When you pictured Kenny Pickett’s eventual NFL debut as the Steelers quarterback, did you imagine a couple of hard-nosed rushing touchdowns, where the rookie from Pitt displayed great second effort before getting up and showing a bit of cocky confidence during the subsequent celebrations?
I’m sure you didn’t envision the interception that preceded Pickett’s first two career touchdowns in Pittsburgh’s Week 4 matchup against the Jets at Acrisure Stadium on Sunday.
Details, aside, however, you had to be feeling pretty euphoric after the Steelers rode Pickett’s debut and those two touchdown runs to a 20-10 lead early in the fourth quarter.
The day began as scripted for the Steelers offense, with Mitch Trubisky and the rest of the unit reading Matt Canada’s lines so uninspiringly, one wondered if the home crowd was asleep in the stands.
The only real sign of life from the home faithful was a faint whisper of “Kenny! Kenny! Kenny!” whenever the offense failed to pick up a first down, which was often, as New York built a 10-0 lead.
Even after the offense narrowed the deficit to four points at halftime thanks to Chris Boswell’s 59-yard field goal—tying his personal best and setting a new Acrisure Stadium record—the air inside the Steelers' long-time football venue still felt old, tired and stale.
Then, Pickett walked out onto the field for the Steelers' first second-half possession, and that air seemed crisp again, the kind of crispness not felt in Pittsburgh since the days of Ben Roethlisberger and Season 2 of Grey’s Anatomy.
The offense just looked different with Pickett under center. He was decisive, deliberate and, to reiterate, cocky; that third quality was on display while he talked trash to the Jets’ defender who dared to take a shot at him as he stood in the pocket and delivered a strike to tight end Pat Freiermuth to set up the rookie quarterback’s second rushing score.
That score made it 20-10 with 13:36 remaining in the game.
There was only one thing left to do at that point: Close out the game and begin the Kenny Pickett Era with a 1-0 record.
If only the defense followed the script.
Unfortunately, after playing really well through three periods—honestly, it was the best Teryl Austin’s charges looked since T.J. Watt went on the Injured Reserve list—the defense went back to its old Watt-less roots and allowed New York to march 81 yards on 11 plays to close the score to 20-17 on a five-yard touchdown strike from Zach Wilson to Corey Davis.
Sadly, Pickett ended a promising follow-up drive, one that included a beautiful 26-yard back-shoulder completion to receiver George Pickens down to the Jets' 31, by throwing an ill-advised pass to Freiermuth, who tried in vain to come down with the high pass but instead tipped it into the arms of a Jets defender at the New York 36 with 3:34 left.
Yes, this was a bit of a bad position to put the defense in, especially when it looked as if the offense would add at least three points to the lead, but the Jets still had 64 yards to go before they reached pay-dirt.
Finish the game, and it’s a legendary day at Acrisure Stadium.
New York methodically marched downfield on the strength of Wilson’s precision passes and ultimately scored the game-winning touchdown when running back Breece Hall just barely nudged the nose of the football over the goal line before fumbling with 16 seconds left.
Had the rookie running back fumbled just a split second sooner, and had safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who caused it, been able to secure the loose pigskin, it would have been a heroic effort by a Steelers’ defense that has often been labeled a battered and tired victim thanks to the unsupportive nature of its inept offense through the first few weeks of the 2022 campaign.
Instead, it was the latest reminder that, without Watt in the lineup, this defense is more toothless than it is tired.
Yes, the defense was damn good through three quarters—it even set up two scores by tallying two interceptions—but it again wilted with the game on the line.
The Steelers' defense might not have the teeth to get after opposing quarterbacks these days—just one sack of Wilson on the afternoon—but it sure took a huge bite out of Pickett’s professional debut.
Instead of a 2-2 record and perhaps a new lease on life with a rookie quarterback leading the way, the Steelers dropped to 1-3 and reminded us that their problems go a lot deeper than just who their starting quarterback is.