PITTSBURGH — With a black Pittsburgh Steelers hat jammed over the still-sweaty strands of hair tucked behind his ears, quarterback Kenny Pickett took a seat in front of the microphones and media members waiting for answers last Sunday afternoon.
After throwing two interceptions and recording a 27.5 QBR in a 30-7 drubbing by the San Francisco 49ers, Pickett didn’t have many.
Speaking swiftly and monotonously, Pickett diagnosed, as best he could, what went wrong. It was a lack of execution, a notoriously difficult opposing defense, a series of miscommunications.
A perfect storm of circumstances produced an imperfect debut in Pickett’s much-anticipated second season.
After finishing his rookie campaign 7-2 after the bye with one interception over his final eight games and a perfect 158.3 passer rating in the preseason, Pickett appeared to be on the precipice of a breakout season. And he still could be.
Belief in the No. 20 pick in the 2022 draft pervades the locker room and the Steelers’ front office.
“He really has a voice,” left tackle Dan Moore Jr. said. “I talk to a lot of guys about it. Kenny has that thing. I don’t know what it is, but he has it.
“You can’t describe it. You either have it or you don’t.”
But if the first game is any indication, Pickett’s second season will be less a 17-game coronation and more a weekly battle to reestablish the Steelers’ offense as a force in a loaded AFC — including Monday night’s game against the division rival Cleveland Browns (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN/ABC/ESPN+).
“I believe you’ve got to go get it,” Pickett said. “No one’s going to hand it to you. It’s not going to be easy. I don’t think you just kind of roll out there and hope it happens. You’ve got to put the work in to make it happen and go execute and play. So, that’s all I want to do. You know, have fun, go out there and play, cut it loose. You know, see what happens.”
THERE’S A HIGH bar for second-year quarterbacks in Pittsburgh.
To be fair, the bar for every player on every Steelers team is high. That’s the pressure that comes with playing for an organization with six Lombardi Trophies. But no position, no player, is more scrutinized, more analyzed than the quarterback — especially the quarterback handpicked by the organization to succeed Ben Roethlisberger. It’s not just that Roethlisberger spent nearly two decades as the team’s starting quarterback or that he won two Super Bowls — the first in his second season — it’s the command that he had and way he won.
With Roethlisberger as their starter, the Steelers went 165-81-1 and won eight AFC North titles.
Since Roethlisberger retired, the Steelers are 9-9 and the offense has scored 30 points or more only once.
Pickett, though, already surpassed Roethlisberger by one measure when he was selected as a team captain prior to the start of the regular season. Roethlisberger didn’t earn that title until his fifth year.
“Him being the lone captain on offense is obviously, no disrespect to the leadership of others, but probably more a reflection of everyone’s feel of his growth and development, not only as a player, but as a leader within this collective,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “I think the votes reflected that. They weren’t just one-sided. I think it was reflective of the team’s view of him and his growth and development.”
The team embraced Pickett from the moment he took over the starting job at halftime of the Week 4 game a year ago, but it wasn’t a seamless transition. The offense sputtered as Pickett threw eight interceptions in five games. After the bye, Pickett and his offense showed more cohesion. The Steelers bought in as Pickett’s poise under pressure and leadership helped them to two game-winning drives late in the season.
“There was a big void with [Roethlisberger] leaving, like an offensive leader, and that’s tough for a franchise to overcome,” wide receiver Gunner Olszewski said. “And I think he’s done a great job of stepping up and doing that.
“… Before he was officially announced as captain, he was already the leader of the offense and everything went through him. So to all of us, it was no shock and it was expected.”
As Pickett found his voice in the huddle, he settled into his role off the field, too. As a rookie, Pickett moved quietly in the locker room, unassuming as he slipped out to study more film by himself in the corner of the team meeting room. Entering his second season with an established role, Pickett spends time at the locker room card table with his teammates and lingers at lunch with the linemen.
“As a rookie it’s hard,” wide receiver Diontae Johnson said. “You’re trying to get a feel for everything. So his second year, he’s more comfortable, he knows what to expect.
“… Our relationship has gotten a lot better. We talk a little more about stuff. We talk about what we see out there. He’s talking to the whole offense. When he talks, everybody listens. He’s a young guy, but everybody respects him because he is our quarterback.”
AFTER MOVING PAST a sluggish start to finish a whisker away from the playoffs, Pickett didn’t wait long to start building on the foundation he established in his rookie season.
Pickett returned to his native New Jersey in early February and started offseason workouts with Tony Racioppi, his longtime quarterback coach.
Meeting as often as four times a week, Pickett and Racioppi emphasized three main areas: tying his footwork to the Steelers’ pass concepts, his base and pocket movement and cleaning up his throwing movement. Along the way, Pickett also added 13 pounds of muscle.
A high school baseball player — and two-time Steelers training camp home run derby champ — Pickett had plenty of strength, but Racioppi helped him channel it into his football throwing motion.
RC not happy breaking down Steelers’ loss to 49ers
Ryan Clark is disappointed in what he saw from Kenny Pickett and the Steelers in their Week 1 loss to the 49ers.
By mid-March, Racioppi said, he saw a noticeable improvement in all three areas, and as a byproduct, Pickett’s throwing velocity and accuracy increased.
“He had such a big baseball background, at times he would just try to drive too much and use his legs too much for power instead of his hips,” Racioppi said. “He had to keep his weight more centered and use his hips for power instead of being a linear thrower.”
In addition to working one-on-one with Racioppi, Pickett organized throwing sessions with his teammates, building on the chemistry they built over the second half of his rookie season.
When Pickett returned to Pittsburgh in late May and early June for offseason team activities and minicamp, coaches saw faster zip on his ball. At training camp, they noticed better pocket management.
“He’s had more of that overall command of the pocket,” Steelers quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan said in August. “Making some more of those subtle movements and knowing when to climb and when to get just close enough to the line of scrimmage, draw all the defenders up and eyes are downfield, keeping two hands on the ball. A lot of fundamentals, and he’s worked very hard on it, and it’s been very gratifying to see him improve in those areas.”
But that improvement didn’t immediately carry over to the regular season.
After a near-flawless preseason, Pickett and the offense put up a dud in Week 1. For all the talk of cohesion and being ahead in comprehension of the offense, the Steelers too closely resembled the hapless units of the past two seasons. The offense recorded five consecutive three-and-outs to open the loss, and Pittsburgh’s lone touchdown came in a two-minute drill before halftime. Externally, conversations after the loss revolved more around the job security of offensive coordinator Matt Canada than of Pickett.
Since Canada took over the offense in 2021, every team in the NFL has had at least three games with 400 total yards of offense — except the Steelers, who have had none.
The Steelers declined to make a change in the offseason not only because Canada had one year left on his contract, but also because the continuity was supposed to help Pickett and his development. Including a potential fifth-year option, Pickett is under team control through at least 2026. The Steelers aren’t an organization with a track record of knee-jerk reactions, meaning they aren’t likely to move on from Pickett until they exhaust all options to get a solid return on their first-round investment. Even as uncertainty around the offense swirls externally, Pickett remains steadfast in his belief in himself and in the team.
“People kind of panic because it’s Game 1, and people get nervous, and people question things, and that’s just not who he is,” Racioppi said. “He’s not going to question his ability, he’s not going to question his teammates, he’s not going to question the coaches. He’s just going to put his head down and work and figure out a way to play better next game. And that’s it.”
IN HIS FIRST season as a full-time college starter at Pittsburgh, Pickett threw five interceptions in his first six games. He finished with one in his last eight. Then, in his first game of the following season of 2019, he threw one touchdown to two interceptions with a 51% completion percentage in a season-opening loss to Virginia.
Sound familiar? Pickett, who followed the UVA game with back-to-back 300-yard, interception-less outings, has an established track record of turning the page.
“He’s tough as nails,” said running back Qadree Ollison, a Steelers practice squad player and former Pitt teammate of Pickett’s. “When you play in Pittsburgh, there’s a certain culture here, whether it’s the university or the professional team, it’s a blue-collar city, and if you’re here long enough, that stuff gets embedded in you. So having thick skin and being tough, that’s just a part of being in the city. He’s definitely built for it.”
It’s that work ethic and mentality that tells the Steelers that Pickett can bounce back from the Week 1 performance that threw cold water on a red-hot preseason.
“There’s football justice, when you work at it, man, you generally get good things that come out of it,” Tomlin said Tuesday. “This is a guy that’s fully committed. This is a guy that works his tail off and largely, man, those guys create their own fortune. That’s my general tenor about the trajectory of him and his career. But also, in the short term, it’s reasonable to expect guys that work the way he works and prepares the way he prepares to bounce back from negative performance.”
But there’s football justice and then there’s reality.
And the reality is Pickett wasn’t good last week. His accuracy wasn’t there, and he lacked the vision to find the open receiver.
One week isn’t necessarily an indicator of the rest of the season or the rest of Pickett’s Pittsburgh career, but it was a harsh crash back to earth after external expectations around the quarterback and the Steelers skyrocketed amid a near-perfect preseason.
“With all the hype, we kind of expected to put out a certain product, and when you don’t, it feels like we fell really, really short,” backup quarterback Mitch Trubisky said. “And I don’t know if we did that, but obviously we didn’t play to our expectations. But to me, when you fall short, you don’t overreact either way. You still go back to work and you fix what you got to fix for the next week.”
If football justice is real, perhaps Pickett will quarterback the Steelers to the Super Bowl and win MVP at some point.
But as in life, football isn’t always just. Practice and study time don’t always correlate to on-field success if the raw talent isn’t there.
The people who know him best, though, believe he can — and will — succeed in the NFL.
“He very rarely makes the same mistake twice,” Racioppi said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s going to rebound. He’s put in too much work, and he’s improved too much not to.”