As Kenny Pickett limped off the field in the second half of the Steelers' 30-6 loss last Sunday to the Houston Texans, many feared the worst for the second-year quarterback.
But testing on Monday revealed Pickett had suffered only a bone bruise against the Texans and could return to play Sunday at Acrisure Stadium when the Steelers (2-2) host the Baltimore Ravens according to head coach Mike Tomlin.
"He's scheduled to participate in some level of participation (Wednesday) and then proceed from there," Tomlin said Tuesday at his weekly press conference at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. "Obviously his functionality and comfort will be our guide. The more functional and more comfortable he is, the more work he'll get. And then as we push forward towards the game, the quality of his work will be a determining factor on his availability. A quarterback is no different than any other position with young players. They need to inhale the perspective on preparation. He knows and understands that he's prepared to practice."
Pickett was injured on a pass on fourth-and-1 in the third quarter when he rolled into a sack by Houston defensive end Jonathan Greenard. Pickett tried to twist away from the sack and Greenard landed on the quarterback's knee.
He finished the game 15 of 23 for 114 yards with an interception before being replaced by veteran backup Mitch Trubisky.
If Pickett is unable to play on Sunday, Trubisky would get the start against the Ravens (3-1).
One thing that could make things difficult for Pickett is that the Steelers will have to balance his snaps with also getting Trubisky prepared to play if Pickett is unable to go.
"We'll have a brief meeting (Wednesday) morning at some point before we get on the field to kind of see what our baseline is," Tomlin said. "But I'll ask him not to be selfish. I want to get an exposure to where he is without robbing the other guys, potentially of preparation and then as we get into it, his functionality, the quality of his play, how he feels will be a determining factor, not only tomorrow, but how we proceed throughout the week."
One thing for certain, whoever does play quarterback for the Steelers will be without two of their top targets in the passing game, along with the team's starting left tackle.
Tomlin said left tackle Dan Moore Jr. (knee) will not play against the Ravens, while tight end Pat Freiermuth (hamstring) is doubtful. The Steelers have already been without leading receiver Diontae Johnson (hamstring) since Week 1. Johnson remains on injured reserve, but is eligible to return following Sunday's game.
Freiermuth suffered his hamstring issue early in the third quarter while attempting to make a cut. He immediately reached for his hamstring and went down on the field. Rookie Darnell Washington and second-year tight end Connor Heyward split time in Freiermuth's stead, but the Steelers did not run any plays with two tight ends on the field at the same time following his injury.
Moore was injured on the Steelers' opening possession of the game and did not return. Rookie Broderick Jones, the Steelers' first-round draft pick, took his place and played the remainder of the game.
Tomlin said the lack of availability of Freiermuth and Moore affected the team's play calling in short-yardage packages, which prompted the team to attempt a pass on the fourth-and-1 call on which Pickett was injured.
"We lost a lot of short-yardage personality because of Dan Moore and Pat Freimuth. We lost all our big packages," Tomlin said. "Broderick Jones was already on the field, and so we probably had to get out of our intended box in that circumstance because of lack of player availability at that point in the game.
"But such as life. This is the National Football League. There's not 100 guys standing on the sideline, there's an attrition component to play and it's born in matchups and is born out in decision making. And that's one instance where we were in less than ideal circumstances because of lack of player availability."
The Steelers also could be without defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal Sunday against the Ravens. Leal left the game in the second half to be evaluated for a concussion and was placed into the protocol.
Punter Pressley Harvin (hamstring) and right guard James Daniels (groin) both missed the loss to the Texans. The team will continue to monitor their recoveries this week, though Tomlin sounded optimistic regarding a potential return for at least Daniels.
"He's looking much better with his groin injury," Tomlin said. "He'll probably participate at some level and we'll get to the amount of their participation and the quality of their participation be our guide in terms of his game-day availability."
With Harvin and Daniels out last week, Brad Wing, signed to the practice squad last week, handled the putin duties against the Texans, while Nate Herbig started at right guard.
Let's get physical: If there is one work that could sum up much of what Coach Mike Tomlin pointed to as the lack of success against the Houston Texans last week, it's this.
Tomlin said the Texans were the more physical team on Sunday, leading to the 30-6 loss.
"There were several things that were very disappointing about the game," said Tomlin. "I think chief among them was the fact that Houston, we thought, was more physical than us and played harder than us. And that's something that's got to change immediately. I felt that in stadium, I expressed that after the game. And so, we've got to look at what we're doing in an effort to make sure that that doesn't reoccur."
Tomlin mentioned multiple times the need to practice in pads this week, something the team didn't do last week coming off a Monday night game the week before, and a Sunday night game where their flight had issues and didn't arrive back in Pittsburgh until Monday afternoon.
"In terms of the structure of preparation, it makes us look at our practice attire," said Tomlin. "The last couple of weeks, due to a variety of circumstances, short weeks because of Monday Night Football, short weeks because of travel adjustments, etcetera. We've been in helmets in preparation, and I think the start of that game, us warming up to the physicality component of it, probably had something to do, particularly at the early stages of the season, in terms of development and fundamental development, practicing in helmets. I thought they had better pad level, particularly early in the football game on both sides. I just thought that was a catalyst in terms of how this game got started. We chose to defer in an effort to start fast. They had a 15-play drive. Within that drive, we had them in second and long several times. I didn't think we played really good in second and long circumstances. But again, I think a lot of it has to do just generally with physicality.
"We warmed up to the physicality component of play and you can't do it. If you do it, you spot people 13, 16 points. You're running on the beach at that juncture. And that's what the game felt like for us."
There is a limit to padded practices in season by a team, and Tomlin knows it's a balancing act as well when dealing with injuries and the like. But he also knows, going against the Baltimore Ravens this week, being physical is a must.
"The physicality component of it is something that has our attention, particularly as we prepare to get ready for the Baltimore Ravens game," said Tomlin. "Those of us who've been in this game, we understand what that's about it.
"Largely, there are a lot of things that that we've got to do better in. But the physicality component is something worth mentioning because we can not compromise on that. We're still very much a group in development in terms of division of labor and rhythm and things that we do extremely well. And so, we're still working and developing in those areas, probably took a step back in some of those areas. But that's less significant really, to be quite honest with you, than the physicality component. We probably took a step back because of the lack of physicality."
While the defense didn't allow any big runs in the manner they did in previous weeks, they still allowed the Texans to put up 139 yards rushing.
"If you look at the run game specifically, there wasn't a breakout run from a defensive perspective that maybe there was in Cleveland or San Fran, but they had a successful run game nonetheless because the pile fell forward," said Tomlin. "And that's what I'm talking about when I'm talking about the impact of a day in pads, what it could provide us, and we better take full advantage of it in preparation this week. We had the pads level down. We had to come off of blocks. We can't trade one for one. That's how you stop the pile from falling in the wrong direction. You play with really good pad level, you come off blocks and those things can be borne out of muscle memory through team preparation, particularly at the early stages in the year."
Tomlin likes to put the players in pads early in the season, but knew with the circumstances the timing might not have been right. That is changing this week.
"We're excited about a normal week, if you will," said Tomlin. "From that standpoint, we better utilize it. We better carry our pads tomorrow and we better make good use of that, particularly because of who we're playing."
Making progress: Rookie cornerback Joey Porter Jr., the team's second-round pick out of Penn State, was seeing his snap count increase through the first few weeks of the season.
Against the Texans it dipped from the previous week, but Coach Mike Tomlin is seeing progress from Porter.
"I think the trajectory of his practice has been really good and I think his play reflects that," said Tomlin. "I think he's had an opportunity in recent weeks to really develop more components of his game."
Porter is currently backing up veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson. Peterson is normally given a veteran day off on Wednesdays for rest and recovery, which allows Porter to get more snaps with starting defense.
And it's paying dividends.
"We give Pat Wednesdays off. He's a veteran corner and that serves him from a physical standpoint," said Tomlin. "He doesn't require as many physical reps in an effort to be ready to play. But more importantly, it provides physical reps for a guy like Joey in all circumstances. He's been playing in one-dimensional passing circumstances, two-minute, third down. Things of that nature.
"Wednesday is a big day for him when we rest Pat, and he gets an opportunity to work first and second down football and work the totality or the base of the installation. He's been doing a really good job with that in recent weeks. We're getting really comfortable with some of the things that we're seeing from him across all circumstances.
"He's positioned himself to be more of a factor moving forward for sure."