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Tomlin, Steelers sticking with Pickett against Bills

Mike Tomlin isn't playing any games this week when it comes to who will be the Steelers' starting quarterback when they travel to Buffalo to take on the Bills Sunday.

Tomlin announced Tuesday at his press conference here at the UPMC-Rooney Sports Complex that Kenny Pickett will make his first career start against the Bills, with former starter Mitch Trubisky moving into the No. 2 role.

Pickett, the Steelers' first-round draft pick in this year's draft, replaced Trubisky at halftime of the team's 24-20 loss last Sunday to the New York Jets. And Tomlin felt sticking with Pickett was the right move to make moving forward.

"Kenny will start this week," Tomlin said. "We made the change. Obviously, Mitch's performance was a component of the decision, but not the only component of the decision. I just want to be really clear there. Oftentimes, the quarterback position gets too much credit, too much blame. We haven't moved the ball fluidly enough to our liking. We hadn't put enough points on the board. The quarterback is a component of that, but not the only component.

"We've all got to absorb the responsibility for what we haven't done, particularly in that phase, including myself and starting with myself. When you make a quarterback change, you're really sensitive to that component of it, because I don't want to dump the responsibility of what transpired at Mitch's feet. That's not fair to him. He's played better than that description. But we haven't. So in an effort to be better, an effort to score more points, an effort to move the ball more fluidly, we decided to go to Kenny in hopes that he would provide a spark for us. We felt that, not only in terms of our ability to move the ball, but in terms of energy."

Pickett, a Pitt product who was the 20th pick in this year's draft, completed 10 of 13 passes for 120 yards and led a pair of scoring drives for the Steelers (1-3) in the second half against the Jets. He ran for two touchdowns, becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to have a pair of rushing touchdowns in his first career game. But three of his passes were intercepted, including a Hail Mary attempt at the end of regulation after the Steelers had seen a 20-10 lead turn into a 24-20 deficit.

"I thought he provided a spark for us," Tomlin said of Pickett. "I thought we moved it more fluidly. I thought we put some points on the board. Obviously, it wasn't a perfect half. We turned the ball over some. You can't do that. He's a young guy. He's going to grow throughout this process. But make no mistake about it, we're not grading him on a curve. He's not grading himself on a curve. There's an expectation of quality play and playing to win."

Tomlin feels at ease with the transition to Pickett given how he's handled things to this point.

Pickett started the team's offseason program third on the depth chart behind Trubisky and long-term backup Mason Rudolph, but moved past Rudolph in the preseason. This is the next step in the 24-year-old rookie's career path.

"Kenny has shown us maturity at every point throughout this process," Tomlin said. "He's older than most rookies. That was obviously discussed leading up to the draft process. There are things that we valued about him during the draft process, fluid and quick decision making, pro-like anticipation have proven to be true. That's why we took him when we were given the opportunity to do so. 

"Since then, he's done nothing but fortify that thought process and make some plays during team development and during the preseason. He's continually gotten better since the season started. Those of us who are here from day to day from a practice standpoint see the progress and, equally as important, see his mature and professional approach to readiness."

Trubisky was signed to a two-year contract in the offseason prior to the selection of Pickett in the draft and was named the team's starting quarterback coming out of training camp. He had completed 59.5 percent of his passes for 653 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions while also rushing for a score in his first four starts.

Trubisky took the news he would no longer be the team's starting quarterback hard, according to Tomlin, but that was to be expected. 

"He's a competitor. He's a professional. He's a hard and diligent worker," Tomlin said. "He wants to be a positive contributor to our efforts and the reason why we're successful. The change doesn't afford him the opportunity to do those things. So, it's something to absorb. We respect it, the same way we respect some of the things Mason Rudolph has gone through in this process, where he used to be a backup and he's No. 3 to this point. 

"Whenever you're working as a collective, oftentimes there are setbacks for individuals within the collective as you pursue what we all need. Being a part of a team, we all understand that. At the same time, you don't want to discount it or be insensitive because we're in it. We're sensitive to the situation Mitch is in."

But, the expectation is that Trubisky will be available to Pickett to help him throughout the process of now being a starter. Trubisky will still serve as a team captain – a position he was voted to by his teammates earlier this season – and will serve as the team's No. 2 quarterback.

The Steelers also expect that he'll provide some inside information on the Bills this week. Trubisky served as the backup in Buffalo last season after spending his first four seasons as a starter for the Chicago Bears.

"I'm sure Mitch is going to be a professional," Tomlin said. "Mitch has been a part of that program in Buffalo. I'm sure he's going to be a positive contributor to our readiness and add some awesome insight to our preparedness and be a big help to Kenny."

The expectation for Tomlin with this move to Pickett is that it will be a long-term situation. And as such, the team has no restrictions on the rookie.

Pickett will be expected to run the offense. And, perhaps more importantly, he'll be expected to be a reason why the Steelers turn things around from their 1-3 start.

"Hopefully that's a catalyst for us as we move forward and try to change the outcome of some of these games. Our business is winning and we've lost three games in a row. We've got a formidable opponent this week. There are a lot of things to be excited about, a lot of things to have urgency regarding. That's just a component of it," Tomlin said.

"We have no reservations about what Kenny is going to be capable of in terms of our schematics. Obviously, we have a level of concern about the environment we're taking him into, but you have a level of concern about any quarterback you take into that environment versus that defense in that venue."

Challenge of containing Allen: The Steelers injury report isn't a pretty one on the defensive side of the ball, especially when it comes to the secondary. Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon is expected to miss his second straight game. Strong safety Terrell Edmunds is in the concussion protocol. Free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick suffered a knee injury against the Jets. Cornerback Cameron Sutton has a groin and hamstring injury following the Jets game.

On top of that defensive tackle Cameron Heyward has an elbow and ankle injury and linebacker T.J. Watt remains on the Reserve/Injured list.

Timing for an injury list such as that is never good, but when you are facing Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen, you need every healthy body you can get.

The Bills have the AFC's top offense, second in passing in the conference, and Allen is the leader who has gotten them to that point.

"You better deal with Josh Allen and his unique skill set," said Tomlin. "He's an elite passer. He's an elite runner, or creator. It's challenging. It's simple mathematics. They've got some receivers like (Stefon) Diggs that require attention that could mean two people, whether it's zone or man schematically. Any time you're facing a quarterback like Josh, oftentimes it means five rushers, so do the math. When you've got that type of talent on the perimeter, you've got that type of talent in the pocket at quarterback, it makes defense challenging.

"You wish you could utilize 12 or 13. We don't, so we've got to be thoughtful about how we deploy our 11. We've got to change some things up. We've got to keep them off balance. We've got to know what it is we're doing. If we're out of place, there's going to be consequences for it. That's just the reality of it."

Allen can hurt a defense with his arm, but also with his feet. He leads the Bills with 183 yards rushing through four games, including two rushing touchdowns.

It's also his ability to escape the rush, using his mobility to get out of the pocket, and make plays when a defense thinks they have him stopped or contained.

How do you defend against that?

"Build a fence," quipped Tomlin. "Those are his talents. It's just like trying to tackle (Ravens quarterback) Lamar Jackson. I was watching them on the other side of the ball trying to deal with Lamar. When you're dealing with guys at the quarterback position that have arm and leg talent, it's challenging. So, you can coach all you want about near leg, and building a fence and those things, but when they get you in one-on-one circumstances, they're going to win a lot of those. They've been winning a lot of those at every level they've ever played at since little league."

Becoming a pattern: Gunner Olszewski has put the ball on the ground twice this season in the punt game, and for Coach Mike Tomlin, that's two times too many.

Tomlin was asked point blank what his confidence level is in his return specialist, signed as an unrestricted free agent this offseason, and he didn't hold back.

"Not very high to be quite honest with you," said Tomlin. "You can't put two balls on the ground in four games and feel good about it. Two is a pattern in the National Football League. We say that often. We say that about runners and ball security. Whether it's four games, or eight games, or 12 games. Two in our business is a pattern."

Olszewski muffed a punt in the third quarter against the New England Patriots when the ball hit him in the face, and he wasn't able to cleanly catch it, and the Patriots recovered. That, coupled with an unnecessary roughness penalty on Connor Heyward on the same play, gave the Patriots the ball at the Steelers 10-yard line. The Patriots made them pay when Damien Harris scored on a two-yard run.

Against the New York Jets, Olszewski fumbled a third quarter punt, but the Steelers were luckier this time when James Pierre recovered it and they kept possession.

Tomlin isn't afraid to look at the options this week, which includes receiver Steven Sims, who has been on the inactive list the first four weeks of the season.

"We've got some work there this week and some decisions to make," said Tomlin. "He's (Olszewski) got to get us to a level of comfort, and we'll look at some other options as well."

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