The discourse around Steelers rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett has become so superheated, so clinically insane, that any kind of sober evaluation of his performance leaves the evaluator in the crosshairs of at least one side of the argument, if not both.
Given that reality, let’s start with something simple: Pickett played the best game of his brief professional career Monday night against Indianapolis. Given the circumstances ― a road game (though plenty of Terrible Towels were waving) a good opposing defense, at least on paper (the Colts were fourth in yards allowed coming into the game) and the team’s very recent second-half offensive meltdown against the Bengals ― Pickett acquitted himself well.
With that out of the way, don’t lose your mind when I tell you this: I give him a “B” for the game. If you want to argue with me that it should be a B+, I’m not going to scream my head off and go play by play telling you why I disagree. But those are the only reasonable grades he could receive. Anything higher or lower is absurd.
Pickett checked several boxes throughout the course of 60 minutes:
-He took care of the ball. None of his throws was even close to being intercepted, because none of them were put in real danger. None of his 28 attempts looked turnover worthy, to my eyes. Only two were fully uncatchable, and only three would I term “misses.”
-He made a big play in a big moment, namely his third-and-9 strike to George Pickens to start the fourth quarter. The offense had already gone three-and-out twice in the second half, their 16-3 halftime lead had evaporated, and Pickett, in the course of those three and outs, had skipped a first-down pass to Diontae Johnson that would have gone for five or six yards, and threw low to a wide-open Pickens on a third down. Pickens should have had the catch, but Pickett should have made a better throw. With all the chips on the table, and Steelers fans doubtless getting a feeling of déjà vu, Pickett threw a perfect pass to Pickens for 13 yards, and took a shot to the face that tacked on 15 more.
-He ran when he needed to, and effectively at that. Pickett put up 32 yards on six carries, with no run longer than nine yards, but he was decisive when opting to run and usually turned those decisions into something positive.
-He called the play on the winning touchdown. When Ben Roethlisberger would take credit for such things, I will admit that my eyes would usually roll out of my head. But Roethlisberger typically did so to tweak Matt Canada or Todd Haley. Pickett saying that he had studied the Colts enough to feel good about a Benny Snell run, even when most teams had eschewed such a call, is a good sign where work ethic is concerned. He’ll need it, because his physical gifts aren’t on par with the Josh Allens of the league.
-He didn’t get frustrated by drops. Diontae Johnson dropped a sure touchdown. Pickens dropped 1.5 passes (he gets half blame for the one mentioned above, and full blame for one later on the sideline). There was no bad body language, no loss of faith in his receivers. Which leads me to the last, most important box he checked (besides winning the game).
-He kept feeding Pickens. The rookie from Georgia is already gifted enough to make Pickett look better ― like on his ridiculous 35-yard catch ― and will only make Pickett better long term as the two keep building chemistry. That burgeoning relationship was never more evident than on the Steelers’ two-point conversion, where Pickett scrambled right, and threw low and away to the back corner of the end zone, letting go of the ball a split second before Pickens broke back in the direction of the throw. That can’t be taught, it can only come from familiarity. It was a great sign for the future.
Having said all that, he still posted a passer rating of just 87.5. He still didn’t throw a touchdown ― I know, I know, Johnson dropped one, please see above ― and his overall stats were pedestrian. The Colts might have shut down Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts in Indy this year, but Trevor Lawrence and Ryan Tannehill both posted stellar stat lines against them. Indy also came in allowing an average opponent passer rating of around 103 at home, worst in the league.
This was a very positive step for Pickett, and his most complete, in-command game of the year. That it happened with a national television spotlight glaring on him made it all the better. The notion that it was some unimpeachably spectacular performance was a little much. Pickett made very few actual mistakes; the missed throws and maybe one or two bad blitz recognitions, which is good. But most great quarterbacks are termed as such not because they play mistake-free football, but because they make the spectacular look routine, and act as force multipliers for their teammates.
At his best, Ben Roethlisberger did that. To warrant big money, Pickett will have to as well.
Mike Tomlin, inexplicably exasperated after the game that he would be asked about Pickett’s continued development, said, “You can ask me next week and I’ll tell you he got better in all areas again next week.”
If Tomlin is correct, this coming week won’t yield an A+ performance, either. But it will bring the Steelers and Kenny Pickett another step closer to one, which is all that actually matters.
This article originally appeared on Beaver County Times: Mueller: Pickett's performance against Colts a very good sign, no hyperbole necessary