Change in Kenny Pickett May Be Enough to Change Steelers’ Narrative

He’s been developing ever since he was thrown into the fire as a rookie last October. But with that development clearly accelerated this preseason, it’s time to re-think what might be possible.
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As the page turned from last season to this season back in the spring, after free agency, the draft, the annual reshaping of rosters and the subsequent perceived alterations to the balance of power in the NFL, the biggest anticipated roadblock to the Steelers getting back in the serious contention business was Kenny Pickett.

Now, with the regular-season opener against San Francisco on Sunday at Acrisure Stadium at long last looming, the biggest reason the Steelers might contend after all — for an AFC North Division championship and beyond — is … Kenny Pickett.

The Steelers’ second-year quarterback and first-year starter at the outset of a season still isn’t Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen or Joe Burrow. But the difference in Pickett individually from last season to this season is startling, and that metamorphosis might well alter what the Steelers are capable of collectively. 

It’s not that he’s a little bigger, which he is.

It’s not that his arm is a little stronger, which it appears to be.

It’s that Pickett, according to head coach Mike Tomlin, is comfortable in his own skin as the QB this season.

And that has allowed Pickett to become a better communicator, a better leader and a better player. Perhaps good enough, along with all the offensive options around Pickett and the way holes have theoretically been plugged on defense, to slug it out with any franchise quarterback on the Steelers’ schedule.

Pickett is unquestionably the most compelling potential game-changer for the Steelers, specifically in his understanding of how to be the quarterback much more than his grasp of how to play the position.

“That is significant,” Tomlin opined after the preseason finale on Aug. 24 at Atlanta. “It’s not play related but it is, because he is the catalyst for that [offensive] unit. He controls the pace and the tenor of that unit. I just think if he’s comfortable, that unit has an opportunity to be comfortable.

“And I think that’s probably the most significant difference.”

It’s not the only difference.

Pickett has demonstrated a much better understanding of the NFL game entering his sophomore season, as you’d expect, especially “a really good understanding for protections this year,” center Mason Cole emphasizes.

And Pickett knows where to go with the ball.

“Kenny understands,” offensive coordinator Matt Canada maintains. “He has the answers, ‘If they do this, I do this. If they do this and this, then we do this.’” Some of that has been gleaned organically as Pickett has gained experience. “Anything you do for a year, probably any job anybody has, if you’re there for a year you kind of get it figured out, right? He’s had that time to now put his own stamp on things.”

But much of the Pickett we’re about to see has been fertilized in advance of an anticipated harvest. It goes well beyond the traditional second-year bump players are often expected to achieve.

“Experience has taught me to anticipate it and better than that, to cultivate it,” Tomlin explained. “We talk openly about it.

“During the course of [OTAs and training camp] he and I met every morning to start a day. We talked about a variety of things, leadership, things that come with being him. I want to be a part of his development. I’m not going to sit on the side and hope that it happens and happens in the ways we want and need it to.

“We’re intentionally constructing it.”

The effect has been evident.

“It seems like it’s easier for him this year,” Cole observes. 

“He’s the leader,” Canada insists. “Kenny’s a very outward leader and a strong leader, a commanding leader.”

Commanding enough to have been named offensive captain in a vote by his teammates — the only offensive captain. It’s a designation Tomlin maintained was “a reflection of everyone’s feel of his growth and development, not only as a player, but as a leader within this collective.”

Run that through the Tomlin Translator and you get this: The Steelers are all-in on Pickett.

Not just as a developing, long-term answer but right now. They’ll go where he takes them this season.

That may be a lot further a lot faster than initially anticipated.

Categories: Mike Prisuta’s Sports Section