LATROBE, Pa. -- The very first play of the first team portion of Pittsburgh Steelers training camp had a whiff of giving the people what they want. The post-Ben Roethlisberger Steelers finished a surprisingly competitive 9-8 last season with a very conservative passing game and a power running attack. That works when you have a top-10 scoring defense, but logging just 12 passing touchdowns -- fewest in the league in 2022 -- is no way to keep up with the high-scoring offenses that dominate the AFC. Pittsburgh may have outperformed expectations after a rocky start, but it missed the playoffs.
So why not start camp with something different, something that looks a lot more like what Pittsburgh craves this season, something explosive? Kenny Pickett, now the second-year starting quarterback, took that first snap and heaved the ball down the field for second-year receiver George Pickens. The pass fell incomplete, but that was beside the point. The Steelers want the kind of chunk plays that are routine in the NFL's best offenses these days. That first snap was an indication that they are ready to let Pickett try them.
Head coach Mike Tomlin opened camp saying that Pickett has to be what the Steelers need him to be. Asked later for clarification, Tomlin was more direct about what Pickett must be: "Good."
"We need him to do fundamental things well," Tomlin said in an interview during "Back Together Weekend" on NFL Network. "We need him to take care of the football. We need him to communicate. I'll never ask him not to be himself, but be his best self. Smile in the face of adversity, understand his perspective -- oftentimes, it's his unit's perspective -- and own that component of the job. He's in a good place to kind of absorb some of those things. A year ago, he was really focused on surface-level things, assignments, responsibilities and so forth. Now, because of his experience, he probably has a perspective where we can add to his to-do list, and he's absorbing more of the responsibility that comes with being him."
Pickett is primed for a second-year jump. He started 12 games last season. In his final eight contests, he threw five touchdown passes against just one interception, a dramatic reversal from his first five games (four starts), in which he recorded eight picks and just two TD tosses. He led four game-winning drives during that back half of the season. Still, the 2022 Steelers' offense was, purposefully, limited. It averaged the fewest yards after catch per reception in the league (4.1 yards), per Next Gen Stats. The Cincinnati Bengals, who won the AFC North, averaged 5.3 yards after catch per reception. The Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs averaged 6.8.
"As you search for splash plays, you open yourself to more negativity," Tomlin said of the concerns that shaped Pittsburgh's philosophy last season. "We had a rookie quarterback a year ago -- you've got to be mindful of getting him behind the chains, and the collective absorbing of too much negativity when they're young. He's a little bit older now, we're a little bit older now, and it's more just about more calculated risk-taking in an effort to get a desired outcome. But that's just a fact -- as you search for chunk plays, the potential for negativity is probably more prevalent, and we just weren't interested in a whole bunch of negativity a year ago."
Pickett is noticeably more at ease this summer. There is no quarterback competition against Mitchell Trubisky (who signed an extension as Pittsburgh's backup) to wade through, no new playbook to learn. Pickett jokes that he has a clue about what is going on and about where to go. After one recent practice, he spent 45 minutes signing autographs for the crowds of fans that increasingly wear his No. 8 jersey. It is just as telling, though, how quickly he has emerged as a favorite of his teammates. Tomlin noted Pickett's humility and low-key, no-nonsense demeanor. Elandon Roberts, a veteran linebacker who signed with Pittsburgh in free agency, walked by one morning and asked Pickett to give him a shout-out to the media. Pickens promptly did just that: "E-Rob, the man! My favorite addition to the 2023 Steelers!"
That ease has shown up on the field, too. Pickens said the first change he noticed with Pickett in Year 2 is his composure, and his comfort in the pocket. Last season, Pickett was scrambling more, trying to find space, Pickens said. Now, the wideout feels his 2022 draft classmate is calmer in the pocket. Pickett agreed.
"I have a better understanding of the offense," Pickett said. "I can communicate better with guys, because we automatically have a familiarity. I can communicate a lot more clearly than a year before."
Pickett has been working on refining his footwork in the pocket and on making off-platform throws. He has concentrated on being aggressive and, specifically, knowing when to push the ball down the field. As different as Pittsburgh's attack may ultimately prove to be from what the offense looked like in 2022, Pickett said there are things he can carry over from when the unit began to ascend last season, because he feels he threw deep more than people realize. Pickett averaged 7.8 air yards per attempt last season, according to Next Gen Stats. That was a higher figure than what Trevor Lawrence, Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert averaged, although all but Lawrence attempted at least 200 more passes than Pickett did.
"I liked the decisions I was making and how fast I was making them," Pickett said. "And being smart with the football and knowing when to take shots when we have looks that allow us to go deep and give these guys chances down the field. Just the consistency I was playing with, I really liked. I want to be consistently good, then I'll be happy with how the year goes."
Pickett points to his improved timing and chemistry with receivers as a reason to expect bigger plays. He expects to hit his receivers in stride more often, to allow them to run after the catch. That is something Pickens has focused on in his own preparation for the season. The second-round pick had 801 receiving yards as a rookie, but he averaged just 2.3 yards after the catch per reception. He wants to reach 1,000 yards this season, and to do that, he will probably need more than the seven missed tackles he forced on receptions last season, per PFF. Pickens did not shy away from defenders in 2022, and that apparently hasn't changed. He slammed into rookie CB Joey Porter Jr. on the second day of practice.
"If I catch a little pass, I want to try to take it the distance," Pickens said. "Concentrating on breaking more tackles, ball security, really more of the running back aspect after I get the ball. We were off last season. I was saying I've got to get my yards after catch better. Then when we had OTAs and minicamp, our coaches were saying the same thing, so now it's one of the biggest things I'm working on."
The Steelers also made changes in the offseason to help. They traded for Allen Robinson II, looking for the 10th-year veteran to be a sure-handed slot receiver and a mentor in a young, talented WR room. To give Pickett more time to allow longer plays to develop, Pittsburgh bolstered the offensive front, using a first-round draft pick on offensive tackle Broderick Jones, who has already taken some reps at left tackle, and a third-round pick on 6-foot-7 tight end Darnell Washington, who is expected to be used as a blocker as well as a massive target for Pickett. Furthermore, the team signed guard Isaac Seumalo, who should also boost the running game.
Still, the bulk of attention and pressure will be on Pickett. If the Steelers are to keep pace in the AFC North, where the other three teams all have established franchise quarterbacks, the No. 20 overall pick from last year must live up to his first-round pedigree. With the Bengals and Ravens coming off playoff appearances, and the expected improvement of Deshaun Watson in his second season with the Browns, the Steelers find themselves in an unusual spot: Having missed the playoffs last season -- and with the franchise lacking a postseason win since the 2016 campaign -- Pittsburgh's an afterthought for the second year in a row when it comes to projections of which teams will punch tournament tickets in the loaded AFC field.
Pickett shrugs. In a league that favors fireworks, the Steelers may need more on the field, but the 25-year-old QB will offer none of the verbal variety.
"It's OK -- we're in a tough division," he said. "I want to make sure we're as best as we can be and we'll see where the chips fall."