PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Steelers have spent most of the past two-plus months asking rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett to simply not lose games.
His marching orders from coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Matt Canada were simple.
Take care of the ball. Make the right read. Play it safe. Don't screw things up for a defense that — when right — is one of the better ones in the league.
The next step in Pickett's evolution began with 2:55 to go in the game on Christmas Eve against Las Vegas.
Trailing by four, the Steelers needed a touchdown, something the offense hadn't produced during three nearly frigid hours.
No matter. Over the next 10 snaps, Pickett offered the first true glimpse of what the Steelers (7-8) hope he can become.
Facing a Las Vegas defense that suddenly seemed to forget it was only up by one score, not two, Pickett guided Pittsburgh 76 yards. The last 14 came on a perfectly executed strike to the end zone to George Pickens, who split two defenders and turned around at about the time Pickett's dart hit him in the gut for the winning score i n a 13-10 victory that kept the Steelers' faint postseason hopes alive.
Besides the “feel good” vibes the play produced on a night Pittsburgh said goodbye to franchise icon Franco Harris — the Hall of Fame running back died last week at 72 just days before the team retired his No. 32 during an emotional halftime ceremony — it also offered tangible proof that Pickett can be not just a caretaker, but a potential difference-maker when things get tight.
While technically not his first fourth-quarter comeback — that came in November when Pittsburgh entered the final frame trailing Indianapolis by a point in what became a 24-17 win — Saturday night's performance looked and felt different.
“Make no mistake about it, it was a significant game, but it’s probably just a significant game because so many of our guys are young and they stood up," Tomlin said. “And it was a growth outing probably more than anything.”
A loss would have eliminated the Steelers from playoff contention. Instead, Pittsburgh heads to Baltimore (10-5) on New Year's night with something still to play for, a scenario that seemed far-fetched the day before Halloween, when Philadelphia put on a clinic in a 35-13 romp that dropped the Steelers to 2-6.
They have won five of seven since, with the two losses coming by a combined nine points to Cincinnati and the Ravens. While the growing pains have been highly visible at times, Pittsburgh has stuck with the plan. So has Pickett, whose maturity is one of the reasons the Steelers were so drawn to him in the first place.
That's why there was no ‘rah-rah’ speech in the huddle before the last drive. Pickett would prefer to save the emotion for later while there was still work to be done.
“I don’t really think too much about winning guys over,” he said. “I think my preparation throughout the week, how hard I play, I hope their opinions are on the brighter side based off that. We all have a really good relationship. We all believe in each other.”
Whatever tweaks were made to the run defense after the Steelers were mauled up front by the Ravens earlier this month are working. A week after limiting Carolina to just 21 yards on the ground, Pittsburgh held Raiders star Josh Jacobs — the league's leading rusher — to 57 yards, though Las Vegas also curiously only gave it to him 10 times.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Scoring touchdowns continues to be a tough ask, the late march aside. With kicker Chris Boswell having an uncharacteristically off year — he's now missed seven field goals this season, the same number he missed from 2019-21 combined — Pickett needs to get the ball in the end zone more.
Outside linebacker Alex Highsmith was a surprising Pro Bowl snub considering his production. Highsmith got his 12th sack of the season against the Raiders, the most by a Steelers linebacker not named T.J. Watt since LaMarr Woodley had 13 1/2 in 2009.
Safety Terrell Edmunds is having a solid season after returning to the Steelers on a one-year “prove it” deal last spring after he languished in free agency. Even though he didn't play against the Raiders because of a hamstring injury, he still found a way to make an impact. Just not the one he wanted. Edmunds received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for running onto the field to celebrate Cam Sutton's late interception.
CB Tre Norwood is dealing with a hamstring injury. LB Marcus Allen injured his bicep.
0 — the number of Steelers who will wear No. 32 again after Pittsburgh's long-overdue decision to honor one of the pillars of their Super Steelers dynasty of the 1970s. Might be time to do Terry Bradshaw next.
Try to stay in the playoff race and exact a bit of revenge at the same time when they visit the Ravens next week. Baltimore's 16-14 win on Dec. 11 was built on a running game that piled up 215 yards on the ground.
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