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Pickett learning through 'trial by fire'

As typically is the case when a team has a rookie quarterback learning on the job, there has been both good and bad with Kenny Pickett.

But despite their 2-6 start to this season, the Steelers have been pleased with the way Pickett has handled some of the adversity thrown at him since head coach Mike Tomlin turned to him a little over a month ago.

The results haven't necessarily been what the Steelers would have wanted. But Pickett has faced a tough gauntlet of teams thus far in the four starts of his career against Buffalo, Philadelphia and Miami on the road and Tampa Bay at home. Those four teams are a combined 21-9 this season, with the Bills and Eagles being a combined 13-1.

Pickett made it through that stretch with his wits still about him, and the Steelers feel he'll be better in the long run for having gone through it, even though they went just 1-3 in those games.

"He's getting a trial by fire. He's being exposed," said Steelers quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan. "He goes on the road there at Buffalo, (seeing) some great defenses, some great pass rushes in Philadelphia. It gives him an opportunity to learn from those circumstances and continue to grow and develop the kind of confidence he already has, but it reinforces that. I don't think there is a downside to it. He's a tough young man and we're expecting big things from him."

The first four games have certainly had their ups and downs. He was intercepted three times in the loss to the Bills. Against the Eagles last week, Pickett was sacked six times, intercepted once and also lost a fumble.

But after playing three of their past four games on the road, the Steelers play five of their final nine games at home.

The Steelers' lone win in Pickett's four starts came at Acrisure Stadium three weeks ago against Tampa Bay. Coming out of their bye, the Steelers have back-to-back home games against the Saints and Bengals.

A pair of home games could be just what the doctor ordered.

But the struggles for Pickett weren't unexpected.

"I think for Kenny, a lot of quarterbacks that have gotten drafted in the first round have come in their first year and it has maybe not been as rosy as everybody has hoped and it's turned out to be really good, right?" Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada said. "There's statistical data to that. That doesn't make it OK right now. We're not all sitting here like, 'Oh, it's fine,' and he's not either. We want him to get better every day. We want that for everybody. Kenny is the quarterback and he's the focal point, but that goes for everybody."

Pickett admitted following the Steelers' 35-13 loss to the Eagles that he and the rest of the offense need to play better. He's taking ownership of what the Steelers, who have fallen to last in the NFL in scoring heading into their bye week, are putting on the field.

"We've been having these problems all year. That has to get changed," Pickett said. "That has to get fixed. We need to look each other in the eyes and get it turned around. We're only going to be able to do it. Coaches can say whatever they want. Everyone else in the media and fans can say what they want. But at the end of the day it's down to us so we have to figure it out."

The Steelers have great faith that Pickett, the only quarterback selected in the first round of this year's draft, will do so.

"The big thing with Kenny has been that no moment has been too big for him," Sullivan said. "He has a competitiveness and fire about him that no matter what the circumstances are, what the score on scoreboard is, maybe how the offense has maybe been having some issues, he's consistently been going out there and competing, trying to win. 

"Also, I'm pleased with his mobility, his ability to extend plays and get first downs. He's been able to make plays with his legs. He hasn't been wide-eyed about any of this."

But there are some things on which Sullivan feels his young quarterback needs to work, as well.

"In terms of the pre-snap and post-snap changes that can occur with some of the coverages, some of the looks, he's made good decisions for the most part," Sullivan said. "But there have been a few instances where defenses will change the look on you, so you're not expecting it to say what you think it's going to say. We'll have a read or progression to one side of the field, or starting a receiver across, etc., and you might have a good indication that, 'I think it's going to be X.' It turns out being Y. Just making that transition is something we'll continue to work on. 

"Some of the shots down the field, we'd like to be able to complete more of those. There's a lot that goes into that. But from our standpoint, having pinpoint accuracy down the field is something we'll continue to work on."

In 165 pass attempts, Pickett has completed nine passes for 20 or more yards. Mitch Trubisky, whom Pickett replaced at halftime of a Week 4 loss to the Jets, had 12 20-yard completions in 128 pass attempts.

Those are more than simply throwing the ball 20 or more yards downfield. Some of those explosive plays comes on catch-and-runs, something Sullivan would like to see more out of Pickett moving forward, as well.

"The more we can try to get guys the opportunity to catch the ball in space, get some of that run after the catch, that's where we see a lot of it," Sullivan said. "Certainly everyone when they think about splash plays, it's those shots down the field. We've come up short on some of those. We've hit a couple of them. I think a lot of the splash plays you see around the league aren't necessarily balls in the air for 25, 35, 45 yards. 

"It's a guy being able to catch the ball without a defender close to him, to use that natural elusiveness, speed and acceleration to create something. That's what we're looking for."

But the Steelers and Sullivan, in particular, feel Pickett has the ability to make those throws.

He just has to trust what he's seeing and let them rip. That is part of the learning process.

"There's going to be a learning curve. It's a big jump from college to the NFL," Sullivan said. "There's no substitute for the reps and the experience and being put into those moments where you're thrown into the fire and then either making those plays, or you step back and look at the tape. And then you're 'Hey, if we had the time machine, if we could go back in time, what would you do different?' 

"We're pleased with the progress he's making. There are no shortcuts, so we're working hard every day."