PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver George Pickens has made a few headlines this season.
Pickens, the team’s budding star wide receiver, has drawn attention for his social media posts, his sideline antics, his effort on the field and at practice this season. Most of that attention has been negative.
In speaking with the media on Tuesday, Pickens said that the media wasn’t qualified to criticize him because they didn’t play football and that he didn’t regret not blocking for Jaylen Warren on a run inside the 5-yard line against the Indianapolis Colts, saying that he was afraid to get injured.
Pickens was immediately ripped by the rest of the media that wasn’t already, including many former football players. On Wednesday, some of his teammates joined the chorus, along with head coach Mike Tomlin, who made a lengthy unscheduled media appearance on Wednesday do clear up the situation.
The Pickens situation goes beyond one Instagram like, one non-competitive block, or one sideline outburst. It cuts to the core of what is wrong with the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers, who have lost three straight, two of them against two-win teams at home, and are on the precipice of missing the playoffs for the second straight season.
Has Tomlin lost the locker room? Is his message getting across? Has the Steelers’ locker room culture deteriorated so much that Pickens is being allowed to be a problem child with no repercussions, and if so, how could there not be blow-back from other players?
Tomlin was expansive in talking about Pickens’ shortcomings, but he was quieter when asked about two specific questions. Asked how Pickens’ comments will play in the locker room, Tomlin said, “ask them.”
Asked if the actions of one player can harm the collective, Tomlin said “certainly.” Pressed about whether that’s happening now, he said “it depends on when you ask me.”
So, I asked some players in the locker room. Veterans that have been on other teams that have something to compare this to. Here’s what I came up with.
I asked center Mason Cole if he thinks Pickens actions and comments are a sign of a lost locker room culture.
“I don’t feel that,” Cole said. “I don’t see any of it either. I don’t read anything that’s out there. I don’t know what George said. I can only imagine what George said. I don’t pay much attention. It’s about the guys in the locker room. We’ve got a really good locker room. Win, lose or draw, the guys in this locker room, they’re in the fight.
“I’ve been on a handful of really bad teams. Where I’ve been in the NFL, I haven’t had a great amount of success as a team. … We’re in this stuff together. Only the guys in this locker room know what it’s like to go out there each Sunday and how much goes into it each week. The outside noise, you don’t pay attention to it.”
I asked wide receiver Miles Boykin if things on the inside of the team feel like they’re falling apart at the same level they appear to be from the outside.
“I really don’t think so,” Boykin said. “At the end of the day, I think you’ve got to put everything into perspective. The pressure, from the media and everybody else like that is like that for a reason. We’re expected to win. We want those expectations. It’s not like we’re a team that’s only won three or four games. That’s really falling apart.
“When you look at us, it’s like, yeah we’ve dropped a couple games that we shouldn’t have, but at the same time, I think we know what we’re capable of. I think we’ve just got to put it all together.”
Can the actions of one player — Pickens — poison an entire time? Boykin says yes, but that’s not what’s happening with these Steelers.
“Everyone is susceptible to it,” he said. “I think it’s just human nature. People have to recognize where it’s coming from. Guys are frustrated because we’re losing. We’re frustrated because we’re losing games. We’re trying to search for answers. So from that standpoint, I think we just need to put our energy in the right place. It’s fine to be frustrated. It’s fine to be mad. That’s why the fans aren’t happy. That’s why the guys are frustrated. Everyone is. Coaches are. We’ve just got to put it into more productive ways.”
The culture of the Steelers’ locker room does not need to be defined by one player. Patrick Peterson, a probable Hall of Famer at cornerback, is playing out of position to help the team. Minkah Fitzparick finished the game after he broke his hand and then kept playing with it. Kenny Pickett is attempting to come back two weeks after ankle surgery.
Jaylen Warren spoke calmly to the media on Wednesday, and said that he would have blocked for Pickens, but understood why he didn’t. How about that for maturity?
There are plenty of examples of players on this roster putting the team’s needs over their own, sacrificing and coming together for the greater good. There may not be 53 players pulling in the same direction, but the vast majority of them are.