Pickett’s patience, poise help fuel Steelers’ late surge

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Technically, Pittsburgh Steelers rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett’s middle name is Shane.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, however, appeared to give Pickett a new middle moniker in the giddy aftermath of Pickett’s last-minute game-winning touchdown pass to Najee Harris on Baltimore last Sunday that kept Pittsburgh’s slim playoff hopes alive.

Cameras caught Tomlin emphatically saying his own altered — if not exactly family-friendly version — of Pickett’s full name as the 20th overall pick in last spring’s draft made his way to the sideline in the giddy aftermath.

Pickett laughed when asked about it on Wednesday after being the team’s Rookie of the Year, the latest twist in a long and eventful season for Pickett and the Steelers both.

“If you make good plays (he says it like that),” Pickett said. “I think it depends on the play that you made too. So it was a good play and a big-time moment. He talked about the weighty moments. Coach is passionate. You love that out of your coach.”

And Tomlin wants that out of Pickett. It’s one of the reasons Tomlin was one of Pickett’s most ardent supporters during the pre-draft process.

While Pickett didn’t blow scouts away with any one specific skillset, there’s a quiet swagger about him that’s long been apparent to Tomlin, who watched Pickett’s metronome-like growth during his five seasons playing next door at the University of Pittsburgh.

Still, Tomlin was careful not to overburden Pickett in the opening months of his career. Tomlin brought Pickett along slowly. He started organized team activities in May as the third stringer, moved up to the second team at the end of training camp and eventually replaced Mitch Trubisky at halftime of what became a loss to the New York Jets on Oct. 2.

Pickett threw three interceptions in one half of work that afternoon then added five more over his next four starts, three of them losses. Rather than chastise Pickett for pressing, Tomlin preached patience.

It’s paid off with steady if not always spectacular play over the past two months as the Steelers have emerged from the rubble of a 2-6 start to enter Sunday’s regular-season finale against Cleveland at 8-8 with an outside shot at making the playoffs.

The mistakes that cropped up consistently during those sometimes frantic opening games have largely vanished. Pickett has just one interception over his past seven starts and is rarely putting the ball in harm’s way. The Steelers, by the way, are 5-2 over that span.

“I think it’s reasonable to expect a sharp, hardworking, talented guy to get better with each exposure,” Tomlin said, “and particularly to do so rapidly at the initial stages of gaining experience.”

While there remains much work to be done, particularly when it comes to turning long drives into touchdowns, Pickett has been every bit the mature, nearly finished final product the Steelers were expecting when they tasked him as essentially being the heir apparent to Ben Roethlisberger.

Pickett did his best to stay out of the way early in the season while Trubisky struggled, at one point declining interview requests because he didn’t want to create a distraction of any kind.

While he understands the spotlight his position brings, he also knows he’s still a rookie on a team laden with veteran voices, particularly on defense.

So Pickett has made it a point to lead quietly and not get too far ahead of himself. In that way, he is cut from the same mold as Tomlin, whose demeanor never changed during those rocky opening months as Pickett learned on the fly and the losses piled up.

“His sense of urgency is always there,” Pickett said of Tomlin. “His passion for the game. His energy at 6 in the morning when he walks in the building every single day is the same no matter what the record is.”

In that way, Tomlin may have found a perfect avatar of his own leadership sensibilities in Pickett.

Sixteen years after arriving in Pittsburgh as a relative unknown, Tomlin now has a quarterback who followed a similarly low-key path to the Steelers. Close your eyes and listen to Pickett talk. At times he sounds an awful lot like his boss.

“I want to be that guy that these guys can rely on and they know exactly what they’re getting every day,” Pickett said. “So I’m going to continue to work on that.”

It’s one of the reasons Pickett doesn’t believe in big rah-rah speeches when things get tight. The way he figures it, it’s their job to deliver when it matters. So no need to get amped up. It’s better to just go out there and go to work.

“I just think Kenny has shown that confidence all year,” center Mason Cole said. “He’s been calm, cool and collected. … There’s just never been any doubt.”

The Steelers need to beat Cleveland and get a fair amount of luck to sneak into the postseason. Yet they have steadily improved over the second half thanks in large part to an offense that doesn’t have a skill position player over 26 and is led by a quarterback getting more comfortable with seemingly every snap.

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” Pickett said. “I like the way that I am trending. I like the way that I’m improving … I’m going to continue to improve every week and just be the best player I can be and try to get to that final result as fast as possible.”

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