It was just a preseason game. Just one preseason game. But damn if it didn’t feel right.
After what felt like decades of Ben Roethlisberger under center, just under two to be precise, his absence Saturday night provided just another reason to tune into the Pittsburgh Steelers’ first preseason game of the 2022-23 season.
Mitch Trubisky impressed in just two drives, showcasing that he’s ready to lead the offense. Mason Rudolph, for all of his warts, dropped a beautiful ball to George Pickens in the back of the end zone to reinforce his status as an NFL quarterback. But neither earned chants before actually entering the contest.
“Ken-ny, Ken-ny,” erupted from the nearly 50,000 in attendance at Acrisure Stadium Saturday night even before Kenny Pickett stepped onto the field, and those chants likely lasted late into the night on Pittsburgh’s North Shore.
Pickett entered the game with just under 11 minutes remaining in the third quarter and hit tight end Jace Sternberger with a perfectly placed screen for an 11-yard gain to open his NFL career. No, it wasn’t exactly a tough throw, but in rolling out and hitting Sternberger right on the money, the “Ken-ny, Ken-ny” chants erupted once again.
Pickett’s style of play, a two-gloved style of play that features a right arm with enough zip and accuracy to make every throw required at the NFL level and the simple mobility to unlock offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s offense, isn’t groundbreaking. He’s not Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen. But after the offensive slog that was the 2021 season, Pickett is perhaps the best-suited quarterback to run Pittsburgh’s offense.
A quick first down to Sternburger was followed by an even quicker sweep to Steven Sims that racked up nearly 40 yards. No one will confuse Pickett as a true dual-threat option, but he’s quick enough to pose a threat and command a healthy respect from opposing defenses. And just a few plays after the Sims’ sweep, Pickett rolled out to the right and found Jaylon Warren for his first career touchdown pass — followed by his first career two-point conversion to Connor Heyward.
A 5-for-5 showing on his first drive, capped by a touchdown pass, wasn’t especially exciting. It didn’t feature a deep drop 60-yard bomb over the defense or a 50-yard rush that established a new rule in college football. But it did score six points and set the Steelers up for success. Pickett stood in the pocket, took what the Seahawks’ defense offered and led a scoring drive. Excitement is seen as a requisite these days, but Pickett’s production mattered.
His second drive, two short completions and a rag doll sack, wasn’t as encouraging, but it was a welcome to the NFL. It was a chance for Pickett to experience some adversity — especially in a one possession game. A sack from Seattle’s Vi Jones was brutal, a drag down that left Pickett sprawled in the turf, but he bounced back off the turf. And it wasn’t the last of his adversity.
Late in the fourth quarter, facing a pivotal third and two from just beyond midfield, Pickett escaped the pocket and picked up four yards on a scramble to enter the two minute warning. However, the ensuing collection of plays resulted in a fourth down play. A fourth and one rollout ended the drive with a turnover — a poor play call and poor decision — but with a second chance after the Steelers’ defense forced an immediate turnover of its own, Pickett didn’t let that second chance slip away.
A quick eight-yard scramble set up a second and two from the Seattle 24-yard line with just about 10 seconds remaining in the game, and Pickett took the snap in shotgun, anticipated an out route to Tyler Vaughns and delivered a perfectly thrown ball to his receiver that was taken into the end zone for a game-winning touchdown just before the clock hit triple zeroes.
Vaughns caught the perfectly thrown ball, turned up field to avoid the would-be tackle and raced up field to dive into the end zone for a game-winning touchdown. A 32-25 win to open the 2022-23 season — preseason — with a win.
Pickett threw for 95 yards and two touchdowns on 13-of-15 passing attempts, a 6.3 average, and took two sacks. He also racked up 16 yards on three rushing attempts. His 132.6 passer rating was the highest of all five quarterbacks who competed Saturday at Acrisure Stadium. It was the perfect debut for Pickett. It was just the preseason, yes, but it was all that could have been asked for from Pickett.
He entered the game with a touchdown, took his shots and still exited the game with a touchdown — a game-winning touchdown. Pickett operated Canada’s offense, ran with teammates who will not be major contributors this season and showed he is definitely not out of place in the NFL. In fact, he proved that he does belong in the NFL.
It wasn’t a perfect debut because he threw for a couple of touchdown passes and led the Steelers to a win, it was a perfect debut because Pickett showcased that he is a player who isn’t defined by his lowest points. His training camp struggles and in-game mistakes weren’t enough to diminish the shine of a quarterback who wins games.
Pickett isn’t from Pittsburgh, but if there’s ever been a non-native who has embodied Pittsburgh, it’s him. He’s gritty, hard-working and has fought every step of the way since he arrived at Pitt in 2017. Now that he’s a Steeler, while he may not start this season, it’s clear that his future is now tied with the Steelers.