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Kenny Pickett makes a futile Steelers team watchable

The rookie quarterback masks a team in need of significant upgrades, both personnel- and coaching-wise.

New York Jets v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Entering this season, what to make of the Steelers was seldom a point of consensus. Some expected Pittsburgh to fare with a better record than in 2021 due to upgrading the offensive line and adding a more athletic quarterback in Mitch Trubisky; others posited that the team may decline slightly due to a tough schedule and somewhat thin roster.

However, I can confidently claim that almost nobody figured the Steelers would look this dreadful after four games.

Entering Week Five, Pittsburgh has just one win: a Week One overtime victory in which it forced five (yes, five) turnovers and still scraped by with a last-second field goal. The other losses came at the hands of Mac Jones, Jacoby Brissett and Zach Wilson to, respectively, the Patriots, Browns and Jets — and none of those teams appears to be solid.

For more of a statistical perspective, Pittsburgh ranks 26th in offensive EPA/play, posting under 280 yards per game and averaging 18.5 points per contest. Defensively, the Steelers have been somewhat better (13th in defensive EPA/play) but rank 25th in run defense EPA. Whether it’s few explosive plays and drives fizzling out on offense or the defense leaving the middle of the field vacant and not getting off the turf, it’s been quite bad in the Steel City.

In his four games as starting quarterback for the Steelers, Trubisky didn’t turn the ball over much, with just two interceptions. At the same time, the bigger issue is that he threw only two touchdowns and could not maintain offensive momentum or capitalize on takeaways or optimal field position.

Quite frankly, Pittsburgh was a team difficult to watch with Trubisky at the helm. On Sunday against the Jets, the narrative extended another chapter, as the Steelers’ first-half drives looked like this: punt, interception, punt, field goal, punt, punt, field goal. Notably, the final three points were due to a senseless roughing the passer penalty on a Hail Mary attempt.

In the blink of an eye, though, the Steelers and their fans were infused with a vivacity unseen this entire season.

Kenny Pickett entering the game at halftime was nowhere in the vicinity of anyone’s radars. Earlier in the week, Tomlin had actually praised Trubisky, his development and the progress he was making within Matt Canada’s offense; that had clearly been unseated when tweets flooded in from reporters about Pickett donning his helmet and Trubisky being relegated to a baseball hat.

Pickett’s debut was apropos for a rookie quarterback, featuring some top plays (see: throw to Pat Freiermuth while getting blasted) but also some areas for improvement (e.g., waiting too long to pass and then getting intercepted). Nevertheless, Pickett’s composure, mobility, accuracy and ability to connect with neglected receivers like George Pickens was a welcome sight.

The Steelers ultimately fell to the Jets due to New York rattling off a 10-play, 65-yard touchdown drive in the final few minutes of the fourth quarter — a damning reflection of Pittsburgh’s poor crunch-time defense. Yet for as somberly as the game ended, the overall takeaway surrounding the team is mildly optimistic.

Calling Pittsburgh’s next four-game stretch a gauntlet is an understatement, with games at the Bills, vs. the Buccaneers, at the Dolphins and at the Eagles upcoming. There’s a very legitimate possibility that Tomlin and his team could lose all four, moving to 1-7 — a team record through eight matchups the franchise hasn’t seen since 1969. Forget Tomlin’s losing streak: Pittsburgh very well could end up with a pick in the top ten, or even five, of April’s draft if things don’t turn around promptly.

Of course, the return of T.J. Watt cannot be overstated. But in Watt’s absence (which may be longer than anticipated after arthroscopic knee surgery), it’s abundantly clear that Pittsburgh’s defense does not dominate in the way you would have expected. Yes, Watt does change the entire complexion of the defense and the game, but this unit is not flying to the ball, closing in on receivers or shedding blocks with or without him.

Why, then, is there any semblance of positivity? Because of No. 8.

When Tomlin turned to Pickett, he underscored the idea that his offense needed resurrection; the long-time head coach, who some feel is too unwilling to change, aptly demonstrated his flexibility in an era when coaching creativity is crucial. Consequently, Steelers fans have an opportunity to analyze their highly touted, hometown hero under center for what should be the final 13 games in the regular season.

Pickett, like any rookie quarterback, will make mistakes. These must be taken with a grain of salt, and his performance need be evaluated holistically — just look at the career arcs, and rookie struggles, of players such as Trevor Lawrence, Tua Tagovailoa and Josh Allen.

Simply having the opportunity to watch what the Steelers have in Pickett provides tremendous relief to a fanbase being tortured by nail-biting yet horrendous football through the early portion of this year.

Certainly, the results of the rest of the season do matter. But this Steelers team is in need of total overhaul and could, quite honestly, benefit from a high draft pick to add a superstar difference-maker.

While fans will assuredly grow anguished when Pittsburgh doesn’t cover a crossing route or stop runs at the point of attack, it behooves supporters to look at the bigger picture: that monitoring Pickett supersedes wins or losses in a rebuilding year, the Pitt product representing a glimmer of hope on a lackluster squad.