The Steelers were the only team to select a quarterback in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft. Should Pittsburgh’s pro football team decides not to play rookie Kenny Pickett at any point during the 2022 NFL season, it would be making a big mistake.
In deciding to start Mitchell Trubisky early in the season, the mistake already has been made. The whole notion of playing a veteran bridge QB and letting a rookie QB “sit and learn” is archaic, especially when it’s clear the rookie is needed to spark the passing game.
The Steelers have a perfect opportunity to correct that after Week 3. They will have a mini-bye after traveling to the Browns on Thursday night before facing the Jets at home in Week 4. It’s hard to find a more ideal scenario for Pickett’s first NFL start.
Trubisky, the former Bears first-round bust QB, rebuilt his stock as a starting option while on the Bills bench behind Josh Allen. He’s already shown in two games with the.Steelers, that despite his big arm and athleticism, his shaky execution remains, reeling in the potential of the passing game.
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The Steelers are 1-1 despite Trubisky. Of all the QBs who have started full games, only current Bears starter Justin Fields has thrown for fewer yards than Trubisky’s 362. Trubisky’s 76.1 passer rating is ahead of only Joe Burrow, Fields and Matt Ryan.
Speaking of Burrow, consider the Bengals third-year QB — a typical elite performer in relation to Trubisky — committed 5 turnovers in Week 1 against the Steelers and the Steelers still needed to escape with victory late in overtime, because of Trubisky.
Pittsburgh’s offense was even harder to watch in New England during a 17-14 loss. It is No. 30 in total yardage, No. 28 in passing and No. 26 in rushing.
Speaking of the Patriots, the Steelers might be trying to copy their 2021 playoff blueprint of winning most of their games via the defense and the running game. The only problem is, the Steelers aren’t the same daunting defense without indispensable T.J. Watt and have struggled to run the ball with more shaky blocking in front of Najee Harris.
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Part of the Patriots plan also was trusting their first-round rookie, Mac Jones to play well off successful elements in a complicated offense. Jones made enough big pass plays and showed enough efficiency to ensure that a playoff berth would happen.
The Steelers can’t afford the luxury of slow-playing Pickett unless they simply want to throw away a season with a talented roster, especially at the offensive skill positions. Given the current state of the strong AFC North with the Bengals at 0-2 and the Ravens and Browns also at 1-1, the Steelers have a shot to steal the division. But not if they stick with having the poorest QB play in the division.
There’s no doubt Burrow and Lamar Jackson give Cincinnati and Baltimore the respective edges at that position. But heck, even Jacoby Brissett has looked much more competent in Cleveland while playing off an actual strong running game and good defense. The Steelers should see firsthand on Thursday night in Cleveland that Trubisky can no longer be the answer.
The old-school approach would say Pickett would be dealing with the same fundamental problems tied to the offensive line and conservative play-calling. That also assumes that Pickett, after a slow start in training camp, isn’t ready to handle starting.
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But Pickett did build momentum late in camp and his preseason game performances. When he was out there, the Steelers offense had energy and moxie, something of which he showed plenty playing on the same home field in college at Pitt. With Trubisky, the offense is going through the motions and too reliant on short passes to tight ends to move the ball.
Pickett won’t be worse than Trubisky and chances are he’ll be much better. Trubisky is known for being skittish and tentative to hold back his physical skills. Pickett’s confident makeup and aggressive and accurate deep ball passing were big reasons he was the first QB drafted. He also can provide a real complementary rushing element to Harris that somehow the mobile Trubisky has decided to stop using.
The Steelers also won’t be winning enough games based on the Watt-less defense and the traditional running game. They need to unlock their wide receivers for more dangerous downfield passing. Wideouts Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool can’t be limited as big-play guys. It’s also ridiculous for Pittsburgh to be reluctant about giving rookie second-rounder George Pickens significant targets after raving about him in camp and seeing the impact he can have, inside or outside.
Mike Tomlin is one of the NFL’s best coaches, but this is the first time in his long tenure that he’s dealt with a significant starting QB change after so many years not worrying about that position with Ben Roethlisberger. It’s also natural he approaches his team with defensive-minded mentality given that’s worked so well for him over the years.
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This is where Tomlin needs to work with offensive coordinator Matt Canada to let Pickett loose, If they don’t feel that Canada is the guy to get the most out of Pickett as a rookie or going forward, then the Steelers should make the midseason change there.
It’s hard to know whether to blame Canada or Trubisky more at the moment. The passing ineptitude is definitely a combination of both and there’s good chance Canada is holding back, too, because he doesn’t trust Trubisky. That should push the Steelers even more to see what Pickett can do.
Starting Trubisky more won’t get the Steelers into the playoffs. Neither will turning to Mason Rudolph. Sitting Pickett all the way also means curbing his development and missing chances to get in tune with all of his weapons for a bigger 2023.
By playing Pickett and there’s an actual chance the Steelers can flip their offensive script after seeing enough of this restrained explosiveness in the last two seasons of Ben Roethlisberger.
Tomlin excels at seeing what his team needs to do in a particular season to win more games than it loses. There’s no doubt in 2022, that’s changing the plan about playing Pickett, stat.