PITTSBURGH — The Kenny Pickett era is officially here.
The Pittsburgh Steelers listed their 2022 first-round pick as the starter on the depth chart — ahead of Mitch Trubisky — for Sunday’s game at the Buffalo Bills.
“I don’t want to dump the responsibility of what transpired at Mitch’s feet,” coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday. “That’s not fair to him. He’s played better than that description, but we haven’t. And so in an effort to be better, in an effort to score more points, in an effort to move the ball more fluidly, we decided to go to Kenny in the hope that he would provide a spark for us… not only in terms of our ability to move the ball, but just in terms of energy.
“And so, hopefully, that’s a catalyst for us as we try to move forward and change the outcome of some of these games.”
Pickett will be the first rookie quarterback to start for the team since undrafted free agent Devlin Hodges started six games in the 2019 season.
Searching for a spark, Tomlin inserted Pickett to replace Trubisky at halftime of the Steelers’ 24-20 loss to the New York Jets. Pickett responded by completing 10 of 13 attempts for 120 yards, with three interceptions and two rushing touchdowns.
And even after considering returning to Trubisky because of his familiarity as a former Bills backup, Tomlin is sticking with Pickett as the Steelers enter the toughest stretch of their season beginning Sunday in Buffalo.
“We have no reservations about what Kenny is going to be capable of in terms of schematics,” Tomlin said. “Obviously we have a level of concern about the environment we’re taking them into, but we have a level of concern about any quarterback that you taking to that environment versus that defense and that venue.
“Kenny has shown us maturity at every point throughout this process. He’s older than most rookies, and that was obviously discussed leading up to the draft process, the things that we valued in him, from a draft perspective: fluid and quick decision making, pro-like anticipation and things of that nature have proven to be true.”
In his regular-season debut, Pickett averaged 9.2 yards per attempt and 13.2 air yards per attempt, well above Trubisky’s season averages of 5.6 yards per attempt and 9.9 air yards per attempt.
“With Kenny in there, we were able to be the aggressor,” tight end Pat Freiermuth said Monday. “Obviously, some mistakes are going to happen, some tipped balls and all that kind of stuff, but we have to continue to work past that and be there for Kenny, especially since he’s a young guy.”
Tomlin said it was ultimately a good feeling that prompted the switch.
“Mitch’s performance was a component of the decision, but not the only component of the decision, and I just want to be really clear there,” Tomlin said. “Often times the quarterback position gets too much credit, too much blame.”
Added Tomlin: “I don’t know if it’s any one particular thing. It’s just how I felt, how we felt in-game. I think we also talked about last week, how do you know when you’re there? And I said, ‘You just kind of know when you’re there.’ I think that’s probably the perspective that I have on the decision making component of it.”
Prior to entering Sunday’s game, Pickett hadn’t worked with the first-team offense since the preseason, but the Pitt product impressed his teammates with his calm, confident demeanor in the huddle and attitude on the field. Perhaps his most impressive throw came as he completed an 18-yard pass to Freiermuth over the middle on third-and-long as Jets defensive tackle Quinnen Williams flew unblocked toward him. Pickett got the throw off with pressure in his face and smiled at Williams as he got up from the field.
“He played with swagger,” wide receiver Diontae Johnson said Monday. “When he comes in the huddle, he demands like, ‘Huddle up, come in, listen.’ Everybody respects him. He’s a great player, and he’s young, he’s going to continue to learn and develop. It’s our job to make him look good and help him stay comfortable while he’s out there.”
Pickett, 24, was the first first-round quarterback selected by the Steelers since the organization picked Ben Roethlisberger in 2004.
The Steelers (1-3) drafted Pickett 20th overall with the intention of eventually making him the franchise quarterback, but he entered the preseason as the No. 3 quarterback on the depth chart behind Trubisky — who was signed in free agency — and longtime backup Mason Rudolph.
Pickett struggled in the early weeks of camp but hit his stride in the first preseason game, when he completed 13 of 15 attempts for 95 yards with two touchdowns — including a game-winning drive against the Seattle Seahawks. He finished the preseason with an 80.6 completion percentage and averaged 7.3 yards per attempt.
The Steelers, though, were resolute in starting Trubisky because of his veteran experience and leadership, and the team even voted him a captain. He will continue to be a captain and fulfill the responsibilities of the role, including going out for the coin toss, Tomlin said.
Trubisky and the offense struggled through the first 3½ weeks, and their offensive output hovered near the bottom of the league as they averaged 18 points per game.
Though Tomlin preached patience and pointed to encourage signs of offensive improvement after the Week 3 loss to the Cleveland Browns, he ultimately opted to insert his rookie at halftime of Sunday’s game against the New York Jets.
Pickett, for his part, displayed leadership and confidence after Sunday’s loss and vowed to help pull the offense along.
“I think [I have] a little bit of an edge to me,” Pickett said. “I want that to rub off on everybody. I want us to have an attitude when it’s out there on the field. I’m excited to get back to work, get us back on track.”
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