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Pittsburgh Steelers turn to rookie Kenny Pickett at QB: ‘I have to do my job’

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With Pittsburgh handing the keys over to rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett, who will make his first career NFL start this weekend in Buffalo, the first-round draft pick hopes to set an example for his teammates.

Taking over in the third quarter last week for struggling three-week starter Mitch Trubisky, Pickett displayed a positive demeanor and a calm-but-competitive nature in leading the Steelers to a pair of scoring drives and a lead — including his first two rushing touchdowns as a pro.

He also showed that he’s not afraid of taking a big shot from a defender, and will even smile when he gets back up, as he did after getting pummeled by the Jets’ Quinnen Williams.

Pickett, who was a 2021 Heisman Trophy finalist after a stellar senior season at Pitt, said he has always played “with an edge,” adding, “I hope it’s contagious.”

He said he hoped to keep earning the respect of his veteran teammates, and the only way to do that is to keep working hard in practice and carry that onto the field on game day.

“I want to raise the level of play of everyone around me,” the rookie said, “but we have so many great players. I have to do my job. I have 100-percent trust and confidence that every single guy in that huddle will do their job.”

This Sunday afternoon at 1 p.m. ET, the Pittsburgh offense could use a good shot in the arm against a tough Bills defense that will present an enormous challenge in a hostile, rambunctious road environment.

As Steelers coach Mike Tomlin pointed out when he made the switch official during his weekly press conference, placing a rookie quarterback into his first starting experience in front of a loud, fired-up “Bills Mafia” crowd is quite a risky decision.

“Obviously, we have a level of concern about the environment we’re taking him into,” said Tomlin, “but you have a level of concern about any quarterback you take into that environment versus that defense in that venue.”

Pickett has been in a similar situation before. In his first collegiate start for the Panthers as a freshman, he led Pitt to a huge road upset of unbeaten, second-ranked Miami in 2017, rushing for two scores and throwing for another, and ending the Hurricanes’ hopes of an undefeated season.

Tomlin said the organization has faith in their top draft pick, even if he’s only got one half of regular-season experience under his belt. The coach ultimately believes that Pickett gives the offense a better chance of moving the ball and putting points on the scoreboard.

“He’s football-sharp, he works at it,” said Tomlin. “He’s mature beyond his years. Those are the reasons why we have a level of comfort with some of the things he’s able to do, relative to what you would expect from a rookie perspective.”

Tomlin added that Trubisky was understandably disappointed about being benched, but the coach said he “appreciated the professionalism” displayed by the entire quarterback room throughout the process.

In somewhat of a twist, Trubisky — who played a backup role in Buffalo a season ago — remains one of the Steelers’ team captains, and will still walk out to midfield for the pregame coin toss.

Tomlin said he did consider going back to Trubisky due to his familiarity with the Bills, but ultimately chose to roll the dice with Pickett for the first of a rough four-game stretch heading into Pittsburgh’s bye in Week 9.

The coach knows his team (1-3) could be in for an uphill battle come Sunday, especially if they fall behind early. “We’ve got some big challenges, man,” he admitted.

Tomlin’s Steelers are currently a 14-point underdog — for the first time since the 1970 merger — against 3-1 Buffalo. The last time Pittsburgh was even close to a two-touchdown underdog was when Dallas was a 13.5-point favorite over the Steelers in Super Bowl XXX (1996).

It all centers around Bills quarterback Josh Allen, who leads the team in not only passing, but also rushing.

Allen has completed 113 of his 168 attempts (67 percent) for 1,227 yards (2nd in the NFL, an average of over 300 per outing) and 10 touchdowns (4th). He has a QB rating of 76.5 (3rd). And then with his legs, Allen has rushed for 183 yards on 30 carries and another 2 scores.

“You better deal with Josh Allen and his unique skillset,” said Tomlin. “He’s an elite passer, he’s an elite runner or creator, it’s challenging.”

Stefon Diggs is without question Allen’s go-to, big-play receiver, with a team-best 406 yards on 31 receptions to go with 4 touchdowns. Diggs has seen 41 of the team’s 161 targets on the season.

“It’s simple mathematics,” Tomlin explained of the challenges of defending both guys effectively. “They’ve got some receivers like Diggs that require attention — that could mean two people, whether it’s zone or man schematically. Any time you’re facing a quarterback like Josh, oftentimes it means five rushers, and so do the math, man.

“When you’ve got that type of talent on the perimeter, when you’ve got that type of talent in the pocket at quarterback, it makes defense challenging. You wish you could utilize 12 or 13 guys. We don’t, so we’ve got to be thoughtful about how we deploy our 11.”

Tomlin added that in order to pull off an upset, his defense must keep Allen and the Bills’ offense off-balance as much as possible, while at the same time not making mistakes being out of position.

On the flipside, the Bills have one of the toughest defensive units in football. They’re tied for 1st in the NFL with the 49ers allowing just 234.5 total yards per game, they’re 5th in sacks with 13.0, they’re tied — with Pittsburgh — for 1st with 7 interceptions, and allow a league-low 150.8 passing yards per contest to go with 83.8 on the ground, good for 3rd in the league.

With the offseason addition of edge-rusher Von Miller, Buffalo’s D only got better. Miller has recorded 3.0 sacks so far this season, and that’s not even tops on the roster (DE Greg Rousseau has 4.0).

“We have our work cut out for us,” Pickett said of facing the Bills’ defense. “The details are what’s going to help us win, so it’s something we need to get ironed out quickly on offense.”

In special-teams news, Tomlin admitted that his level of confidence in punt returner Gunner Olszewski is “not too high” at the moment, adding that “two is a pattern,” in reference to a pair of muffed punts in the first four games. Tomlin said there are “decisions to make,” and that he’s not hesitant to start looking at other options. The logical choice, if a change were to be made, would be third-year wideout Steven Sims, who returned 35 kickoffs (24.6 yards per return, one touchdown) and 30 punts (6.2 yards per return) during his two seasons in Washington.

Injury Report

As of Wednesday, Pittsburgh’s entire starting secondary is banged up, as safeties Minkah Fitzpatrick (knee, didn’t practice Wednesday) and Terrell Edmunds (concussion, questionable) along with cornerbacks Ahkello Witherspoon (hamstring, doubtful) and Cam Sutton (groin, limited Wednesday) are all listed on the injury report. Tomlin said with all four sitting out of practice, it “gives other guys a chance to show their readiness.”

Cornerbacks James Pierre and Josh Jackson, along with safety Tre Norwood, were three names mentioned by Tomlin who will need to be ready to step up and fill in if need be. The coach said that everyone will get their chance to earn game reps this week in practice, and from there they would then “divide the labor.”

Veteran DT Cameron Heyward (elbow, ankle) was also a limited participant Wednesday, and is considered questionable for Sunday. Two more names were added to the list after Wednesday’s practice — CB Levi Wallace and DT Chris Wormley, both of whom are tagged as questionable as well.

Speedy rookie receiver Calvin Austin III (4th round, Memphis) is back at practice this week after being placed on the IR with a foot injury in the preseason. He’ll have a maximum of 21 days to be cleared to join the 53-man roster.

Tomlin gave somewhat of an update on reigning Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt‘s status Tuesday, saying that the star linebacker is still “a couple weeks” away from returning to the roster. Watt has been on the injured list since suffering from a pectoral issue he sustained in the final minute of the Week 1 overtime win against Cincinnati.

Watt would technically be eligible to come back to practice next week, where he would then also have a three-week window of evaluation by team doctors to determine if and when he’s ready to go.

If Watt — or any other player — is not activated within that 21-day period, by rule he must remain out the rest of the season.

For Buffalo, CB Xavier Rhodes and WR Jamison Crowder have already been ruled out for Sunday’s contest. Five other Bills — TE Dawson Knox, S Jordan Poyer, WR Isaiah McKenzie, LB Tremaine Edmunds and WR Jake Kumerow — did not participate in Wednesday’s practice and are all considered questionable.

Scott Ratcliffe

Scott Ratcliffe has worked as a freelance writer for several publications over the past decade-plus, with a concentration on local and college sports. He is also a writer and editor for his father’s website, JerryRatcliffe.com, dedicated to the coverage of University of Virginia athletics.