PITTSBURGH — The Kenny Pickett era has officially arrived.
The Pittsburgh Steelers listed their 2022 first-round pick as the starter on the depth board — ahead of Mitch Trubisky — for Sunday’s game against the Buffalo Bills.
“I don’t want to pass the blame for what happened at Mitch’s feet,” coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday. “It’s not fair to him. He played better than that description, but we didn’t. And so in an effort to be better, in an effort to score more points, in an effort to move the ball more fluidly, we decided to go to Kenny in hopes that he would provide us with a spark…not just in terms of ability to move the ball, but just in terms of energy.
“And so hopefully that’s a catalyst for us as we try to move forward and change the outcome of some of these games.”
Pickett will be the first rookie quarterback to start for the team since undrafted free agent Devlin Hodges started six games during the 2019 season.
Looking for a spark, Tomlin inserted Pickett to replace Trubisky at halftime in the Steelers’ 24-20 loss to the New York Jets. Pickett responded by completing 10 of 13 attempts for 120 yards, with three interceptions and two rushing touchdowns.
And even after considering returning to Trubisky because of his familiarity as a former Bills backup, Tomlin is sticking with Pickett as the Steelers enter the toughest part of the season starting Sunday at Buffalo.
“We have no reservations about what Kenny will be capable of in terms of schematics,” Tomlin said. “Obviously we’re concerned about the environment we’re taking them into, but we’re concerned about any quarterback you take into that environment in relation to that defense and that venue.
“Kenny has shown us maturity every step of the way. He’s older than most rookies, and that was obviously discussed before the draft process, the things that we appreciate about him, from a draft: smooth and quick decision-making, pro-like anticipation and things of that nature came true.”
In his regular season debut, Pickett averaged 9.2 yards per attempt and 13.2 aerial yards per attempt, well above Trubisky’s season averages of 5.6 yards per attempt and 9.9 yards. aerial per attempt.
“With Kenny in there, we were able to be the aggressor,” tight end Pat Freiermuth said Monday. “Obviously mistakes are going to happen, knocked balls and all that kind of stuff, but we have to keep working after that and be there for Kenny, especially as he’s young.”
Tomlin said it was ultimately a gut feeling that prompted the change.
“Mitch’s performance was a part of the decision, but not the only part of the decision, and I just want to be very clear on that,” Tomlin said. “A lot of times the quarterback position gets too much credit, too much blame.”
Tomlin added: “I don’t know if it’s one thing in particular. It’s just how I felt, how we felt in the game. I think we also talked last week, how do you know when you’re here? And I said, ‘You just know when you’re here.’ I think that’s probably the view I have on the decision-making component.”
Heading into Sunday’s game, Pickett hadn’t worked with the first-team offense since preseason, but Pitt’s product impressed teammates with his calm, confident attitude in the huddle and his attitude on the field. Perhaps his most impressive throw came when he completed an 18-yard pass to Freiermuth midway through the third-and-long as Jets defensive tackle Quinnen Williams flew unblocked towards him. Pickett got the throw with a squeeze to the face and smiled at Williams as he rose from the field.
“He played with bluster,” receiver Diontae Johnson said Monday. “When he comes into caucus, he asks like, ‘Come together, come in, listen. “Everyone respects him. He’s a great player, and he’s young, he’s going to keep learning and developing. It’s our job to make him look good and help him stay comfortable. while he’s there.”
Pickett, 24, was the first first-round quarterback selected by the Steelers since the organization selected Ben Roethlisberger in 2004.
The Steelers (1-3) drafted Pickett 20th overall with the intention of making him the franchise quarterback, but he entered the preseason as the No. 3 quarterback on the roster from deep behind Trubisky — who was signed in free agency — and longtime backup Mason Rudolph.
Pickett struggled in the early weeks of camp, but hit his stride in the preseason opener, when he completed 13 of 15 attempts for 95 yards with two touchdowns — including a game-winning drive against the Seahawks of Seattle. He finished the preseason with an 80.6 completion percentage and 7.3 yards per attempt average.
The Steelers, however, were determined to start Trubisky because of his veteran experience and leadership, and the team even voted him captain. He will continue as captain and take on the responsibilities of the role, including the draw, Tomlin said.
Trubisky and the offense struggled through the first 3½ weeks, and their offensive performance hovered near the bottom of the league averaging 18 points per game.
Although Tomlin preached patience and pointed to encouraging signs of offensive improvement after the Week 3 loss to the Cleveland Browns, he ultimately opted to insert his rookie at halftime of Sunday’s game against the Jets. from New York.
Pickett, for his part, showed leadership and confidence after Sunday’s loss and pledged to help move the offense forward.
“I think [I have] a bit of a plus for me,” Pickett said. “I want that to rub off on everybody. I want us to have an attitude when it’s out there on the pitch. I’m excited to get back to work, to get us back on track.”