What an unbelievable season we have witnessed! Only 11 NFL teams have had their starting quarterback the entire season, and many teams have been forced to piece things together with backups, third-stringers, and even castoffs from other teams. This brings to light the fact the Steelers have a better quarterback situation than much of the NFL.
Mitchell Trubisky looked sharp in his most recent outing, and many NFL teams would love to have him as an option in their quarterback room, given the many injuries at the position. The biggest reason for excitement, however, is rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett, who has led the Steelers to back-to-back, come-from-behind victories. The Steelers have experienced a revival during the second half of the season, and much is due to the development of their rookie quarterback.
With one game remaining in the season, the Steelers are well amidst the playoff conversation, which seemed like a blasphemous statement just two months ago. While I believe the return of T.J. Watt has been the biggest reason for Pittsburgh’s success, nobody can dismiss the importance of Kenny Pickett’s development in this equation. The young quarterback has shown great improvement in multiple facets of his game, and his improvement is coming at a steady, even pace.
Ultimately, I see three main areas Pickett has used to his advantage during this stretch of successful football. The first facet is that of learning. Pickett is mentally ahead of the learning curve, which is something we knew about him during his days at Pitt. He simply gets the game of football. While he may not have the strongest arm, the biggest hands, or world-class athleticism, he understands the game of football from both an analytical and schematic point of view. The rookie has been making great reads at the line of scrimmage and processing what defenses are running schematically, specifically in the secondary.
Pickett has also been utilizing his top playmakers in crucial situations, as evidenced on Sunday night. Over the past couple weeks, we have seen him targeting Pat Freiermuth on third down more frequently, unafraid to utilize the middle of the field and find the matchup that gives him the highest probability of completion. He is doing a much better job of finding mismatches, and that will only continue to improve as he takes further control of the offense.
Kenny Pickett has also risen due to improvement as a leader. This has nothing to do with his ability to lead the team, but rather how he has taken command of the offense and become the true leader of the offense. Look, we can make players’ comments to the media out to be anything we want, but it is hard to ignore a receiver saying his quarterback was the one who designed a game-winning drive. This is what happened after the Week 16 comeback against the Raiders, when George Pickens told the media Kenny Pickett was the one calling the plays on the final offensive drive, a drive which concluded with a touchdown pass to Pickens himself.
This can also be looked at as a knock on Matt Canada, but it is a praiseworthy accomplishment for a rookie quarterback to call the shots as his team marches down the field, leading them to a big-time victory. This shows Pickett’s development as a leader. He has not only taken command of this team and become the true face of the offense, but he has also earned the backing of his teammates. This is a key component in a season that began with somebody else at quarterback. There is no debate as to who the leader of this team is, and that is an important aspect in building a foundation for a young and rebuilding team.
Lastly, Pickett’s rise as a rookie is due to his...luck? I, for one, do not believe in luck, but I do believe there are certain players who simply happen to have things work to their advantage more often than others. Take this past Sunday’s game, for instance. Regardless of circumstance, this was a great play by Pickett to avoid pressure, scramble to the left, and make a throw on the run. However, one key component of this play is overlooked by many. Watch the play from this angle.
This play will be talked about for centuries. pic.twitter.com/E4pJae9hrx— Andrew Fillipponi (@ThePoniExpress) January 2, 2023
I cannot confirm this, and I know much was said contrary to this during post-game interviews, but after watching the replay from this angle, it looks to me as if Kenny Pickett was actually targeting Steven Sims on this play. He scrambles out to the left to avoid the pressure, and it looks as if his head is pointed toward Sims before he throws the ball. Sims, of course, was running toward the left side of the end zone just beyond where Najee Harris would eventually end up.
Whether or not Najee Harris was truly the intended receiver does matter. What matters is that the Steelers are entering Week 18 with their playoff hopes still alive, thanks to an unlikely, almost-miracle play against the Ravens. The best of the best always tend to have plays like this fall in their favor, whether their skill had anything to do with it or not. Kenny Pickett is not the most intriguing quarterback when you look at his arm strength or hand size, but if plays like this one can fall in his favor moving forward, he may not need elite traits to take this team places.