With his seven interceptions now in 13 quarters, Steelers rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett is going through some of the growing pains associated with learning on the job in the NFL.
It was one of the reasons Mike Tomlin initially went with veteran Mitch Trubisky to open the season at quarterback. He wanted to minimize turnovers with the more veteran quarterback while giving Pickett a chance to learn at his own pace.
Tomlin obviously isn't happy with the turnovers Pickett has produced, including three in a 16-10 loss last Sunday night against the Dolphins, but he also doesn't want to limit the aggressiveness of his young quarterback, either.
"I'm not overly communicating those situations. He's playing and playing to win," Tomlin said Tuesday at his weekly press conference at the UPMC-Rooney Sports Complex. "There's some things to be learned, but they're not producing unusual conversations between he and I regarding that.
"We've got to take care of the ball every week. That's our mindset. In terms of our agenda, our preparedness, our focus, how we develop our plan and his role in it, ball security is a significant component week in and week out."
With the Steelers (2-5) heading to Philadelphia on Sunday to face the Eagles (6-0), the emphasis obviously is on minimizing those miscues.
Some of the interceptions haven't necessarily been his fault. One came on a Hail Mary pass on the final play of a loss to the Jets. His first interception against the Dolphins came when wide receiver Chase Claypool's feet got tangled with those of the defensive back covering him, causing Claypool to fall down.
The final two on Sunday came after Pickett had led the Steelers down the field in the closing moments of the game, only to get picked off in the red zone.
So, it's a fine line to walk for the Steelers. Tomlin likes the fact Pickett was able to get the offense into position to potentially win the game. But he'd also like to see his young quarterback take care of the football in those situations.
"He is a fish in water. It's a natural act for him. He is a competitor. He's got a thirst for it," Tomlin said. "It's been fun being in those circumstances. Obviously, we'd like the outcomes to be different. But communicating with him professionally, watching him operate, watching his demeanor, his approach to those circumstances is exciting and refreshing."
As long as Pickett continues to grow from these situations. Obviously, the Steelers would like to win those games while Pickett learns, as well. But young quarterbacks struggling with things, at times, in the NFL is nothing new.
For example, Jacksonville's Trevor Lawrence, the top pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, tied for the league lead last season with 17 interceptions. And though it was a different era, Terry Bradshaw threw five interceptions in his first three starts with the Steelers in 1970 and 12 in his first six games.
That certainly doesn't excuse those mistakes. But they're also magnified when the Steelers defense doesn't get any turnovers of its own and the team is struggling to put points on the board as a whole. The Steelers have now failed to score more than 20 points in six of their seven games this season and have 20 or more points in just 8 of 24 games over the past two seasons.
Some of that could be solved by creating more splash plays, something that has been lacking, regardless of who is at quarterback.
- Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast
The Steelers have just one passing play of 40 or more yards this season after creating just nine such plays in 2021. Only the Arizona Cardinals, with none, have created fewer 40-yard passing plays than the Steelers this season.
Tomlin feels those will come as Pickett becomes more comfortable working with the team's receivers.
"Keep working. With continuity, it raises your floor. And when you raise your floor, you minimize negativity," Tomlin said. "You increase the potential for positivity. Sometimes, the changes that need to occur aren't significant ones. It's continuing to work and understanding the dam is going to break in terms of the opportunities happening. I know staying on schedule and not being behind the chains is a component of that, as well."
Putting more points on the board would eliminate some of the need for late-game heroics.
But the Steelers also don't want to force things. They just want Pickett to take what is given to him and throw to the open receiver – or whom he feels is the open receiver based on what the defense presents.
Accuracy isn't the issue, Pickett's 68.5 completion percentage is fourth-best in the NFL.
"Kind of a catalyst for him moving forward and minimizing negativity is not getting zeroed in on any particular receiver, to take what defenses give him," Tomlin said. "That's why you surround him with quality eligibles, so he has a complete arsenal, and he can make decisions based on what is presented to him. I know that's his and our intentions."
Turnover ratio a factor: The challenge doesn't get any easier for the Steelers this week as they head across the state to take on the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles have the NFL's only perfect record to date, sitting at 6-0 and presenting a challenge on multiple fronts.
The Eagles are ranked fourth overall in the NFL in defense and are tied with the Los Angeles Rams for second-fewest defensive points allowed per game (16.0), trailing only the Buffalo Bills. The defense has held opponents to a 66.0 passer rating this season, lowest in the NFL, and limited opponents to the second-lowest completion percentage (56.8 percent).
An area where they have excelled this season is in turnovers, leading the NFL with a plus-12 turnover ratio, which includes 14 takeaways.
"I see some really tangible reasons why they're undefeated, to be quite honest with you," said Tomlin. "They're plus-12 in the turnover game. They've gotten 14 turnovers on defense. They got corners who are a veteran group. They're highly ball aware. They got good ball skills. They got a front that applies pressure and creates an environment where turnovers happen.
"They're highly ball aware. If you watch their sack reel, their rushers are not only trying to take down the quarterback, but they're trying to take down the ball. They get a lot of sack fumbles because of it. That's a component of it that produces the plus 12."
Another big reason they are winning the turnover game is the Eagles have committed only two turnovers this season. Quarterback Jalen Hurts had completed 123 of 184 pass attempts for 1,514 yards, six touchdowns and only two interceptions through six games.
"They're unbelievably efficient in terms of maintaining possession of the ball and it starts with their quarterback, Jalen Hurts," said Tomlin. "I've just got so much respect for him and the way he plays the position, his intangible quality, his leadership skills, his prudent decision making, his prudent use of mobility at the position. It's all really good and that's why they have very little negativity in their offense. They utilize his mobility schematically in situational moments. It's challenging for the defense on possession downs in a tight red. I think he's got six touchdowns via the ground.
"And so that turnover component and his prudent decision making, his ball security and the ball skills in that secondary are the reasons, significant reasons why they're an undefeated group."
Decision time: When giving his weekly injury update, Tomlin said there was no update on receiver Calvin Austin III, other than it's 'highly unlikely' for him to be available this week against the Eagles.
Austin opened the regular season on the Reserve/Injured List and returned to practice on Oct. 5. At that point the Steelers had a 21-day window to activate him, or he remains on Reserve/Injured for the remainder of the year.
Tomlin didn't say Austin wouldn't be activated by the deadline, saying he hadn't yet asked for an update on his health, but that his development is more the concern for the rookie fourth-round pick who hasn't played a snap in the NFL yet.
"It's early portions of the week. We've been more in the schematics in the game plan and I'm sure I'll get some clarification a little later, maybe even later on today," said Tomlin. "It just hadn't been high priority for me at this juncture. This guy hadn't played in a stadium yet. He hadn't played in a preseason stadium. And so, it's more about development for him. And that's the perspective that I have. I'm just being realistic. Up or down, active or inactive. His overall readiness this weekend is probably not a high probability. I'm just being straightforward."