If you’re looking for one word to sum up Kenny Pickett’s preseason, “perfect” is a good place to start. And that’s no hyperbole.
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ QB1 entered the third and final preseason game in Atlanta with three touchdown drives in his only three series. During Thursday night’s 24-0 Steelers win over the Falcons, Pickett kept rolling. He led two more efficient possessions to bring his final preseason tally to a perfect five touchdown drives in five opportunities.
“Going out there and putting points on the board was really our goal,” Pickett told reporters in Atlanta. “We went 2-for-2 with touchdowns, so that’s always a good sign.”
During the Steelers’ opening series, Pickett led the offense 92 yards in just eight plays thanks in large part to a pair of deep shots. Facing an early third down, he connected with Diontae Johnson on a 33-yard fade down the left sideline to move the chains. A few players later, Pickett bombed the ball to George Pickens for a 35-yard gainer down the right sideline that took the Steelers to the 1-yard line. Najee Harris punched it in to cap the touchdown drive.
Kenny Pickett DIME
— NFL (@NFL) August 24, 2023
On Pickett’s second — and final — series of the game, the Steelers took advantage of a 21-yard punt return by Calvin Austin III that set them up on the fringe of the red zone. Just three plays later, backup running back Jaylen Warren darted into the end zone from 8 yards out to cap the 29-yard scoring drive.
With that, Pickett’s day was done — and so was his preseason. Overall in the three preseason games, Pickett completed 13 of 15 passes for 199 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. His passer rating? A perfect 158.3.
“I think it’s proof that all the work that we put in paid off and we had a good preseason,” Pickett said. “But obviously, now it counts.”
Now, the preseason is the preseason. Pickett himself said this week that it might be wise to pump the brakes a little on the hype train until they get into games where the score actually matters. It’s true that the Steelers once again were playing against backups, as Atlanta chose to rest the overwhelming majority of their starters. So they might want to wait at least a week or two to start planning the Super Bowl parade. After all, Pittsburgh was undefeated last preseason, then started 2-6.
‘It is preseason, man’: Kenny Pickett is keeping his red-hot start in perspective
However, there are several reasons to believe Pickett’s promising preseason will carry over.
First and foremost, Pickett’s connection with his receiving corps is lightyears ahead of what it was when he was thrust into action at halftime of Week 4 in 2022. In all three of his outings, Pickett did a nice job of spreading the ball around to all of his targets. Thursday was a perfect example. On the first drive alone, he hit four different targets with four throws.
His pocket awareness has improved. Because Pickett is so good on the run, there were times in college and in his rookie season when he left the pocket too soon. He’s done a better job of making subtle adjustments within the pocket and keeping his eyes downfield with the emphasis on throwing first. He was not sacked at all in the preseason and didn’t rush for a single yard, a sign that he’s keeping his eyes downfield with a throw-first mentality.
And finally, Pickett has earned offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s trust to open up the playbook and take some deep shots. Last season, Pickett averaged just 6.2 yards per pass attempt, second-lowest in the league. His 28 passes of 20-plus yards ranked 25th. On Thursday alone, Pickett connected on two passes of 30-plus yards. On the deep pass to Johnson, Pickett did a nice job of fitting the ball in to his receiver before the middle field safety came over to help. And on the deep pass to Pickens, Pickett showed confidence in his receiver to go up and win a 50-50 ball.
PICKETT TO PICKENS IS BACK.
— NFL (@NFL) August 24, 2023
“Just seeing those guys one-on-one, I’m going to always give them a chance,” Pickett said. “They’re both great players and really talented guys. I want to make sure I do my part and put the ball out there for them, and they do the rest.”
To coach Mike Tomlin, the biggest areas of growth from Pickett might be hard to quantify. He pointed out things like leadership, communication and team-building.
“It’s not play-related, but it is,” Tomlin said. “Because he is the catalyst for that unit. He controls the pace and the tenor of that unit. I just think, if he’s comfortable, that unit has an opportunity to be comfortable.”
After the promising preseason, Pickett won’t have to wait long for a true test of his progress. The Steelers’ Week 1 opponent? The San Francisco 49ers, whose defense allowed a league-low 16.2 points per game and limited opponents to an NFL-low 300.6 yards per game last season.
“We improved on a lot of things,” Pickett said. “Obviously, a long season ahead. Some great teams coming up. But I think that we’re a step in the right direction after having this preseason.”
Three running backs, three rushing TDs
Pittsburgh’s first-half offensive outburst went well beyond the quarterback.
The Steelers told virtually anyone who would listen this offseason that they planned to win the line of scrimmage and run the ball effectively. While Pickett’s performance throwing the ball should give Canada the confidence to let his QB sling it, the Steelers ran the ball quite effectively Thursday.
Their three touchdowns came from three different ball carries. Harris punched it in from 1 yard out, Warren scored from 8 yards and third-string back Anthony McFarland Jr. found the end zone from 5 yards.
“I feel like we moved the ball well,” Pickett said. “We had explosive plays in the pass game and the run game. The balance is there, which is what we’re looking for.”
The success on the ground says as much about the offensive line as it does the running backs. The Steelers solidified that position group this offseason by signing Isaac Seumalo. Though he has played sparingly, the stout left guard already made several tone-setting blocks to pave the way for big gains, including Warren’s 62-yard touchdown run against the Bills last week.
Don’t forget the defense
While it’s hard to imagine a better preseason for Pickett, let’s not overlook the defense.
On the Falcons’ first drive, they went three-and-out and, thanks to a T.J. Watt sack for a loss of 11 yards. That set the stage for what was to come. By halftime, the Steelers had pulled away 24-0 while holding the Falcons’ offense to just 55 total yards and four first downs.
A punter and a punt return stand out
A pair of special teams players also shined. Austin, who missed last year with a foot injury, has repeatedly shown his potential in the return game. He did it again Thursday, with four returns for 53 yards and a long of 21. His strong showing should help him easily secure the return gig, which is bad news for Gunner Olszewski and others competing for that role.
Meanwhile, the Steelers brought in punter Braden Mann to put some pressure on incumbent Pressley Harvin III. After pinning the Falcons inside the 5-yard line on his lone punt Thursday, Harvin probably did enough to keep his job.
(Photo: Kevin Sabitus / Getty Images)
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