Despite a solid performance by Mitch Trubisky in last Sunday's 24-16 win over the Carolina Panthers, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin didn't mince any words when it came to who would be his team's starting quarterback moving forward.
With rookie Kenny Pickett now essentially cleared through the NFL concussion protocols, he will start for the Steelers (6-8) Saturday when they host the Las Vegas Raiders (6-8) in a game that will mark the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception.
Pickett, who suffered the concussion in the first quarter of a 16-14 loss to the Baltimore Ravens two weeks ago, would have been a full participant in practice had the team done so on Tuesday. And the plan is for him to get full practices in on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
"The concussion component of where he is (at) is behind us. I think he's got to check a box procedurally," Tomlin said. "But if we were to practice today, he would be a full participant."
That said, Tomlin was appreciative of the efforts of Trubisky in Pickett's absence.
The veteran completed 17 of 22 passes for 179 yards and rushed for a touchdown against the Panthers as the Steelers converted 12 of 16 third-down opportunities.
In three games now in which he has stepped in for Pickett, he has completed 75 percent of his passes for 599 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions, all of which came in that loss to the Ravens. He posted a 94.5 passer rating overall.
"He did a really good job of taking care of the ball and playing within the game-planned approach that we had prescribed for that opponent," Tomlin said of Trubisky's performance against the Panthers. "He should be congratulated for that."
But Pickett, the Steelers' first-round pick in this year's draft, is obviously the team's starter. He had completed 65 percent of his passes this season for 1,795 yards with four touchdown passes and eight interceptions while also running for 225 yards and three touchdowns in 10 games, nine of which were starts.
Tomlin wants to get Pickett as many opportunities to play as he can, though he did acknowledge there could have been some minor things to learn for a young quarterback taking a step back and watching Trubisky last week.
"My preference is to play and gain the experience associated with the in-helmet perspective of competing," Tomlin said. "I just think where he is in his career, that's the No. 1 ingredient to get better. But I'm sure there are some (things learned)."
For the Steelers this week, Saturday's game will be an opportunity to learn a little more about Pickett. Though he played his college football at Pitt, the Panthers didn't play any games in the kind of weather the Steelers and Raiders are expected to compete in at Acrisure Stadium.
Temperatures are expected to be in single digits Saturday night, potentially making it one of the coldest games not only for Pickett, but in Acrisure Stadium history.
That's why when Pickett and the Steelers do practice this week, Tomlin will likely have them working outside – as long as heavy rain is not a factor.
"We've got to be an all-weather group," Tomlin said. "I think that everybody that lives here and plays here understands and embraces that. That's one of the reasons why we continually take the approach we take.
"Whenever we get an opportunity to work in less-than-ideal weather conditions, it's always our attitude to work in less-than-ideal weather conditions in an effort to gain exposure and experience."
An Immaculate feeling: The Steelers are celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Immaculate Reception this week, and the significance of that isn't lost on today's players and coaches.
The official anniversary is on Friday, Dec. 23, the date the Steelers beat the Raiders in the AFC Divisional Playoff Game in 1972 thanks to Franco Harris' Immaculate Reception. On Saturday, Dec. 24, the celebration will continue when the Steelers host the Raiders at Acrisure Stadium and Harris' No. 32 jersey is retired.
"It's just one of those beautiful things in the history of our game," said Tomlin. "It's humbling to be in close proximity to it, to work for this organization, to understand its impact on this organization, the career that it spawned, Franco's Gold Jacket career. What it did for them that season in terms of changing the trajectory of that season. What it's done for this franchise.
"There are many things that make it the play that it is and the most significant play in the history of our game. It's just an honor to be in proximity to it. To know the man involved. To call Pittsburgh home. It's awesome to be a part of and to witness.
"But at the same time, we understand that we've got business, we got present day business and the best way we can honor him and that is by performing and so we're going to work extremely hard to prepare ourselves leading up to it."
While none of the current Steelers roster was born when the play happened, it doesn't mean they aren't familiar with the play that helped frame what the Steelers would become.
Tomlin said many have learned about it from YouTube and have a true understanding of what it was all about and its impact.
"That's the funny thing about this generation of men," said Tomlin. "You can give them oral history. You can tell them a story. And you can be really colorful in your delivery. And all the while they're looking at their handheld, confirming it.
"They're aware. They're aware of Franco, they're aware of the Immaculate Reception. They're aware of the significance of it. I just think that they're aware of a lot of things that we think they aren't because of their exposure to information and how readily available that information is."
Tomlin and Harris have a close relationship, one that isn't because of what Harris did on the field, but what he has done since he finished playing.
"He's just a special man," said Tomlin. "Forget the player. Obviously, I never knew the player. I know the man. Just what an awesome representation of this organization, this community, a guy that embraces all the responsibility that comes with being him. I just admire his passion for Pittsburgh and young people. He served a long time on the board with my wife at the Pittsburgh Promise and his passion for others and this place, the Steelers, is unparalleled and is to be admired."
Coming together: The Steelers offensive line is one unit Tomlin has said all season is a group that is growing, a group that is developing as they play together.
And as they head into Week 16 of the season, it's a group that is playing their best football right now.
They have gelled as a unit, and as Tomlin said, "Their arrow is pointed up."
"I think it's reflective of the collective," said Tomlin. "They're doing a better job of communicating. The time that they spend together. I see them working hard at the things that you can't measure, the intangible qualities that makes a group a group.
"They spend time together formally, informally. They're legitimately close. I think it helps that many of them are at similar stages in life and so they've got some similar experiences and responsibilities. Nobody's got a bunch of car seats in the back of their car and those type of things. They're young men that are evolving as players and doing so together. I just think it's helpful when you we have community in that."