Skip to main content

Pickett will practice, start if cleared

Mike Tomlin didn't mince any words at his press conference Tuesday at the UPMC-Rooney Sports Complex when it came to who his starting quarterback would be Sunday night against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium.

If Kenny Pickett is cleared to play medically, he'll be the guy.

To that point, Tomlin said Pickett, who left last Sunday's 20-18 victory at Acrisure Stadium with a concussion in the third quarter, is expected to practice when the team returns to the field on Wednesday. From there, Pickett's availability against Miami will be determined by the league's concussion protocols.

"It's my understanding that his work won't be limited in any way in preparation in any way," Tomlin said of Pickett. "We'll adhere to the protocol and we'll follow that and let that be our guide in terms of participation. I'll say this, if he's cleared to play, he'll play quarterback for us. In the meantime, we'll ready ourselves. He'll be a full participant to my understanding, tomorrow. So, we'll have him and Mitch (Trubisky) working at the quarterback position."

That participation in practice will be the key. Tomlin has typically held young players out of games if they've been unable to participate in practice throughout the week, regardless of the injury.

But in this case, if Pickett can practice, he'll get the work necessary to be in tune with the game plan to play the Dolphins (3-3).

"Oftentimes when someone is in the protocol, they've got complete clearance in terms of complete participation, and so you let them participate," Tomlin said. "Sometimes, it's limited and you limit their participation. When it's limited, you have additional opportunities for reps for others. He's been given full clearance from a participation standpoint relative to his position, so he'll take all of his reps tomorrow unless something changes."

Pickett, named the team's starter two weeks ago after replacing Trubisky at halftime of the team's Oct. 2 loss to the New York Jets, went into concussion protocol after being hit by Tampa Bay linebacker Devin White in the third quarter of last Sunday's game. Trubisky replaced him and completed 9 of 12 passes for 144 yards and a touchdown, also helping the Steelers run the clock out in the game's closing moments with a pair of big third-down completions to wide receiver Chase Claypool.

But Tomlin isn't interested in playing musical quarterbacks at this point, deciding to stick with Pickett, the team's first-round draft pick this season, if he's cleared.

"We're not going to blow in the wind," Tomlin said. "We're going to be somewhat steady. I've been consistent in my message regarding decision making at that position. I think it helps those that are playing. I think it helps the team in terms of who to follow. We're not going to flip the script now."

Pickett has completed 64.3 percent of his passes for 394 yards with one touchdown and one interception in his starts and has led the Steelers (2-4) to scores on the opening drive of the game in both of his starts.

If he's cleared, he'll get the start opposite Miami's Tua Tagovailoa, who himself is coming back off missing two games after suffering two concussions in a four-day span.

Tagovailoa's second concussion led to a large public outcry regarding the NFL's concussion protocols and led to the league and the NFLPA tweaking some of its rules regarding those injuries.

But Tomlin isn't concerned about those issues with Pickett, noting that the Steelers' medical staff, most notably Dr. Joseph Maroon, are noted experts and trendsetters in the field.

"We feel extremely comfortable with our medical experts in that area and I've been consistent in my messaging in that regard," Tomlin said. "It has no bearing with what has been transpiring with the Joneses or other people around the National Football League. We feel real good about our expertise.

"People from all around the world in football and other sport entities come to see our people. We'll continue to lean on their expertise and follow their lead from a decision-making standpoint. The things that are going on currently have little bearing on my mentality in that regard. I just have got that level of confidence in our people and what we do."

Tomlin has been proactive in regard to reducing concussions, as well. He had his team wear the concussion-reducing Guardian Caps in OTAs, minicamps and training camp long before and well after they were mandated for use this season by the NFL. The Steelers also have continued to employ the soft-shell foam caps on their helmets into the season, even though they are no longer mandated by the NFL.

"When the medical expert's opinions regarding its effectiveness changed, then so did my attitude," Tomlin said. "They talk definitively now about the reduction of concussion risk for those that wear them. And when both parties wear them, it doubles the reduction risk. When we've got definitive information, I didn't go to med school, I follow their lead. I coach football."

So, Tomlin is trusting his medical staff and the protocols in place when it comes to making a decision regarding playing Pickett and others who are returning from concussions.

This week, that would also include tight end Pat Freiermuth and cornerback Levi Wallace, both of whom missed last Sunday's game against the Buccaneers.

"Both guys are scheduled to participate fully tomorrow and go through some procedural things that will put them on the other side of the protocol and lean them toward participation as we get ready for the weekend," Tomlin said.

Freiermuth and Wallace could be joined back on the field by a number of other players who missed last week's game, including cornerbacks Cam Sutton (hamstring) and Ahkello Witherspoon (hamstring) and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (knee).

With so many members of the secondary out, the Steelers were forced to rely on a number of backups, including Trubisky, to help secure a win against Tampa Bay.

Tomlin was especially appreciative of all of their efforts and said it was a reminder of his "the standard is the standard" mantra.

"It's a mentality that we have here in Pittsburgh, that we don't discount anyone within our organization is viable, can be a significant component of success for us, can be a reason why we're successful," Tomlin said. "That's the spirit in which we work daily, whether you're a franchise quarterback, a captain or a practice squad guy, that's just a sentiment we have at all levels. When guys get an opportunity to ascend and make plays, it solidifies that. Hopefully, it's inspirational for those that are still in development awaiting their opportunity."

It's overblown: In today's NFL, it's not uncommon on a weekly basis to have a player or coach who has previously been with the upcoming opponent. Oftentimes they are asked what they can share about a team, their tendencies, personnel, etc.

This week it's senior defensive assistant/linebackers coach Brian Flores who some expect to have insight into what the Miami Dolphins do. Flores was the Dolphins head coach from 2019-21, but Tomlin said using some as a resource is something that can be 'overblown.'

"It is a useful resource, but in the coaching profession we all feel it's overblown to be quite honest with you," said Tomlin. "It's not about what coaches know. It's about what coaches can convey to players and it's about what players can recall in an instant in the moment before a ball snaps. And so oftentimes you can sit around the classroom and the coach can provide quality insight and the player can nod in agreement…yeah, I see that and understand that. But the minute they get on their feet and the bullets are about to start flying or a snap is imminent, those things become less relevant.

"So, I understand what you mean when you ask that. But we've got to put together a good plan. Our players have got to understand the plan. They've got to go out and execute the plan and very little of that has to do with where Coach Flores worked last year, his intimate knowledge of members of their football team etc. This is a small fraternity particularly at this level. Those storylines exist every week and that's just our mentality regarding them."

Whether he provides insight or not, there is plenty Flores is providing the Steelers defense this year.

"He is a quality coach. He's a great communicator," said Tomlin. "You don't ascend in the business the way he has without having certain tools and he has consistently displayed those tools since he's been here. But again, I don't think any of us are surprised by that. That's why we had so much excitement when we had an opportunity to acquire him."

Last man standing: It's nothing unusual for running back Najee Harris to be the last player out of the locker room following a game. Many times, he is still in his pads when his teammates are already heading home.

It's just who Harris is.

"That's routine for him," said Tomlin. "Win or lose, he's always last out. He is always reflecting, thinking about what transpired and trying to learn and grow from the experiences that transpired.

He's a young guy, but he's still called to be a leader.

"He understands the gravity of where he is and the responsibilities that come with being him. He's just always trying to get better and that's just a component of his get better."

While he does it, it's something his teammates might not even realize, as most of them have already packed up and left the locker room.

"I don't know that his teammates hang around long enough to really witness some of it to be quite honest with you," said Tomlin. "It's usually me and him because it's usually me and him."

Related Content