Labriola On

Labriola on the win over the Ravens

Over the last four regular seasons, the Steelers have faced the Ravens eight times, and they are 5-3 in those games. Of the three games the Steelers lost, two came when they had to play Duck Hodges at quarterback, and the third came when their quarterback threw three interceptions.

On Sunday, the Steelers faced the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium with their playoff lives hanging by a thread, but Hodges wasn't their quarterback, and the guy who was their quarterback didn't turn the ball over even once. In fact, for the second straight week, in the second straight win-or-it's-over game against an AFC opponent, Kenny Pickett directed a game-deciding scoring drive late in the fourth quarter and capped it off with a touchdown pass with less than a minute left to play.

On the heels of those victories – 13-10 over the Raiders on Christmas Eve and 16-13 over the Ravens on New Year's Day – the Steelers will find themselves hosting a Week 18 game vs. Cleveland with a puncher's chance of squeezing themselves into the AFC playoff field one season after Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger retired. And the nature of those two most recent victories adds additional evidence to the already-strong case that they have found the right guy to follow Roethlisberger.

While it's not at all difficult to use year-to-date statistics to make the case that Pickett is nothing but a bottom-feeder in the NFL's quarterback pecking order, the eyes tell a different story. At the professional level, there is most definitely a difference between playing quarterback and being the quarterback, and over the past 8 weeks, Pickett has become the Steelers quarterback.

After throwing 7 interceptions in his first four regular season appearances as a rookie curiosity, Pickett has thrown only 2 interceptions in his next 8 starts and has made enough plays during those starts to help the Steelers climb out of the 2-6 hole they dug for themselves to reach .500 at 8-8 following Sunday's comeback win vs. the Ravens. Along the way, Pickett has prepared and studied and maintained a one-game-at-a-time focus, and along the way earned the trust of veteran teammates by stepping up and making plays to help them win games.

And it has grown from a couple of big-time NFL throws in the fourth quarter of a win in Indianapolis, to not getting in the way of strong performances by the defense in victories in Atlanta and Carolina by turning the ball over and stressing the unit that was in control of the game, to engineering those game-winning touchdowns drives in the final seconds against the Raiders and Ravens. Pickett may not be anybody's MVP in their fantasy league, but he is becoming an NFL starting quarterback his teammates can trust and then depend upon to deliver for them during those portions of regular season games when winners and losers are determined.

"I think we always had confidence in him," said Harris, the player on whom the Steelers spent their No. 1 pick in the draft before doing the same thing with Pickett. "It's really just more about us as a team, just making sure we're clicking right. You know, earlier in the season, we didn't really click right, and there were times where, you know, off by this pass, off by this block, this cut, this, this, this. You know, we really came together at the bye week. We were able to come together and make the most of it. So, it's not that we didn't believe in him, it's just us executing on our part to score."

It's more than that, because when an NFL offense is in sync, it can appear to be a dance troupe, and in that analogy the quarterback is the choreographer. During the final 46 seconds of the third quarter and all of the fourth – when the Steelers turned a 13-6 deficit into a 16-13 win, Pickett directed scoring drives of 80 yards in 13 plays and then 80 yards in 11 plays. He completed 7-of-12 passes for 100 yards, and he also extended possessions with quarterback sneaks that converted a pair of third-and-1s.

He used his athletic ability to buy time in the pocket and/or create better throwing windows to get the ball to his intended targets. He pushed the ball down the middle of the field when that was available and worked the sideline areas when it wasn't. Fifteen yards to George Pickens at the right sideline; 21 yards to Diontae Johnson in the same area; 20 yards down the middle to Pat Freiermuth; and 28 yards over the middle to Steven Sims in traffic. It was the correct decision each time, and Pickett's arm talent made each one work as designed.

"I can't say enough about our young quarterback," said Coach Mike Tomlin during the postgame interrogatories. "He smiled in the face of it. He's always ready to be that guy in the moments that we need him … I just think we benefited so much from (having) close proximity in the evaluation process. None of us are surprised by what he does from an intangible standpoint. The proximity to him at Pitt really kind of gave us that comfort."

There should be no more debate about Pickett's worthiness as a No. 1 draft pick, nor about the Steelers' decision to use the 20th overall pick on him instead of on an offensive lineman, nor about Tomlin's decision to turn to him at halftime of the season's fourth game (against the New York Jets) and commit to him as the Steelers' starter.

No, he's not Roethlisberger, and asking or expecting him to be a clone of a player who not only has the statistics to make him a worthy first-ballot Hall of Fame selection but who also is one of only a dozen quarterbacks in the Super Bowl era to have won more than a single Lombardi Trophy is stacking the deck against him. But it's fair and accurate to point to the victories over the Raiders in sub-zero weather and over the Ravens in Baltimore and acknowledge that Pickett's role in both of those was Roethlisberger-esque.

Listen to what Tomlin said when asked about the 10-yard touchdown pass to Harris that provided the game-winning points: "The play got extended. He moved to his left. Najee kept his eyes on him. Just two highly competitive guys finishing and making a play. Much like last week, I just like the overall demeanor of the collective in those moments when it's thick. Nobody is acting funny. You can drill it, but it's just that it's a drill. The reality of it is always a little bit different than the drill work."

On the NBC telecast, Cris Collinsworth said, "Wow. That is wild. What a play by Kenny Pickett … If Patrick Mahomes made this play, we'd be putting it right in the Hall of Fame. That's the kind of moment in a clutch part of a game that sets quarterbacks apart."

Finding a rookie quarterback to thrive in the role of the triggerman in such situations is rare. And finding a rookie quarterback who responds to those kinds of situations as a seasoned NFL veteran deserves to be appreciated.

"I'm just focused on, honestly, next week," Pickett told the media after the game. "I think it's just the confidence I had in myself is showing up on the field, and I think guys are starting to feel that, which is always good. Going into the huddle and seeing how confident everyone is, as a quarterback, you know they have a lot of belief in you, and I have a lot of belief in those guys in the huddle. So, when that's there, you definitely have a shot. It's a step in the right direction. You know there's still a lot of business to take care of."

And make no mistake, having the right guy at quarterback is Job 1 in the NFL.