Labriola On

Labriola on the win over Seattle

Well, that settled absolutely nothing.

After three weeks of practice at Saint Vincent College, Coach Mike Tomlin was itching to get his team into a stadium, take the training wheels off, and throw the players into an unscripted exercise against an opponent certain to have malice in its heart. This was necessary, everyone understood, because despite facing the usual summertime task of whittling down a 90-man roster to 53 for the start of an NFL regular season Tomlin and his staff faced the added assignment of identifying a starting quarterback.

For the first time in Tomlin's career as an NFL head coach, there was no Ben Roethlisberger on the payroll to handle the most difficult and important job in this sport, and while he believed there was a trio of respectable candidates from which to choose a successor, time was beginning to be a factor.

There was Saturday's opener vs. Seattle at Acrisure Stadium and then two more preseason games after that, and while three weeks in Latrobe hadn't really done much to rearrange an order that had been put in place in May based on nothing more than years of NFL service, the expectation was that the challenge presented by the Seahawks and then the subsequent tests presented by Jacksonville on Aug. 20 and then Detroit on Aug. 28 would cast additional light on how the depth chart should look come Sept. 11 in Cincinnati.

"This guy hasn't been in a live pocket yet," said Tomlin when asked specifically about what rookie Kenny Pickett might learn from a Saturday night vs. the Seahawks. "None of the quarterbacks have, and that component of it is significant in terms of their play, their ability to operate and make decisions in a timely manner, their ability to absorb the punishment that comes with the game and the position. There's so much involved in live quarterback play, their ability to protect the football. It's a big opportunity for him and others."

And Tomlin was going to be nothing but patient and stay true to the process. No favoritism, no agenda, no ulterior motives.

"You know, it's not a decision to be made by me or others. It's a decision to be made by them and their play. All we have to do is sort out what it is that we see," said Tomlin about 48 hours before the ball was on the tee on Saturday night. "That's the mentality that I bring to it, and that's the mentality that I want them to have. I want them to know that these are not mystical decisions. These are concrete, tangible decisions that are borne out of performance and the quality of those performances. And so I don't want them rubbing a lucky rabbit's foot and things of that nature. I just want them playing well, and the quality of that play is going to determine what happens moving forward."

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Tomlin got what he wanted, even if it did nothing to advance the process of making a decision, because against the Seahawks, Mitch Trubisky, Mason Rudolph, and Kenny Pickett all played well. Not perfect, but there were no turnovers, no delay of game penalties, no burned timeouts. Each of them threw at least one touchdown pass, each of them finished with a passer rating in the triple digits, and Rudolph and Pickett each directed more than one scoring drive. And of course, Pickett, the No. 1 pick and the darling of the fan base, put the cherry on top by leading the five-play, 43-yard drive that he capped with a 24-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Vaughns with three seconds left to provide the deciding points.

"You know, he moved his group," said Tomlin in the immediate aftermath when asked to evaluate Pickett. "He played situational football. He displayed a competitive spirit. A lot of good things to build on from a first performance standpoint.

"I could say the same thing about all three (quarterbacks), to be honest with you. They moved their units. They did the informal things associated with the position from a leadership and communication standpoint. They were engaged. It was a good first time out for all three. Obviously we'll comb through it tomorrow and evaluate it in that way."

Tomlin and his staff's evaluation eventually will focus on a defense that allowed 159 yards rushing via a 6.1 average per carry, plus had a couple of journeyman quarterbacks in Geno Smith and Drew Lock combine to complete 70 percent of their passes to a group of 13 different receivers, six of whom had at least one catch of 15-or-more yards. The Steelers had leads of 14-0 and 17-3 in the first half only to find themselves in a 25-25 tie with 13:32 remaining in the fourth quarter.

The fact that Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alex Highsmith, Larry Ogunjobi, T.J. Watt, Tyson Alualu, and Cam Heyward were held out of the game won't matter to Tomlin, but it still matters when putting the defense's performance into perspective. Certainly, more can be expected of that group once those aforementioned players put their hands back in that pile.

But what Trubisky, Rudolph, and Pickett did was unusual in that it's not often three quarterbacks on one team all post passer ratings over 100, while each man also did something special in terms of playing the position at the NFL level.

Trubisky took his group down the field on the game's opening possession – 75 yards in seven plays – and the ball ended up in the end zone based on his 13-yard pass to Gunner Olszewski. Rudolph also directed a touchdown drive in his first series, this one covered 23 yards in three plays and ended with a 26-yard pass to George Pickens, and the next time the offense took the field, it marched 83 yards in 17 plays to tack on a field goal. And then Pickett lived the fantasy.

It was made possible by a strip/sack by rookie inside linebacker Mark Robinson on Drew Lock, and when Tuzar Skipper came up with the loose ball at the Seattle 43-yard line, the Steelers offense got a chance to win the game.

Pickett scrambled for 4 yards on first down. Mataeo Durant ran for 5 to set up a third-and-1. Pickett then completed a pass to Cody White for 2 yards and a fresh set of downs with 33 seconds left. Pickett again scrambled, this time for 8 yards, and then on the next play he got the ball into the right flat to Vaughns, who broke a tackle by Josh Valentine-Turner and sprinted toward the end zone and dove across the goal line for the decisive touchdown.

"I liked the matchup, I liked the look we had, just free access," said Pickett about the final play, after which he was roughed by defensive lineman Myles Adams. "I was just thinking, get [Tyler Vaughns] the ball, and we'll get out of bounds and let [Nick Sciba] put it up for the win. But Tyler is a great player. I gave him a chance, and he made a move and scored."

And now it's back to Saint Vincent College, back to the drawing board. Time to try something else, because the preseason opener didn't do much of anything to separate these quarterbacks.

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