Steelers rookie QB Kenny Pickett embracing leadership role

PITTSBURGH -- Down more than 30 points in the fourth quarter in Buffalo, Kenny Pickett wasn't ready to stop fighting.

That's why when he felt Bills defender Shaq Lawson went after his knees on a low tackle, Pickett shoved Lawson and made it clear he wasn't happy with the hit.

In that moment, Pickett reaffirmed to the offense what many already knew about the rookie quarterback: Kenny Pickett doesn't give up.

"It shows that he cares," offensive lineman James Daniels said. "Even when it was out of hand, he still approached it like it was a tied game or one-score game. Sometimes you don't see that from people, you see people not trying. But the way how he approached it, I mean, it was like we were in it."

It's that mentality that makes Pickett the right leader for the Pittsburgh Steelers' current predicament. After a wild Week 1 win in Cincinnati, the Steelers have lost four consecutive games with a date at home against Tom Brady the Buccaneers on Sunday. It doesn't get any easier after that, with road games at Miami and at Philadelphia on the horizon before the Week 9 bye.

"There's no finger pointing," Pickett said after the loss in Buffalo. "I have to take a lot of ownership of this. I'm the quarterback of the team. They drafted me in the first round for a reason, to go out there and play. So, I was ready to go once they drafted me. I wanted to be the guy. There's a lot of things that come with that. And I think the way I work and how much effort and time I put in with these guys, I think the respect is there. So, when I'm talking to guys, there's no disrespect, there's no calling anybody out, you know, we all want to win. So that's something that we've got to continue to work towards. The road doesn't get easier, so it's got to get fixed quickly."

The offense has been dismal, putting up just three points against the Bills after recurring red zone and third-down failures, and through five games, the Steelers wide receivers have yet to catch a touchdown pass.

But in the midst of a disappointing and frustrating start, Pickett is ready to lead the locker room and get everyone on the same page. It's a big part of the reason Mike Tomlin inserted the rookie at halftime of the Week 4 loss to the New York Jets.

"Since the time we stepped into the first preseason stadium, I've seen nothing but a rapid ascent in his capabilities, his professionalism, his mindset, what he brings to us," Tomlin said Tuesday. "I just think it's reasonable to expect that to continue, regardless of how rough the waters are."

In his first start, Pickett completed 32 of 54 attempts for 327 passing yards, averaging 6.3 yards per attempt. He also recorded at least three passes of more than 20 yards downfield. But the team was 5-of-15 on third down and 0-of-3 on fourth, and Pittsburgh didn't score a touchdown in any of four red zone trips.

"I'm a young guy still, but at the end of the day, it's my job to lead the offense, and I fully embrace it," Pickett said Wednesday. "It's just unacceptable how we played last game. The standard has to be raised. We have to hold ourselves to a higher standard. It really starts in practice. We need better practice habits that'll translate over."

Pickett said Wednesday that he was more comfortable working with his receivers than even a week ago as he prepared to make his first start. Praised for his command in the huddle by teammates, Pickett continued to demand the best from his unit in practice, being vocal about getting game-speed reps with his primary receiving targets to accelerate their preparation.

"There's certain plays you're probably going to get a certain look where you want to get that rep in practice, and that's something that I definitely try to communicate to the guys, like, 'Hey, you know, I'm looking at you first here, let's get a full-speed rep at it, so the first time we get it's not in a game," Pickett said. "I missed so much time not getting any reps at all with the twos and not getting any reps in camp really with the one. Now that I have the opportunity to do that, it's something I want to keep taking advantage of and practice."

Although Pickett is a rookie -- albeit an older one at 24 -- his teammates still believe in his ability to unite the team.

"Kenny's young, but the guys want to play for him," center Mason Cole said. "When he's in the huddle, and he's commanding the huddle, I think everyone's doing everything they can to help Kenny, whether that's running the right routes, right blocking assignments, finishing plays, everyone's trying to do everything they can, because we believe in Kenny, we trust in Kenny and we're going to keep doing that, and we're going to find a way to get these wins and get back on the right track."

But both Pickett and running back Najee Harris acknowledged that although Pickett should be -- and is -- a leader, it's going to take more than just one person to right the ship.

"This is a team sport," Harris said Wednesday. "We need all 11. The quarterback, just, position is really important, and you want your quarterback to do that. But look, we're not sitting here at a good spot. We need to find a way where we can turn around, and all of us needs to play better. We need to find energy within each other, not just one person."