Tomlin’s resolve, Pickett’s progress fueling Steelers’ rally

The Pittsburgh Steelers spent the better part of three hours on Sunday night simply asking Kenny Pickett to not lose, essentially taking the ball out of their rookie quarterback’s hands for long stretches with their season on the line in Baltimore.

For the second straight week, they ran out of options in the fourth quarter. And for a second straight week, when they handed the keys to Pickett and told him to go win it, he responded with the kind of heady playmaking that offered tangible proof their gamble in taking him with the 20th overall pick in last spring’s draft maybe wasn’t so much of a gamble after all.

Pickett turned in three “gotta have it” throws during Pittsburgh’s 11-play, 80-yard drive in the final minutes. A 20-yard cross-body strike to tight end Pat Freiermeuth. A 28-yard fastball between defenders to Steven Sims and an 10-yard flip to Najee Harris for the go-ahead score with 56 seconds to go on a play in which Pickett evaded Baltimore linebacker Patrick Queen and hit Harris on the run just past the goal line.

And suddenly, a team that was 2-6 and essentially left for dead after getting drilled at Philadelphia the day before Halloween heads into next Sunday’s regular-season finale against Cleveland at 8-8 with a legitimate chance to make the playoffs.

Yes, really.

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There’s plenty of credit to go around, including a vastly improved running game, the return of all-everything linebacker T.J. Watt from a left pectoral injury that forced him to miss seven weeks and a decidedly user-friendly schedule.

Yet the driving force has been Tomlin and the player with whom his legacy may ultimately be linked. Pickett was — heck is — hardly considered a sure thing. During the unrelenting microscope that is the draft process, Pickett spent an inordinate amount of time answering questions about the size of his hands.

Tomlin, however, was focused on the type of things impossible to measure with a rule or a stopwatch. Tomlin spent five years watching Pickett up close as the former University of Pittsburgh star evolved from fringe prospect to Heisman Trophy finalist. There was something about the way Pickett carried himself when things got tight that Tomlin couldn’t shake.

Fast forward eight months and that feeling has manifested itself twice in the span of eight days.

On Christmas Eve, Pickett calmly conducted a 76-yard game-winning drive against the Raiders.

On New Year’s Day, he took the Steelers the length of the field twice in the final quarter to turn a seven-point deficit into their sixth win in eight games.

“Going into the huddle and seeing how confident everyone is, as a quarterback, you know they have a lot of belief in you, and I have a lot of belief in those guys in the huddle,” Pickett said. “So, when that is there, you definitely have a shot. So, it’s a step in the right direction.”

Now, the team that looked as if it was headed for a top-five draft pick in October could reach the postseason if it can find a way to beat the Browns while hoping Buffalo tops New England and the Jets win at Miami.

It’s not likely. But it’s possible.

Considering where the Steelers were two months ago, they’ll take it.

“We just keep battling,” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “We are good players that don’t take no for an answer. It’s not always perfect, but we worked our tails off throughout the entire season to just keep battling back.”

WHAT’S WORKING

Pittsburgh’s push has come in lockstep with an offensive line that is starting to dominate the line of scrimmage. The Steelers have run for 106 yards or more in eight of their past nine games, including 193 against the Ravens just three weeks after Baltimore held them to 65 yards rushing at Acrisure Stadium.

WHAT’S NOT

Pickett’s ability to thrive in late-pressure situations begs the question: why are the Steelers so reluctant to let him rip earlier in games? Given the way they were running the ball, the fact offensive coordinator Matt Canada didn’t call for a deep shot off play action was baffling.

STOCK UP

Sims began the season buried on the depth chart. He’s ending it as a fixture on the field in passing situations. He’s played at least 35% of the offensive snaps over the past eight weeks and his leaping grab on the winning drive showcased the confidence Pickett has in him.

STOCK DOWN

Kicker Chris Boswell’s erratic season continued when a 48-yard field-goal attempt clanged off the right upright. Boswell has missed eight field goals this season even though injuries have forced him to miss four games. For a team with a microscopic margin for error, Boswell can’t afford to be shaky.

INJURIES

CB James Pierre (concussion) and LB Myles Jack (groin) left early on Sunday night. Their status against the Browns is uncertain. Rookie linebacker Mark Robinson performed well while getting the most extensive playing time (26 snaps) of his young career while filling in for Jack.

KEY NUMBER

1 — the number of regular-season games — out of 258 — the Steelers have played under Tomlin in which they were eliminated from the playoffs.

NEXT STEPS

Try to finish off one of the most improbable playoff runs in recent memory with a victory over Cleveland and get plenty of help elsewhere.

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