If the Pittsburgh Steelers want to compete in the AFC going forward, that means that they’re going to have to deal with the likes of Josh Allen, Joe Burrow and Patrick Mahomes for the foreseeable future, and while Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett had a solid rookie season, he’s not yet anywhere near at the level of those at the top of the conference.
Pickett will never have the size and toughness as a runner of Allen or the elite escapability of Mahomes. But so much of the quarterback position at the NFL level is mental, not physical, and Pickett can certainly improve a great deal in his development in the mental aspects of the game.
One example from the AFC Divisional Playoffs stood out.
Earlier this season, when the Steelers were playing the Indianapolis Colts, Pickett took a sack on a play where the Steelers offensive line was outnumbered. The Colts showed a six-man pressure. The Steelers only had five blockers. So the left-most blocker was left untouched.
Even though the Colts only sent five of their six shown rushers, the Steelers line could not react fast enough to change their assignments and Yannick Ngakoue still came free, rushing off the offense’s left side.
Instead of Pickett making a hot read, he drifted back and first looked to his right. He didn’t react to Ngakoue until it was far too late and took a sack that pushed the Steelers out of field goal range.
In Sunday’s game between the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals, Burrow was faced with a similar dilemma. The Bills showed seven rushers at the line of scrimmage and the Bengals only had six blockers. He knew that there would be a free rusher.
Burrow took one step and immediately threw the ball to his hot receiver, and Ja’Marr Chase caught it and ran for a first down.
This is obviously just one example, but what makes Burrow one of the best quarterbacks in the league is not that he’s physically dominant. Burrow is not much bigger than Pickett and he isn’t faster. Physically, their traits are similar. He is a good blueprint for the kind of quarterback than Pickett could become if he maximizes his physical tools with elite above-the-neck quarterback play.
Pickett has the ability to develop into the kind of quarterback that Burrow is, and if the Steelers are going to succeed in the ultra-competitive AFC quarterback race, he’ll need to. Pickett seems to know it.
“The volume of defense that you were seeing week-in and week-out, I’d say that was [the hardest adjustment] for me,” Pickett said in an appearance on the Pat McAfee Show last week. “I study a lot of tape and going through breakdowns was a lot different than going through college breakdowns. You see a lot of different looks throughout the game, whereas in college you kind of getting comfortable seeing different looks, because you knew you weren’t going to see too many of them, just from what guys can handle.”
As a team, the Steelers have a lot of work to do this offseason. The team has five starters that are free agents that need to be dealt with and has three picks in the top 50 in the 2023 NFL Draft. But more so than any of the moves they make this offseason, it will be the development of Pickett that determines whether or not the Steelers will be able to catch up to the likes of the Bengals, Bills and Chiefs.