem.
Those remaining games on the Steelers’ schedule would be more winnable if the Steelers’ offense exploited opponents leaving Pickens in single coverage, and Pickett floated a ball above the sideline 20 or 30 yards downfield for George Pickens to get.
Those games would also be more winnable without sideline confrontations between Kenny Pickett and receivers.
But I suppose all of that is just silly.
Dan Kingerski is the Editor-in-Chief of the Sports Now PGH group, a beat writer covering the Pittsburgh Penguins for Pittsburgh Hockey Now, and a columnist covering the Steelers and Pittsburgh Pirates. You can also see him on WPXI’s Final Word.