PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Steelers rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett has played 10 NFL games and suffered two concussions.
Pickett is set to return from his second concussion of the season this Saturday when the Steelers face the Las Vegas Raiders. He missed one game and almost all of another game with this second injury after only missing one half with the first.
Despite Pickett not missing considerable time, a concussion every five games is not going to lead to a long and successful NFL career.
But the Steelers also don’t want Pickett to make drastic changes to the way he plays in general, and not even this week against the Raiders.
“I don’t think we can play like that,” offensive coordinator Matt Canada said on Thursday. “It’s either go or not go.”
The Steelers want Pickett to go, and while Canada said they may try to take things easy when it comes to the amount of time Pickett runs with the football, he pointed out that both of the times he’s been injured this season, Pickett was just dropping back on a normal passing play.
“The injury occurred on just a drop back. But we had a missed assignment,” Canada said. “We’re going to continue to have Kenny keep learning more every week and understanding where we’re at and not taking unnecessary risks.”
So while keeping Pickett upright is a priority going forward, the onus to make changes on the team will be placed on the play of the offensive line, and not necessarily the quarterback.
“He’s been banged up and it’s on us,” center Mason Cole said. “We’ve got to do a better job protecting him, especially coming off a concussion. Keep him off the ground.”
MAKE THE SAFE PLAY?
Even on the play that got Pickett injured, when Patrick Queen came unblocked thanks to an offensive line miscommunication, Pickett might’ve had time to throw the ball away or just go down before Roquan Smith grabbed him and slammed him to the ground.
But Canada said he doesn’t want to be in Pickett’s head and cause him to worry about not getting injured again instead of just focusing on making plays.
“I try not to do that,” Canada said. “It’s easy to say that. He’s a real competitive guy. He shook the first one off, and he’s going to try to make a play. Obviously, they got him. So, yes, of course, I wish he would have just gone down. But you can’t ask him to do that. He’s who he is. He did a good job shaking one. It falls on (us). We just can’t let those things happen.”
Pickett said it’s easy to say he should have thrown it away in hindsight, but much harder to make that decision on the field.
“This game happens a lot faster than people think when you’re watching on the side or watching TV,” he said. “The way these guys clock their speed, it’s pretty ridiculous how fast it is. I was trying to make a play, not take a sack and throw it away, but also wanted ball security right? … It could be a fumble and bad things can happen.”
WORSE THAN THE FIRST
Pickett is obviously aware of the risks and dangers of concussions, and it was actually the rookie self-reporting the symptoms that got him taken out of the game.
After the initial hit, Pickett was evaluated on the sideline and allowed to return to the game. But after one more series, it was clear to Pickett that everything wasn’t OK. When he was standing on the sideline, he felt fine. But when moving and running, he realized something was wrong.
“I thought I was good to go,” Pickett said. “I felt good and then when I got back out there and started running and the vision started coming into play more and I was moving and things were going fast, that’s when symptoms started to come up and I had to go inside and they ruled me out. … It was definitely the right call to take me out and get me in the protocol.”
Pickett missed one half of football after his first concussion and then practiced the following week leading up to returning to action the proceeding Sunday. This time around, he was a limited practice all week and missed a game before returning.
The Steelers didn’t make any changes to their procedures or be more cautious with Pickett this time around. He simply had more severe symptoms that took more time to clear, he said.
“Definitely more severe, I think, than the first one, just based on the symptoms and how long they lingered,” Pickett said.
While he’s aware of the risks, Pickett does not have long-term concerns about concussions shortening his career or impacting his life after football at this point.
“I went through with the doctors and listened to what they said,” Pickett said. “It comes with playing football. I was lucky throughout my career in college, really not having many concussions at all or experiencing what I’ve experienced these last two. But it happens. It’s football.”
OUNCE OF PREVENTION
Pickett is taking one step to minimize his risk of new concussions. He’s going to be wearing a new helmet, recommended by teammate Pat Freiermuth, who has had multiple concussions in his short NFL career.
Pickett said that both of his concussions have not been caused by being hit in the head, but by his head hitting the turf. He’s hopeful that the new helmet, which has additional protection in the back of his head, can minimize the chance of a re-injury.
“The doctors said they have really good results with it,” Pickett said. “I trust what they say 100%. I definitely want to be safe. … It felt the same.”
Pickett said that he will be wearing a visor with the new helmet, which he has not done in the past. He said the new helmet’s opening is either too big, and would allow hands to get inside his facemask, or too small, and would restrict his vision. So he’s wearing the mask with the bigger opening and a visor.
If the Steelers can clean up their protection issues on the offensive line, and a new helmet can keep fewer hits from becoming concussions, perhaps Pickett and the team can move forward without issue. But the stakes are high for both, with the value of a first-round draft pick, and Pickett’s career and future health hanging in the balance.