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Labriola on the 2023 preseason

There is a long list of qualifiers, and each one contributes its own bit of legitimacy to the discussion.

It was a limited sample size, and on top of that it came in the preseason. The competition wasn't top-notch because the particular opponent each week wasn't deploying its best players, and it was just the preseason anyway. There was no specific game-planning, because it was just the preseason. With no game-planning because it was just the preseason, the defensive schemes were basic and very vanilla. Really, everything you saw should be taken with a grain of salt, because football at the NFL level is a lesser version of itself when the outcome of games don't count in the standings, and nothing counts in the preseason.

Indeed, it's only right and proper to view everything that has happened since Aug. 11 in Tampa through the lens of NFL preseason football, but in the same vein there's something to be said about perfection. And in the most meaningful way that quarterbacks are evaluated in the NFL, Kenny Pickett was perfect.

And if it's important to understand what happened was during the preseason, it's fair and accurate to acknowledge Pickett could not have been more efficient or effective at his job during that phase of the 2023 NFL calendar.

Pickett played five series over three preseason games, and he quarterbacked the offense to a touchdown at the end of each one.

In the preseason opener in Tampa against the Buccaneers, he played only the first series and drove the offense 83 yards in 10 plays, and in the two third-down situations he converted the first with an on-time, accurate throw on the sideline to Diontae Johnson for an 11-yard gain; and he converted the second with a different kind of on-time, accurate throw, this one over the middle to George Pickens who then was able to author the kind of open-field run that ended in the end zone for a touchdown.

Nine days later against the Bills in Acrisure Stadium, Pickett could be viewed as the beneficiary of chunk plays where he was largely a spectator, but he left his fingerprints on both of those touchdown drives, which is sometimes all an NFL team needs from its starting quarterback.

The first of those two possessions against a Buffalo team that is being identified as a Super Bowl contender ended with a perfectly blocked 62-yard touchdown run by Jaylen Warren, but before that could happen Pickett made an NFL throw to Pickens on the sideline for 8 yards on second-and-7 and then he converted a subsequent third-and-7 with the proper read on a 10-yard completion to Allen Robinson. And then it was on the next snap that Warren made his magic.

The defense then hung a three-and-out on Josh Allen, which was followed by a 54-yard punt return from Calvin Austin III that staked the offense to a first down at the Bills 25-yard line. Pickett took that gift horse and turned it into a quick 6 with an aggressive and perfectly thrown ball down the middle to Pat Freiermuth that was over linebacker Matt Milano while also being just out of the reach of safety Jordan Poyer. Touchdown. Big-time play by the quarterback, and yes, it was the preseason.

On Thursday night in Atlanta, Pickett again was perfectly efficient if not obviously spectacular. After a block-in-the-back penalty on the opening kickoff put the ball at the Steelers 8-yard line, Pickett stared down a third-and-5 from the 13-yard line by recognizing he had Johnson one-on-one with backup cornerback Breon Borders and then delivered an on-time, on-target strike for a 38-yard gain to the Pittsburgh 46-yard line. A 6-yard run by Warren, a 12-yard run by Najee Harris, and a no gain by Harris set up a second-and-10 at the Atlanta 36-yard line. This time Pickens got the man-coverage and while he wasn't open in the classic sense, Pickett put the ball where only someone with special hand-eye coordination and freakish athletic ability could make the play. Which Pickens did for a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line.

Because it happened so fast and so close to the sideline, it was prudent to suspect the Falcons were thinking about turning to instant replay to challenge whether Pickens got both feet down inbounds, but Pickett hustled the offense to the line of scrimmage, made sure everyone was aligned properly, and got a running play to Harris called that created enough of a crease to allow him to crash across the goal line for a touchdown that closed the Falcons' window to challenge and staked the Steelers to a 7-0 lead. Savvy sequence by the quarterback, and yes, it was still the preseason.

Sometimes being opportunistic gets the job done in an NFL game, and that's what the Steelers offense needed to be after a T.J. Watt sack forced an Atlanta punt and then a 21-yard punt return by Austin delivered a short field. Starting at the Atlanta 29-yard line, Pickett largely allowed the running backs to take over from there. Harris turned a quick check-down into a 12-yard gain, and then Pickett handed him the ball on the next play for 5 more. On second-and-5 from the 8-yard line, Warren found an opening that got him to the 2-yard line and then he took it from there with a second-effort dive into the end zone where he kept his knees off the ground and stretched the ball over the plane for the touchdown and a 14-0 lead.

Three games. Five possessions. Five touchdowns. All orchestrated by Pickett. And yes, all of them happened in the preseason.

"I think the growth is probably associated with being him and not necessarily the surface level things associated with the position, but the leadership things, the communication things, the bringing people together things," said Coach Mike Tomlin when asked to assess Pickett's development as a second-year pro. "When you have a high level of comfort in terms of what it is you're doing, then those things probably happen more, and so that is significant. It's not play-related, but it is because he is the catalyst for their unit. He controls the pace and the tenor of that unit, and I just think that if he's comfortable, that unit has an opportunity to be comfortable. I think that's probably the most significant difference."

Kenny Pickett is being an NFL quarterback, which is a level of the profession reached only after some degree of physical improvements have happened to allow the individual to play quarterback in the NFL. Willingness to do the work never has been an issue with Pickett, but the difference so far can be found in him supplementing his maniacal want-to with the right dose of know-how.

As an example, Pickett likely saw or understood where to look for weaknesses in the defense and then locate the mismatches in his favor last year as a rookie, but now he has added the confidence to let it fly and put the athletes in position to make plays. It is, after all, a team sport, even during the preseason.

This Steelers offense is imperfect and will prove to be just that many, many times over the course of the upcoming regular season. There will be a lot of possessions that don't end with touchdowns, or even field goals. But Coordinator Matt Canada seems to have found the sweet spot between creatively aggressive and gimmickry, the athletes have been assembled, the bigs are better and deeper, and Kenny Pickett is ready to be the quarterback.

If this Steelers offense stays on this path, it could become a worthy wing-man to a star-studded defense and rapidly improving special teams to give this team the level of complementary play that wins a lot of games in the NFL. And not just preseason games.