Pickens having fun, while getting it done

To understand who Steelers receiver George Pickens is, the first thing you have to realize is his unique, outrageous ability to effortlessly pull in acrobatic one-handed catches is as unique as his fun-loving, somewhat silly, somewhat quiet personality.

He is part confident football player, part chill friend who just likes to hang out and doesn't want attention.

He is part alien, part human meme, part video game enthusiast.

He is No. 14 on the field, a walking highlight film opposing defensive coordinators lose sleep over. But off the field, he is simply 'GP' to those who know him best, only losing sleep to all-night video game marathons.

"Everybody loves George," said fellow receiver Calvin Austin III, who along with tight end Connor Heyward are Pickens closest friends on the team. "People back home always ask me what he's like. He is normal. He's chill. People have an image of him as wild and crazy. He is just a chill person.

"On the field, he has a switch that changes. He becomes George Pickens. That is when he becomes that special, unique, different player. He has the mindset he is the best on the field and his play proves it. That switch that comes on when he steps on the field allows him to have that edge about himself.

"But George is extremely humble. The media, TikTok, things like that can create an image of a person that has them thinking one way about them, but they are really not like that. He is a genuine person. A cool guy. He works hard. That is why it's never surprising to see what he does. When he does make plays, it's not surprising because of how he approaches the game."

And while people that don't know him might raise their eyebrows over the 'humble' description because they see the player that lights it up every time he touches the ball, it's right on par with what those who know him best say, including Pickens himself.

"Honestly, I am a super chill person, but a lot of people say I've got confidence," said Pickens. "I think that is the impression from other people. I can't really see it. I am never someone who is just out there saying, 'I am this, or that.' I think that is something other people see in me.

"People who really, really know me, Connor (Heyward), and some of my teammates, they know I don't like to be seen, they know I am a quiet person. The impression I have on other people is different though. I accept it."

There is a level of confidence though, and it's not a bad thing. It's just who he is, his belief in himself. While he honestly doesn't give himself much praise, saying, 'I wouldn't say I am that good for real,' he does believe in his abilities and that translates into his play.

"I have never seen anyone come in so young, and yet have so much belief and confidence in themselves," said cornerback Levi Wallace. "He puts in the work. He is super talented. Has God-given abilities. Crazy catch radius. He is dangerous because he believes in himself. He doesn't run routes as unique as other people. Just straight line, he knows a defense is playing him a certain way. He is super smart on the field. It's always a challenge going against him."

Pickens caught the eyes of Steelers Nation, the NFL world, and rocked social media when he pulled in a ridiculous one-handed grab against the Cleveland Browns on Thursday Night Football, almost one-year ago.

"This catch is filthy," was the tweet Odell Beckham Jr. immediately posted.

And he was right. It was a catch reminiscent of some of the grabs Pickens made in training camp at Saint Vincent College, but he had yet to do it in a game.

And when he made the grab with a national television audience tuned in, it went viral. Headlines labeled it spectacular, amazing, insane. Everyone called it Pickens' best catch ever.

Everyone but him, that is.

"That is probably like seventh," said Pickens of the grab at the time. "UGA practice, I made some crazy catches there. A lot of them are undiscovered.

"I have been doing this for a while. The catches might seem crazy to a lot of people. To me, that is just how I catch the ball. I think the impression of me is bigger and I appreciate it. How people say I am good, I take it with a grain of salt. My brother always says I am not that good. My friends back home say it. Me personally, I think I am just okay."

Just okay.

"Yeah, for real, just okay," Pickens doubled down with a sheepish smile.

No, he is better than 'just okay.'

"He is a freak of nature," said offensive tackle Broderick Jones, the Steelers No. 1 pick who played with Pickens at the University of Georgia. "Something I never saw before in person. Sometimes I think he puts himself in messed up situations on purpose in practice just to see if he can get himself out of it. I believe that is what he does. And nine times out of 10, he is getting out of it.

"Just some of the catches I have seen him make. I can't even think of one catch. There are so many good ones. It's hard to pinpoint one. If I had to pick one, I would say when he went across body one handed on the sideline over a defender and it was in practice.

"I have gotten used to what he can do. He is just different. Now it's not a wow moment. It's George doing what George does. I have been with him for four years and watched him when I was being recruited there and have seen a lot."

Pickens couldn't stay away as a few of his teammates were talking about him in the locker room, walking over and listening in and smiling. Because he knows what they are saying, that is who he is.

"You don't see a guy put up one hand, when he can make a catch with two hands, and just make routine plays snagging the ball," said fullback/tight end Connor Heyward. "He is one of one. You don't see the catches he makes. The Browns game, Latrobe practices, it's highlight reels constantly going.

"He doesn't lack confidence at all. But it's not like that. He wants to be lowkey, he will have the face mask on, his hood up, and sometimes a beanie on top of that. It's always a good time when we are with each other. The media tries to make him come across as a menace, but he is so down to earth, chill. We just have a good time when we do things."

Pickens is blessed with an ability and skills beyond what normal human beings could only wish for. And they are characteristics not normally found in a second-year player.

And maybe that is because he isn't fully human.

"He thinks he is an alien," said receivers coach Frisman Jackson. "He thinks he is all these different things. He tells me all of the time you know I am an alien. I will keep some of my responses that I have to him between us. But I am quick to tell him he isn't one. Certain things he does I will tell him that isn't alien. It's part of his personality. He has a great personality. He is fun to be around. He is fun to coach because you know every day is going to be something different and that keeps me on my toes.

"I am glad we have a great culture here. There is competition here. He understands there is a lot of room for him to grow. I love this about him, the confidence he has in his ability is unmatched."

Pickens gives a playful smile just at the mention of being an alien.

"That is my personality," said Pickens. "I don't like to be seen. I give off alien vibes. People can't find me."

He can get under the skin of an opposing defensive back with his unconventional methods, and he loves it. It's even how he came up with his Instagram name, @1.issue, because he is just that … an issue for others.

"Oh, 100 percent," smiled Pickens. "That is how I got my Instagram name. I don't want to be a problem, but I am getting under the defensive backs' skin, the coach's skin. I am that issue. Like a little virus. That is where that came from.

"I am a super humble person, but if I know I am getting under the skin of somebody else and I am not trying to, I am not mad myself. It's kind of funny."

Pickens is able to do 'alien-like' things because he has talent. Plain and simple.

"He has ridiculous ball skills," said Jackson. "He is able to catch the ball at any catch point, high, low, behind him, one-handed. He is blessed with that ability.

"A lot of the skills he has are God-given. He is blessed to have those skills. My job, and our job, is to get every ounce of that out of him. Oftentimes when we are blessed with that kind of ability, we sometimes take things for granted or don't work as hard because it comes so natural and easy to us. My job every day is to push him to limits. I don't think he realizes he can go to."

It's not just that, though. He takes that talent and works on it, never accepting that the bare minimum is enough.

"He puts the work in," said Jackson. "There were times during training camp, after a morning walkthrough, he would be out there catching balls, doing ball drills for a long time afterwards. As much of it is natural ability, God-given talent, there is still a factor in there he works at it. He knows there are some flaws, and he has to work to get those flaws off the tape."

And there is no better way to work on those flaws than against some of his own teammates on a daily basis. He utilizes resources readily available to him, including those he goes up against in the talent-laden Steelers secondary.

"They help me a lot," said Pickens. "They help all the receivers in terms of how the defense plays their coverages and stuff like that. Those guys, Pat Peterson, Levi Wallace, Chandon Sullivan, those guys help a lot when it comes to the games.

"I ask them a whole lot in terms of the coverage they are playing. The coverage is going to tell them what they are going to do. I talk to them a lot about what coverage they are in, what were they playing or looking at. I pick their brain for sure."

Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick sees the mix Pickens brings to the game, combined with his height at 6-3, and knows it's a combination that he takes to the next level.

"He has freakish athleticism, great body control, great hand-eye coordination that allows him to play the game he does," said Fitzpatrick. "It's not an unusual combination, but the level to which he does it is very unusual. It's very rare for sure. You usually don't see big guys, guys his size have that type of body control, discipline while in the air.

"He is a very smart player. He knows what is in front of him. That allows him to play at his pace. He isn't going to be playing at 1,000 miles an hour, but he sees what is in front of him, he knows how to run his routes, he knows how to move people off the line. He knows when he can really attack a certain player because he knows what is in front of him.

"Because of things like his ability to go climb the ladder, get any ball, his ability to play a physical game of football, it's always a challenge to us so it's fun to compete against him."

And his quarterback, well let's just say Kenny Pickett knows what he has in Pickens and welcomes it, and is happy to have him on his side.

"I don't have a lot of fear when I throw it to George," said Pickett. "I know he is going to go up and make a play. If he is one-on-one, I am always going to put the ball up for him and give him those opportunities to make great plays.

"We kind of feed off each other. We have conversations and we both think and play with the same kind of edge. I think that's one of the reasons we get along so well.

"He is young. He is still evolving as a receiver. I think hopefully we will be a good connection for many years to come."

While Pickens downplays his crazy athletic ability, there is one area he isn't backing down on about his skills.

Video games.

"I am super good at video games. That is something I know," said Pickens. "At football there is a lot of perceived error. One day you will make a bad play and wonder am I good. With a video game it is the same every time. I know I am super, super good at video games."

And that comes from constantly playing them. When he turns the football switch off, the video game switch goes on. And at times he hasn't shut off that until the wee hours of the morning, enjoying himself and competing until the end whether he is playing Madden 2K, Call of Duty, or Fortnite.

"When I am not practicing, not working here, not playing games, I am playing video games," said Pickens. "I find peace and calm doing it. You get mad. It's like life in a bundle. You are going to lose a game and be mad. You are going to win a game and doing something super crazy and be happy. It just boosts your emotions up and down. It's calming for real.

"Sometimes I am up playing against guys across the country until the next morning. Sometimes I play against friends in the locker room, sometimes friends on other teams and sometimes people I don't even know who challenge me because they know it's me and want to beat me. When they know it's me, they know if they beat me, they can talk about that they beat me. The challenge is super good. Then when I win, I am like, I told you."

From the video games he plays, to his outrageous plays on the field, to the ski masks he is now known for wearing, everything Pickens does somehow turns into a meme on social media.

"I think he is fun," said Pickett. "His mannerisms, body language off the field. Obviously, he kicked it off hot on the draft night with the pose, so he has some funny stuff."

The pose Pickett is referring to is a humorous picture of Pickens from the night he was drafted, looking at the TV with the ski mask on at home, minus the flashy draft day suit he had ready if he was taken in the first round, but instead just a chill outfit he settled for when he was taken in the second round. 

While some call him a human highlight film, he is basically more of a human meme.

"That's it. That is more what I feel like," said Pickens. "I feel like I am a walking meme more than highlights. That is all fun and games.

"That just shows the sense of humor I have, the fun I like to have. I enjoy it all. It's fun."

And fun is what Pickens is having.

"I love playing football a lot. It's just fun to me," said Pickens. "Getting the coaching from the coaches. The players helping you with stuff. The camaraderie of it is what I love. Everybody is together. I feel like if football was a one-on-one game and not about team, I wouldn't like it as much. Since it's a team game, I love it a lot."