It might sound a little too good to be true, but Kenny Pickett could have a legitimate chance to win the starting job in Pittsburgh.
Pickett's first professional performance earned him an earlier insertion in his second preseason game, and he did not waste the opportunity. Pickett completed 6 of 7 passes for 76 yards and a touchdown, with the score capping a very impressive no-huddle, 63-yard sprint down the field in just 42 seconds.
And just as it was getting going, the night was over for Pickett. Mason Rudolph replaced Pickett in the second half, sending the rookie to the bench with a nearly perfect stat line and fresh tape to drive a potentially late-blooming quarterback controversy in Pittsburgh.
Just don't tell that to Mike Tomlin.
"That was all I planned to play him," the Steelers coach said of Pickett. "I would've liked to have possessed the ball more in the first half and thus have a bigger body of work. Some things are outside of your control. We gotta get first downs for that to happen.
"It could be said that, for some of the offensive people that we wanted to take a look at, a lack of conversions limits some of that."
Perhaps most important was the fashion in which Pickett found his success. After a quality opening drive led by Mitchell Trubisky that ended with the Steelers in field goal range (but without a converted attempt), Pittsburgh entered a lull offensively. The Steelers went three-and-out on two of their next three possessions and gained just 33 yards in that span of time as Trubisky encountered frequent pressure, and running backs Benny Snell and Jaylen Warren struggled to find room to run.
Then, Pickett entered the game, completing his first pass to fellow rookie (and camp sensation) George Pickens for a gain of six. Penalties undercut his opening drive, with a holding call wiping out a 19-yard completion to Chase Claypool on third-and-8 that Pickett delivered with a blitzer bearing down on him. His second possession, however, is where the fuel for the hype train was found.
Pickett tossed the Steelers down the field with a flurry of quick strikes, connecting with Diontae Johnson for 17 yards and Pat Freiermuth for 11 before hurrying the offense to the line of scrimmage to spike the ball and stop the clock. The drive continued when Pickett found Freiermuth again for 24 yards, and he capped the drive by throwing not one, but two touchdown passes (the first was erased by penalty) to give the Steelers a halftime lead.
It was frantic, explosive and downright impressive to see from a rookie who was facing a defense largely comprised of regular-season starters.
"It's probably who he is," Tomlin said of Pickett's ability to succeed under pressure. "I know he did it next door (at the University of Pittsburgh). He probably did it in high school and he probably did it in little league. Some things, people are born with."
Trubisky saw more playing time and struggled largely because of circumstances out of his control, while Pickett capitalized when the Steelers were running short on time. When viewed alongside each other, Pickett looked like the better quarterback, but one cannot evaluate two players as if they exist in a vacuum. There are still 10 other players on the field responsible for doing their part, and when Trubisky was on the field, his teammates didn't exactly help him much.
"I thought Mitch played well," Tomlin said of Trubisky. "I thought he created and extended some things when there wasn't much there. But we've got to do a better job of protecting him and having some semblance of a run game if you want a fair evaluation, and I'm just being bluntly honest."
There's still time left to sort everything out, and Tomlin isn't the type to rush to the podium to declare anyone a future Hall of Famer. He certainly won't name a starter minutes after the end of a preseason game.
"We'll address depth chart-related things over the next couple of days as we zero in on our next opportunity," Tomlin said. "I don't make knee-jerk reactions or statements following the performance."
Tomlin and his staff will continue with their evaluation process in the days and weeks ahead. But one thing is certain after Saturday night: Pickett sure made things interesting.
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