Labriola On

Labriola on the loss to the Jets

The rationale for the move made sense at the time, and it delivered the immediate result Coach Mike Tomlin was seeking. The decision to replace Mitch Trubisky with Kenny Pickett for the second half of Sunday's game vs. the New York Jets provided the spark to the team Tomlin later would say he was seeking, and it also energized the crowd of 66,578. The Steelers responded to all of that and turned a 10-6 halftime deficit into a 20-10 lead early in the fourth quarter.

Then reality intervened, and the Steelers ended up losing to the Jets, 24-20, with this third straight defeat dropping them into the AFC North basement at 1-3, one game behind Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Cleveland, all sitting at 2-2.

As it turned out, once the excitement accompanying Pickett's debut faded and the reasons for this latest defeat came into focus, it was more about the Jets driving 91 yards in 11 plays and then 70 yards in 10 plays for a pair of fourth quarter touchdowns while converting 3-of-4 third down situations and 1-of-1 fourth down situations, and the Steelers having three of their five second half possessions end with turnovers.

Again, the run defense was exploited, maybe not to the extent seen in the losses to New England and Cleveland but enough to allow the Jets to utilize it as enough of a weapon to prevent the Steelers from concentrating solely on taking advantage of second-year quarterback Zach Wilson, who came into Acrisure Stadium not having played a live snap since the preseason opener and undoubtedly was rusty as well as inexperienced.

Again, the offense sputtered through the first half because of struggles converting third downs (1-for-6) and possessing the football, which when combined with a lack of chunk plays (only two of the first 30 offensive plays gained more than 15 yards) kept the Steelers out of the end zone and off the scoreboard except for a couple of 50-plus-yard field goals from Chris Boswell.

"We're disappointed, but what transpired is not anything mystical," said Tomlin. "That's what we talked about as a collective in (the locker room just now). No disrespect to the Jets. They made plays and won the football game, but it's not about who we play. It's not about rabbits foots and so forth. We've got to play better. We've got to put them in better position. We've got to perform better. And I'm talking about the collection of players and coaches in there. It's very tangible and fundamental things. I thought we were highly penalized particularly in the first half. I thought it killed some drives."

In all, the first half contained four offensive penalties, three sacks of Trubisky, a would've-been touchdown pass that wasn't because Diontae Johnson couldn't get two feet down inbounds in the back of the end zone, and a turnover that came on an interception assigned to Trubisky after a pass first hit Johnson's hands before safety Lamarcus Joyner came down with it on the first play of the Steelers' second offensive possession.

Too much of this was familiar, too much of it was recurring despite the amount of time spent to correct it, and so it's not really surprising that Tomlin decided on turning to his rookie quarterback in the hope of making a move to shake things up.

"We just thought we needed a spark," said Tomlin when asked specifically why he made the switch. "We didn't do much in the first half, not enough offensively and thought (Pickett) could provide a spark for us."

With the Steelers having come into this riding a two-game losing streak and with a daunting four-game stretch on the other end of this matchup vs. the Jets, it seemed a likely game for a switch to Pickett if things didn't appear to be trending in a winning direction. Based on the events of the first half, when the teams came out for the start of the second half anyone monitoring the activity on the Steelers sideline had to notice that Pickett was wearing his helmet with the chinstrap buckled while Trubisky was wearing a baseball cap.

The Jets received the second half kickoff and after they went three-and-out, Pickett could be seen walking over to the group of offensive players gathering to take the field once the change-of-possession television timeout was over and getting some encouragement from those guys as the commercial break was winding to a conclusion. With 13:53 on the game clock, and at 2:52 p.m. EDT, Pickett took the field for his first NFL regular season game.

The reaction from the crowd was what could be expected since that same group had been chanting his name in the first half, and there was an undeniable electricity pulsing through the stadium in anticipation of what might unfold. But professional sports can be an unforgiving business, and NFL history is loaded with many more reality checks than fairy tales. This would turn out to be more of the former than the latter.

There can be no argument that Pickett played with an emotion that seemed to be infectious, that his decisiveness in using his legs as a weapon added a dimension to the offense and accounted for two short touchdown runs that staked the Steelers to a 20-10 lead with 13:36 remaining in the fourth quarter.

But Picket also threw three interceptions, and while the last was a desperation heave into the end zone on the game's final play, the second was the result of a bad decision compounded by a youthful overconfidence that arm strength would make it work anyway.

With 3:42 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Steelers protecting a 20-17 lead, Pickett was staring at a second-and-15 from the Jets 36-yard line. On the previous play he had just poorly executed a quick pitch to Jaylen Warren, who managed to corral the loose ball but not before a 5-yard loss, and now he was about to compound the error.

On the official play-by-play, it's described as a short pass to the right intended for Pat Freiermuth that was intercepted by Jets nickel Michael Carter, but to describe it another way, it was a late throw too far across the field with not enough oomph to get where it needed to be before an NFL defensive back got into position to make a play on it. It was a rookie mistake in a critical situation, and its impact was to launch the Jets on a 10-play, 65-yard drive that ended with Breece Hall's 2-yard touchdown and the Steelers with a 1-3 record.

Of course, Pickett's responsibility ended with the turnover. He had nothing to do with Wilson then successfully taking advantage of the coverage to complete 5-of-5 for 57 yards; he had nothing to do with an officiating crew that tortured participants and spectators alike with an endless series of lengthy group discussions over the most mundane calls only to ignore the possibility an 8-yard pass to Tyler Conklin that converted a third-and-6 from the Steelers 46-yard line inside the two-minute warning was not a completed catch (which a subsequent replay strongly indicated it was not); and he had nothing to do with the defense allowing the final 9 yards and the deciding touchdown on back-to-back runs up the middle in the final 45 seconds.

October 2, 2022 eventually may come to be remembered as the start of the Kenny Pickett era, but this morning it's just the date of a third straight Steelers loss attributable to much more than just quarterback play.

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