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No days off
Kenny Pickett's drive had him right back to work not long after his rookie season ended
By Teresa Varley Apr 03, 2023

It was well before sunrise on a cold December morning when quarterback Kenny Pickett was sitting in the Steelers cafeteria, looking over his notes and getting ready to start his workday.

For Pickett, it was nothing out of the ordinary.

He arrived on a regular basis before the sun rose and left after the sun set on more days than you could count.

"I would be here mighty early. And I left mighty late," said Pickett with a smile. "Showing up here when it was dark out and leaving when it's dark is a little bit depressing. I was taking some vitamin D for sure.

"I don't track the hours. I just kind of go through how I need to prepare and then whatever it ends up being, it ends up being. It would be about leaving the building when I felt good about the day's work, and I felt really confident going into the game."

Putting in work was something Pickett was never shy about doing, and never has been. He is driven. So driven that just over a week after the season ended, he was back to working out, getting into a routine.

"I was planning on taking a lot more time off, but I've never taken a lot of time off," admitted Pickett. "I took a couple of days off, and I wasn't acting myself, and my fiancée Amy was like, you've got to get back to training.

"I'm just happy doing this. I genuinely like doing it. I like being here. In order to be great you have to have a love for the game. I want to be one of the best. I know what I have to do and there's a lot of things that we need to do as a team to get us to our goals. I feel like it all starts with me and my play. I've got to be the guy that takes us there. I'm ready to take it on."

Pickett took it on at the start of March as well, when he headed to Florida to work with fellow quarterback Mitch Trubisky and the receiving corps to get a jump start on things and just bond for a few days.

"We just wanted to find a few days in the offseason, before spring practice started, where we could get down to Florida to work out and hang out off the field," said Pickett. "Spend some time together and just build that rapport that we're going to need this season. It was an awesome couple of days. We got a ton of work done and it was awesome to see the guys.

"In college you spend a lot of time off the field together, whether it's study hall or on the weekends and everyone's in the same spot. But in the NFL, it's kind of hard. Everyone has a family. Everyone's off doing their own thing. It's nice whenever you can get guys together and kind of go back to those college, team bonding days where you can really hang out and get to know each other."

It was a continuation of what Pickett has been doing all offseason, staying prepared for what's ahead.

"The week off was definitely good right after the season," said Pickett. "But I was all about getting back to it. I just love to do it and it doesn't feel like work to me. I don't feel the same if I'm not training every day. It's become part of my life and my lifestyle. I'm most comfortable doing that."

Last season, Pickett had no choice but to get comfortable fast. The Steelers No. 1 pick out of the University of Pittsburgh was thrown into the fire in the most unexpected of ways – during halftime against the New York Jets in Week 4 after starter Mitch Trubisky had struggled.

And it was unexpected first and foremost to him.

"You just don't have time to think. It's like, hey, you're up. And Coach (Mike) Tomlin is like you're playing," said Pickett. "Coach (Matt) Canada does a great job of getting the backup quarterbacks list and knowing our favorite plays in certain down situations. He said, I got your list, so I'm going to call it based off what you highlighted and what you like. He helped me out from that standpoint."

Pickett said the first player he grabbed when he learned the news was center Mason Cole because they needed to get some snaps before taking the field.

"We didn't have a lot of work together in camp, really anywhere together in terms of center-quarterback exchange," said Pickett. "That's the most important thing. We can't get a play off if we can't get the snap. I told him I'm going to get you out there and get some snaps. Mason is a great guy. He's a great veteran to have as a center. He's been doing it for some time now and he's a calming presence. I try to bring the same thing to the huddle. We both also have that intensity that we need to have."

The next week should have been a dream for Pickett, preparing for his first NFL start against the Buffalo Bills in Week 5.

Sadly, that preparation came with a heavy heart.

Pickett's grandfather, Kenneth Pickett Sr., passed away on the Tuesday before the game. It was a tough time for Pickett dealing with the loss of someone who had a huge impact on his life.

"I got to talk to him after (the Jets game)," said Pickett. "He was able to see me play in the NFL. It was special. He always told me I would be doing exactly what I am doing ever since I can remember. He would take me to pro football games. He would take me to baseball games, hockey games. He was just a great person. I'm blessed to have two wonderful grandfathers in my life that helped raise me along with my parents.

"He passed before my first start as an NFL quarterback. That was tough having that happen in that moment. I went home after the game, drove home with my family after the game for the services and got to spend some time with my family and be grateful and appreciative for how much time we had with him. And it was special he got to see my first big-time action in the NFL."

Taking the field against the Bills for his first NFL start just days after his grandfather's passing wasn't easy for Pickett. He set team records for most pass attempts (52), completions (34) and passing yards (327) by a quarterback in their Steelers starting debut.

But the loss of his grandfather was weighing on his mind.

"You've got to try to compartmentalize that," said Pickett. "You can say that is what you are going to do, but it was on my mind throughout the week, and it was tough. It was just one of those tough situations that weighs on you a little bit.

"I felt like he was with me when I was playing. I know he was with me. He had the best seat in the house throughout the rest of the season and will in my playing career."

And it's a career that has so much promise, so much to look forward to.

Pickett made his first home start in Week 6 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with cheers of 'Kenny, Kenny, Kenny' streaming down from the Acrisure Stadium crowd.

It was something that meant a lot to him, something he doesn't take for granted.

"It's hard to tune out," said Pickett. "It's special. I have so much love for this city from my college days and now being a pro here."

With those chants could come something else. Pressure. The expectations were high for Pickett after he was drafted so high and had so much success locally in college. He didn't let the pressure get to him, though, instead embracing everything that came with his new role.

"It's all positive," said Pickett. "It's only a negative if you're not prepared and you're nervous because you're not prepared, you don't know what you're doing. I worked really hard during the week to make sure I was as prepared as possible so I could go out there and let my abilities go and let it loose. I have high expectations for myself. I don't think anyone meets those expectations that I have for myself."

Those expectations resulted in some impressive rookie numbers.

He completed 245 of 389 pass attempts for 2,404 yards and seven touchdowns in 13 games, starting 12 of them. He also carried the ball 55 times for 237 yards and three touchdowns, including mastering the quarterback sneak.

The other thing he mastered is fourth quarter game-winning drives, coming through with back-to-back efforts in Week 16 and Week 17. In doing so, Pickett became the first rookie in NFL history to have a game-winning touchdown pass in the final minute in back-to-back games.

In Week 16, Pickett led the Steelers to a 13-10 win over the Raiders on a fourth quarter drive that ended with a 14-yard touchdown pass to George Pickens. The Steelers got the ball back with 2:55 on the clock and down 10-6, when Pickett engineered a 10-play, 76-yard drive, completing seven passes for 75 yards and on fourth-and-one getting the yard himself on a quarterback sneak to set up the touchdown.

"I think there's an art to the two-minute drive," said Pickett. "I did a lot of tape study. Every week I was the guy that did the two-minute breakdown of the opposing team for the quarterback room. I've watched a lot of two-minute drills. I was watching them and talking to a lot of coaches around here, including (former senior defensive assistant) Coach (Brian) Flores who helped me out a lot with the two-minute. We would talk about the difference between the college level and the pro level and with the clock stoppage at the college level with first downs, you don't realize how much time that does save versus when you get to the pro level. You have to chase that one explosive play during the two-minute to kind of make up for that as opposed to being able to dink and dunk your way down the field at the college level.

"There's an art to it and there's a feel for it. It just comes with repetition. I had a lot of reps with it and success at the college level. I just needed that time to get some reps at the pro level and Coach T gave me that opportunity in practice. I failed against Miami with it, but took that as a learning experience, trying to find out why we did fail. I was chasing another big play when I shouldn't have been. I had a lot more success down the stretch winning games in the fourth quarter and that's what it's all about."

Pickett was a sponge when it came from learning from his own coaches in Canada and quarterbacks Coach Mike Sullivan. But he used every source available, including special teams coordinator Danny Smith.

"Coach Smith does a great job with clock management," said Pickett. "He knows in every situation how much time you need as a quarterback. I needed to be in tune with all those things. Also, there were things that helped with (kicker) Chris Boswell. If it came down to a field goal, what's his range or what hash mark does he like it on. So, all those things play into setting up a successful two-minute drive whether you need six points or you need three points. We have so many resources that you just have to be smart enough to ask for help."

Pickett was his own worst critic the past year, but it's because he wants to grow, he wants to learn, especially from his own mistakes.

"You have to have the ability to learn from your mistakes and not make them twice," said Pickett. "I think that's what stuck out to me. I didn't want to put the same things, same mistakes, on tape multiple weeks in a row and I think I did a good job of that. There's a lot of things that I want to improve on, but as long as I'm learning from the mistakes and moving in the right direction every week, I take that as wins inside of the wins, I guess you could say."

Being able to accomplish that came with comfort within the offense and that wasn't something that came immediately for Pickett, but rather weeks after he stepped in as the starter.

"To the point where I felt like it was becoming almost second nature, where you're starting to feel like you've been in it for some time, it was probably four weeks after the bye," said Pickett. "I felt like the offense was starting to become my own. I was doing things that I was not doing earlier in the year because then I was so worried about executing the ABCs of every play. It takes some time. You want it to come fast, but at the end of the day, you're playing professional football, the toughest position in sports and there's so many things that you have to know, and you just need reps, you need time. Once I felt like I got that under my belt, I felt a lot better each week."

With that experience came improvement in the mental aspect of his game as well. His understanding of everything that comes with being an NFL quarterback, from top to bottom, is something where he grew last year, and he knows that growth will continue.

"The biggest growth for me was mentally," said Pickett. "Just understanding of the system. It comes with reps. You want that fast. You can study on paper, you can study in the film room, but sometimes you really just need to go through some things and see it with your own eyes and then watch yourself go through it on tape. I felt like my growth mentally, when I'm out there processing things faster, week by week I saw growth. That's always a real positive thing.

"Now I just want to keep growing there. I don't think you're ever done improving. I always feel like I improve physically every offseason. I feel like I evaluate what I need to improve on physically, whether it's getting stronger, faster or putting weight on. From a fundamental standpoint, footwork, pocket, there's more things I can work on. But all of those things tie in with the progression and what I'm seeing mentally. It's a big umbrella of things I can always improve on. I want to continue to improve the mental aspect of the game. Mastering the system from progressions, when I can take shots, understanding how Coach Canada calls a game, going back and watching tape and seeing what I could have done better, watching all the interceptions, the incompletions and where I could have gone with the ball. Seeing if the interception happened because we had a tipped pass or guys fall down, things happened or was it a misread that I did not see the right key on that certain play. There are so many things I'm going to go through here in this offseason in order for me to take that big jump in year two, which I'm expecting myself to do.

"There were so many new things coming in this year that you can't even put into this one interview that you're going through as a rookie quarterback in the NFL. I just got so much more comfortable from the first day I walked in here to the last day of the season. It's like night and day. I felt like I've been here for two or three years versus one season, how much time I've been around everybody. So having that groundwork, that base, the work in the offseason. I'm really excited."

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