Anyone who follows Kenny Pickett on social media knows what the Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback has been up to this offseason. While he’s had a little downtime, Pittsburgh’s quarterback has been largely working on his craft as he prepares for his second NFL season.
The first quarterback selected in last year’s NFL Draft, Pickett is driven to build off of what was a successful rookie season. Along with working on his individual game, Pickett got time in with several of his offensive teammates during a recent trip to Florida.
“I was planning on taking a lot more time off, but I’ve never taken a lot of time off,” Pickett said, via the team’s website. “I took a couple of days off, and I wasn’t acting myself, and my fiancée Amy was like, you’ve got to get back to training.
“I’m just happy doing this. I genuinely like doing it. I like being here. In order to be great you have to have a love for the game. I want to be one of the best. I know what I have to do and there’s a lot of things that we need to do as a team to get us to our goals. I feel like it all starts with me and my play. I’ve got to be the guy that takes us there. I’m ready to take it on.”
Pickett nearly helped lead the Steelers to the playoffs last year after after a 2-6 start. The former Pitt Panthers standout shared what making the playoffs would have meant for him and his teammates had Pittsburgh qualified for the tournament.
“I don’t even think it’s just about my learning curve,” Pickett said shortly after the team’s season-ending win over the Browns. “I think it’s about playing for a championship. That’s what it’s all about.
“We would have had an opportunity if we had that chance. When you don’t take care of your own business, you don’t control your own destiny.”
Pickett and his teammates kept the faith until the very end. Despite the slow start, Pickett and Co. managed to avoid becoming Pittsburgh’s first team to finish with a losing record in 19 years. In the process, Pittsburgh saw significant growth from their rookie quarterback, who won his last five starts in which he played more than two possessions. Two of Pickett’s three starts featured game-winning touchdown passes in the game’s final minute.
“It’s big,” Pickett said of his development this past season. “I felt like the offense started to become my own the more I was playing in it, taking real ownership of it instead of just kind of playing catch-up when I got thrown in there a little bit earlier and I was just worried about executing the plays. And now I felt like I had everything at my disposal when I was coming to the line of scrimmage.
“I think I made a good jump there in the learning curve. I want to make that leap into Year 2 now.”
Pickett’s leap was enough to end any speculation about the Steelers’ quarterback position for 2023. Tomlin, during his end-of-year press conference, acknowledged that the Steelers have indeed found Ben Roethlisberger’s successor in Pickett, even if he isn’t a fan of the term “franchise quarterback.”
“I don’t know what you guys mean by franchise quarterback,” Tomlin said. “Is he our QB1? Yes. But there’s a lot of silly responsibility that comes with that term. Everybody thinks they’ve got one, but not everybody has one and all of that. He’s our starting quarterback.”
Pickett is doing his part to make sure he’s that guy for the Steelers next year and well into the future. He certainly doesn’t mind putting in the work that comes with the territory. Pickett logged considerable time inside the team’s facility during the 2022 season.
“I would be here mighty early. And I left mighty late,” Pickett said. “Showing up here when it was dark out and leaving when it’s dark is a little bit depressing. I was taking some vitamin D for sure.
“I don’t track the hours. I just kind of go through how I need to prepare and then whatever it ends up being, it ends up being. It would be about leaving the building when I felt good about the day’s work, and I felt really confident going into the game.”
Pickett started the season as the Steelers’ third quarterback, behind veterans Mitch Trubisky and Mason Rudolph. Pickett was elevated to the No. 2 spot on the depth chart going into the regular season. He watched the Steelers’ first three games from the sideline before he was called into action at halftime of Pittsburgh’s Week 4 game against the Jets.
Pickett gave Pittsburgh’s offense an immediate spark upon taking the field. He scored two touchdowns against the Jets, but a costly interception allowed New York to rally for a four-point win. Pickett threw for 327 yards in Buffalo a week later, but the Steelers were on the wrong side of a 38-3 score. While a late interception overshadowed a solid effort by Pickett in Miami the following week, there weren’t many positives to take away after Pickett was sacked six times in a blowout loss to the Eagles in Week 8, a loss that dropped the Steelers to 2-6 going into their bye.
The Steelers, and their young quarterback, looked like a different team after their Week 9 bye. Pittsburgh went 7-2 after the bye. The defense, energized by T.J. Watt’s return, held seven of their last eight opponents to less than 20 points. Pickett, after throwing eight interceptions in his first five games, threw just one interception the remainder of the season. He also endured less punishment as the offensive line also saw considerable signs of growth as the season progressed.
“We always knew what we were capable of,” Pickett said. “It was good to see it come true in front of our eyes. Just finding ways to win week in and week out, and no one really caring how it gets done, just find a way to get it done.
“That’s what it’s all about is getting wins. It was really good to see.”
Pickett was one of several rookies who contributed largely to the Steelers’ turnaround. George Pickens, along with making eye-raising catches on a routine basis, led Pittsburgh in touchdown receptions. Undrafted rookie Jaylen Warren served as a solid complement for Najee Harris while earning a role as Pittsburgh’s third down back. Connor Heyward made several clutch plays that included his big third-down catch that set up Pittsburgh’s final touchdown on Sunday. And while he missed time with an injury, defensive end DeMarvin Leal made his presence felt when given the opportunity.
As good as Pittsburgh’s rookies were in 2022, Tomlin is anxious to see what the group can do in 2023.
“We’ve got some quality play from some young guys, which is exciting, but boy, there’s a lot of meat on the bone, and we’re excited about being a part of their process, too,” Tomlin. “That’s another component of our business model that we don’t run away from, we run to, the development of players. To be a component of their growth and development is significant for us and for them.”
Like Tomlin, Pickett is also looking forward to what he and his teammates can accomplish this season. He believes that last year’s experience and the work he’s done this offseason should lead to good things for him and the Steelers.
“There were so many new things coming in (last season) that you can’t even put into this one interview that you’re going through as a rookie quarterback in the NFL,” Pickett said. “I just got so much more comfortable from the first day I walked in here to the last day of the season. It’s like night and day. I felt like I’ve been here for two or three years versus one season, how much time I’ve been around everybody. So having that groundwork, that base, the work in the offseason. I’m really excited.”
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