ATLANTA – Chalk up another marker on Kenny Pickett’s rookie learning curve: A winning streak.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have finally managed to win back-to-back games for the first time during this rebuilding year of life after Ben Roethlisberger.
Never mind that the 19-16 victory inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium came against the low-flying Atlanta Falcons. A win still counts as a win in the NFL. And for Pickett, it is apparent that he has learned a thing or two about winning as the practice reps pile up and the game experience increased.
“Every week, I feel like I’m getting better,” Pickett said, “trying to build off the positives.”
A huge positive: Pickett played his fourth consecutive game without throwing an interception, extending his streak of passes without a pick to 120.
Follow every game: Live NFL Scores
On paper and in real-life against the Falcons, he made quick decisions, had a keen sense of when to use nifty footwork to scramble out of danger, threw the ball away in other cases and avoided the temptations of forcing risky throws – the ball-security makes a major statement.
NFL NEWSLETTER:Sign up now for exclusive content sent to your inbox
I mean, rookie quarterbacks have some of the toughest on-the-job training imaginable. As great as Peyton Manning was, he threw a career-high 28 interceptions as a rookie in 1998. Last year’s top pick overall, Trevor Lawrence, led the league with 17 picks.
Pickett, the Pitt product whom the Steelers chose as the first quarterback drafted in April (20th overall), threw eight interceptions in his first five NFL games.
Remember that prime time loss at Miami in Week 7? The Steelers were positioned to pull off a major upset but left with major teaching moments that included a forced goal line interception by Pickett in crunchtime that was wrapped in his decision not to scramble for an easy down.
There was nothing like that to question on Sunday, at least when considering poise and decisions as Pickett flowed with a balanced attack that improved Pittsburgh’s record to 5-7.
“He’s growing,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “And that’s a reasonable expectation. He’s a smart guy. He’s got talent. He works at it. He’s getting experience with each and every play, each and every day. So, I think it’s a reasonable discussion to acknowledge that he’s going to get better at fundamental things – taking care of the ball, managing us, communicating, having an opinion, a suggestion. He’s just growing in all areas.”
Pickett completed 16 of 28 passes for 197 yards, including a 17-yard TD strike to fellow rookie Connor Heyward. His 90.9 passer rating was his highest yet. And with Pittsburgh supporting the rookie by rushing 37 times for 154 yards, including a powerful stiff-arm to highlight Najee Harris’ 86-yard effort, he was an effective rookie game manager. And he was quick to offer some perspective.
“The game could have been put away earlier,” Pickett said.
He knows. The Steelers had four drives that reached the Falcons’ 30-yard line and stalled, leaving them to settle for Matthew Wright field goals. That’s essentially why it was still a game the Falcons could steal away in the fourth quarter, why the final margin was so tight. Settling for 3 rather than cashing in for 7 is a disturbing pattern for the unit.
Pickett lamented missing Pat Freiermuth on a goal-line throw near the end of the first quarter – the tight end had separation on a seam route – as one of the takeaway lessons.
“I’ve got to put a better ball on him,” Pickett said. “That’s what we’re missing right now. Being consistent in getting touchdowns when we’re in the red zone.”
Another lesson that popped up on Sunday involved dealing with a disgruntled receiver. At one point, fellow rookie George Pickens, the second-round pick from Georgia, was shown in the midst of an outburst after Pickett’s throw to Dionte Johnson (five catches, 60 yards) fell incomplete … while Pickens was open in the end zone.
Pickens, an immensely talented player who according to Pro Football Focus has caught 17 of the 20 passes of 20-plus yards thrown to him this season, might have also been steamed that he was such a non-factor in returning to Georgia stomping grounds. Pickens finished with one catch for 2 yards.
“He’s a competitor,” Pickett said. “Of course, we want to get the ball to George. Sometimes, that’s just how it goes. One day it might be George’s day. Dionte one day. It could be Pat. What the defense does dictates where the ball goes.”
Then again, no Steelers receiver this season has been as lethal on deep throws as Pickens. How Pickett handles such dust-ups – during the course of the game and behind closed doors – might be another type of mark on the learning curve.
“You’ve got to keep it in the back of your mind,” Pickett said. “You want guys to touch it, but at the same time, you can’t force it. That’s when bad things happen. Like I said, the ball’s going to get spread around.”
The Steelers originally hoped to break Pickett in slowly, heading into the season with veteran journeyman Mitchell Trubisky as the starting quarterback. That might have allowed the rookie to learn the ropes a bit more deliberately, except that Trubisky turned out to be disastrous and former starter Mason Rudolph – also in the camp battle to be No. 1 – has proven not to be a formidable option.
In retrospect, Tomlin should have done more to ramp up the first-team reps for Pickett during training camp and the preseason. But that’s hindsight – and after the Steelers hadn’t had to break in a quarterback-of-the-future in 18 years since Roetthlisberger’s arrival in 2004.
“We knew it was going to be a different year without Ben,” Steelers owner Art Rooney II told USA TODAY Sports. “We’re happy with the progress that Kenny is making. Guys are playing hard. We’re going to fight all the way to the end.”
The Steelers could finish with the first losing season in Tomlin’s long tenure with the franchise, although the improved play of recent weeks provides a measure of hope against achieving that dubious distinction.
Especially if the rookie quarterback keeps learning on the job.
Story Credit: usatoday.com