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Pickett excelling against the blitz

One of the greatest tests in the NFL for a rookie quarterback is how well he handles things when the opposing team blitzes him.

Prove you can handle the blitz and you'll be fine. Prove you can't and teams are going to send the house at you in weighty situations until you prove you can – or you're out of the NFL.

Nine games into Steelers rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett's career, he's already looking like a seasoned veteran when opponents blitz him.

According to Pro Football Focus, Pickett is completing 72.1 percent of his passes for 481 yards and three touchdown passes when blitzed this season, posting a passer rating of 106.3.

That steadiness against the blitz will be tested when the Steelers (5-7) host the Baltimore Ravens (8-4) Sunday at Acrisure Stadium.

Baltimore has always been an ultra-aggressive defense under head coach John Harbaugh when it comes to blitzing. But the Ravens aren't doing it as often this season as they have in the past. In 2020, the Ravens led the NFL in blitz percentage at 44.1 percent of the time. Last season, that was down to 31.1 percent. This season, the Ravens blitz 20.4 percent of the time, which ranks 22nd in the NFL.

What hasn't changed, however, is how the Ravens give different looks than many other teams when they blitz.

"Yeah, absolutely. They do a lot of really good things," Pickett said Wednesday at the UMPC-Rooney Sports Complex. "Their blitz package is pretty diverse."

What makes the Ravens that way is that they'll use any defender in their back seven as a blitzer – at any time. Inside linebacker Patrick Queen, who has four sacks, has blitzed 42 times. Rookie safety Kyle Hamilton has come 11 times, while strong safety Chuck Clark has 10 blitzes. Top cornerback Marlon Humphrey has three sacks despite blitzing just seven times.

The thing that makes the Ravens dangerous is that they'll send anyone at any time.

It will be incumbent upon Pickett to figure out who and when a blitzer is coming. But that goes beyond Pickett alone recognizing that.

Center Mason Cole plays a major role in identifying who is coming on a pass rush and who is not, helping to set protections.

"I think during the week, the staff comes up with a good game plan for us," Cole said. "For the most part, I'm kind of IDing it and if he wants anything changed, (Pickett) changes it. It's been good working together and figuring stuff out."

Obviously, they're doing a good job of it.

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

Like Cole, Pickett credits the coaching staff for identifying issues before they happen.

"I think we do a great job of going through all the looks during the week," Pickett said. "And just knowing our game plan and where I need to get the ball out if pressure comes up. I think that stuff all goes into it."

Still, there are times when a team will show something exotic it hasn't run before – especially against a rookie quarterback.

That's what is so impressive about Pickett's numbers against the blitz.

"Every team has their own system and how they do things. Here, we have the freedom to turn the protection wherever we want and get everybody going in the right direction," said Cole, who also has played for the Cardinals and Vikings. "It's not like the pass call happens and we're all sliding this way. We have a lot of freedom in our protections. A lot of times, it's me trying to figure it out, and then Kenny changing it if he sees something else or he wants to go somewhere else with the ball. It's always a conjoined effort. Also, the staff has done a really good job this season of coming up with a plan and making things easy on both of us."

Keeping that rolling into a game against the Ravens, will be a big test.

"They have a lot of different looks," Pickett said. "So, we've got to be diligent in our preparation and have some pretty good answers on Sunday."

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