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Pickett feels he, Steelers are ahead of the curve

Kenny Pickett is in a much different spot than he was a year ago at this time as the Steelers opened the final phase of their OTA sessions here at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

And if he needed a reminder of that, he went back and watched some of the sessions from last year just to drive that point home.

"I went back and watched last year's OTAs and it's a different team, not just in terms of players, but how much we have in(stalled) already," Pickett said Tuesday. "It's a credit to the coaching staff, honestly, and guys working hard and showing up when you don't have to be. And it's being here and knowing what you have to do to put six installs in or five installs in, when we were only at one or two last year. Everyone is working hard. It was a good day."

If Pickett, the Steelers' first-round pick last year, sounds meticulous about how he has attacked this offseason, it is because he has been.

The second-year quarterback knows he's expected to take a big jump in his play from his rookie season to this year. But the same could be said of what was the NFL's youngest offensive unit in 2022.

After a slow start to the season that saw the Steelers stumble out of the game at 2-6, the team went 7-2 down the stretch, with Pickett replacing Mitch Trubisky at quarterback as the starter for Week 5. Pickett led four game-winning drives and three fourth quarter comebacks, becoming the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to throw game-winning touchdown passes in the final minute in back-to-back wins over the Raiders and Ravens.

With both Trubisky, signed as a free agent, and Pickett being new to the team following the retirement of Ben Roethlisberger, there was a bit of a learning curve for all involved.

But, to Pickett's point, the Steelers have hit the ground running this year, especially after the sustained success the offense showed in the second half of the season.

The Steelers averaged 146 yards rushing in their final nine games, also leading the NFL in third down conversion percentage during that period. They improved their time of possession from near the bottom of the league to the top by season's end, and Pickett was one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the NFL during that period, as well.

The Steelers weren't idle in adding to that offense in the offseason, either, as offensive linemen Isaac Seumalu, Nick Herbig and Le'Raven Clark were added in free agency, while the team also used a first-round draft pick on offensive tackle Broderick Jones. The team also traded for veteran wide receiver Allen Robinson and added tight end Darnell Washington in the draft, as well.

"We've got the guys. We've just got to go execute now," Pickett said. "That's how football is. At some point, it's players not plays. Guys are working. They're showing up with great attitudes with one goal in mind. It's good to see. It's fun to be around and compete against the great defense we have."

And Pickett wants to make sure he's available to experience it all. He said he finished last season at 213 pounds, but has bulked up to 220 this season to better withstand the rigors involved with playing in the NFL.

"The hits up here are just a little bit different and over a longer period of time, so to be able to withstand hits and, if need be, to be able to deliver some hits," he said. "I just think I kept my speed and added on a little bit of weight."

But if he does have to miss time here or there, he feels good about what the Steelers have done in their quarterback room. Trubisky was signed to a contract extension last week through the 2025 season, while Mason Rudolph also was re-signed to a one-year deal.

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"I spend every day with those guys," Pickett said. "We've gotten really close over just one year. To have both of those guys back is awesome. It's a special group."

But can it be one that spurs the Steelers back to the playoffs in 2023?

Pickett's continued development will have a large say in that. To that point, he's spent the offseason working on the little things he learned while leading the Steelers to a 7-5 record last season in his 12 starts.

"Really mastering the offense and being an extension of the coaching staff," Pickett said when asked what he's worked on this offseason. "I can echo things and say how I want it and how I like it. The communication from player to coach has been great. We're kind of spreading it out to the receiving room, the tight ends. Everyone is on the same page. I think communication is No. 1 in my position and letting everyone know where they need to be. These guys are all professionals, and they show up and work hard."

He's also smart enough to know that mastering an offense isn't something that happens overnight – or even in just one year with a team.

"You talk to guys who have been in an offense for 10 years and they talk about how every year there's something new that kind of pops up," Pickett said. "They're like, 'We were able to expand off this.' There's always more you can build on each play. I don't think you ever stop mastering a system. You can always add things or take things out, make things better. I think I'm on the right track and we're headed that way. I think it's definitely a process."