Labriola On

Labriola on the win over the Colts

Mark it down. Third-and-9 from the Steelers 26-yard line, the first play of the fourth quarter in a game against the Colts where the Steelers had managed to turn a 16-3 halftime lead into a 17-16 deficit by playing 15 minutes of awful football in all three phases.

Just as Ben Roethlisberger announced his presence in that Saturday afternoon training camp practice at Saint Vincent College in 2004 with that laser back to the middle of the field thrown on a dead run that hit receiver Zamir Cobb in the chest 25 yards downfield, Kenny Pickett showed he had the bonafides of an NFL starting quarterback on the first play of the fourth quarter in a late November game with a 4-6-1 team hosting a 3-7 opponent.

This is not to suggest Pickett's rookie season of his professional career now is on the same arc as Roethlisberger's was 18 years ago, or that third-and-9 from the 26-yard line is some prophecy that he eventually will turn out to be what Roethlisberger was for a very long time. All it says, all it should be taken to mean, is that Kenny Pickett showed he has what it takes to be a starting quarterback in the NFL, and a starting quarterback in the NFL who can be an asset to his team.

Make no mistake, the Steelers had gotten themselves into a dire situation by the time the fourth quarter started. Their 16-3 halftime lead had evaporated thanks to a combination of shoddy kickoff coverage, a defense that had morphed from immovable during the first half into barely a speed bump through the third quarter, and an offense that put together back-to-back three-and-outs on its only two possessions in the third quarter.

The Colts ended the first half with four first downs, 71 total net yards, 1-for-5 on third downs, and hadn't gotten inside the Steelers 33-yard line, but when Dallis Flowers took Matthew Wright's second half kickoff 8 yards deep in the end zone and returned it 89 yards to the Pittsburgh 19-yard line, the game's momentum changed sidelines and the Colts went from hapless to dominant as if a switch had been flipped.

In four plays, the Colts covered the 19 yards, with Jonathan Taylor's 2-yard run cutting Indianapolis' deficit to 16-10. The Steelers followed with a three-and-out for the first time in the game, but they apparently were bailed out by a 54-yard punt by Pressley Harvin III that pinned the Colts on their 12-yard line.

Ah, but Taylor now was on a roll, and Matt Ryan started playing like his Matty Ice persona of more than a decade ago. The Steelers pass rush spent too much time running past Ryan, which allowed him to step up and play pitch-and-catch with his receivers, particularly tight ends Jelani Woods and Mo Allie-Cox. The Colts matriculated the ball down the field to a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line when Taylor fumbled a handoff and Chris Wormley beat Ryan to the ball, and the Steelers took possession at the 7-yard line and set about trying to protect the shrinking lead.

But again, the offense went three-and-out, a particularly frustrating sequence because Benny Snell Jr. gained 8 yards on first down, but then the Steelers couldn't gain another inch. Back onto the field came Harvin, and this time his punt had the Colts starting at their 45-yard line. Ryan completed three passes to Woods for 55 yards, successfully handed the ball to Taylor twice for 5 more, and then connected with Michael Pittman for 6 yards and the touchdown that tied the game only until Chase McLaughlin's extra point gave the Colts a 17-16 lead.

With 16 seconds left in the third quarter, the Steelers took possession for the third time in the second half, but they still couldn't get anything going offensively. Pickett threw incomplete on first down to Pickens, who didn't complete a catch he likely would admit he should've made, and then Snell was stuffed after a 1-yard gain. Which brought the Steelers to third-and-9 at their 26-yard line, and at the risk of sounding melodramatic, it brought them to something of a crossroads.

Complete a third consecutive three-and-out and punt the ball back to the Colts and send the defense back onto the field in such short order seemed to be a disaster-in-waiting in terms of reclaiming the lead, in terms of winning that game, maybe even in terms of being able to construct even a modest winning streak down the stretch of this 2022 regular season.

That kind of collapse happening against the defending AFC Champion Bengals was painful, but allowing it to happen to the Colts, a team that had underperformed to the degree its owner already had fired the coach with whom the team had opened the regular season, was exponentially worse.

And yes, it's premature to refer to Pickett as a great quarterback, but on the next snap of the football he made the kind of play in the kind of situation that quarterbacks who have the potential to become great step up and make. Taking the snap in the shotgun, Pickett used his mobility to buy some time, but he didn't panic and take off running. Instead, he got himself into position where he had a window to make a throw to Pickens over the middle, and then he drilled it in there. It was an NFL throw into an NFL window, and Pickens went down and made the catch for a 13-yard gain and a first down.

"We have him in there because we think he's capable of that," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "He proved it. You know, I'm sure he's going to get a lot of other opportunities moving forward to prove that. We need people who run toward action, not away from it. He runs toward it."

But that single third-down conversion didn't complete the job. It didn't even get the Steelers across midfield, which meant there still was work to be done, and as has happened earlier this season, the play-calling got a bit too cute. After Gunner Olszewski gained 9 on a jet sweep, and Snell burst over left tackle for 13, the Steelers had a first down at the Colts 24-yard line.

A tight end screen to Zach Gentry had no chance and lost 4 yards, and an 8-yard completion to Diontae Johnson set up a third-and-6. Pickett sent a laser to the left to Pat Freiermuth and placed it in the perfect spot for 17 yards. It was first-and-goal at the Colts 3-yard line and more cuteness ensued. A shovel pass to Derek Watt gained an ugly yard, and then Diontae Johnson couldn't complete a play on a pass in the end zone, and it was third-and-goal at a time when a field goal was looking very insufficient. This time, the play was more traditional – a handoff to Snell, who took advantage of blocks by Olszewski and Dan Moore Jr. that caved in the right side of the Colts defense to cruise into the end zone for the touchdown.

"Coach T (Tomlin) has a lot of confidence in me, just asks me what I like, what I don't like," said Pickett. "I feel like that play, just watching from tape all week, is a simple play but something I felt that if we gave it a shot, we had a chance to be successful. We were in four-down territory, so we were going for it again on the next play if we didn't get it. I felt confident, real confident with that play, and I was really happy we got into the end zone."

A 2-point conversion would extend the lead to 7 points, that's what Tomlin ordered, and again the ball was put in Pickett's hands. He rolled to his right, waited for Pickens to lose the coverage in the back corner of the end zone, and then delivered the ball on time and in the perfect spot for the receiver to make the play. It was 24-17, with 9:55 left in the fourth quarter.

"The window, when the defender's back is to you, you can place the ball where you want," said Pickett, "and it's George (Pickens) who has to make the play. He jabbed inside, then went outside, so the ball low and away is usually the safe bet to give him the best chance to make a play. He went down and made a helluva play. I was talking to him all game, just keeping his head in it. He's an unbelievable player. There will be ups and downs in this thing, but if we stick with it, I think we'll be all right at the end of the day."

The Steelers ended up all right, thanks to a 7-yard sack by Alex Highsmith on a play that began with 1:35 remaining, and Coach Jeff Saturday didn't use any of his timeouts until the Colts were facing a fourth-and-3 from the Pittsburgh 26-yard line with 34 seconds left. When Ryan's pass for Parris Campbell was incomplete, all that was left was for Pickett to take a knee to seal a game that had the Colts go to their locker room with two timeouts remaining.

In the Steelers locker room, T.J. Watt was asked what he saw from his rookie quarterback during the moments that defined the outcome. "His moxie, his poise. All the things that we need, he can bring to the table week in and week out, whether it's on the practice field or a game."

Even if the game is played on the national stage that is Monday Night Football.

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