Kenny Pickett didn’t stand a chance.
The rookie quarterback made his first NFL start for the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. It wasn’t all bad as he made a handful of impressive throws and played mostly competent football. But it didn’t matter against the juggernaut that is the Buffalo Bills.
Josh Allen’s offense feasted on a hapless Steelers secondary as the Bills cruised to a 38-3 victory. And what looks like a gauntlet to kick off Pickett’s NFL career promises to test his mettle from the start.
Pickett, the only quarterback taken in the first round of April’s draft, took over in the second half last week for an ineffective Mitchell Trubisky. He ran for a pair of touchdowns in a 24-20 loss to the New York Jets. Head coach Mike Tomlin then confirmed midweek that Pickett would get his first start on Sunday against the preseason Super Bowl favorites.
Sunday’s game got off to an ominous start for the Steelers when Allen connected with Gabe Davis for a 98-yard touchdown pass on the third play from scrimmage. Pittsburgh caught a break when the Bills failed to convert a turnover on the ensuing kickoff into points, and Pickett took his first snap facing a 7-0 deficit.
He looked good on his first drive, connecting on 5-of-7 passes for 44 yards including a sideline connection with George Pickens on third-and-11 to keep the drive alive. It resulted in a 29-yard field goal by Chris Boswell to cut Pittsburgh’s deficit to 7-3. The Steelers wouldn’t score again.
The Bills offense then pummeled the Steelers defense for three straight touchdown drives in the second quarter, one of them with another highlight-reel connection between Allen and Davis. The Steelers, meanwhile, posted three straight three-and-outs and missed a field goal before their final possession of the half ended with an interception by Bills cornerback Kaiir Elam on an underthrown Pickett pass into double coverage.
The result was a 31-3 halftime deficit that the Steelers didn’t stand a chance of overcoming.
Things slowed down after halftime. CBS cut away from the game in favor of a more competitive matchup. Bills backup Case Keenum eventually took over for Allen with the game firmly in hand. Meanwhile, the Steelers saw a pair of drives into scoring territory come up empty when the Bills came up with fourth-down stops.
Despite the lopsided score and ineffective offense, it wasn’t all bad for Pickett. He finished the game completing 34-of-52 passes (65.4%) for 327 yards with the single interception. He developed chemistry with fellow rookie Pickens, who repeatedly acted as his safety valve. The second-round receiver out of Georgia finished with six catches for a team-high 83 yards. The potential of a burgeoning relationship between the two rookies was on display.
But it’s tough to paint a silver lining on a 38-3 loss. Pickett faced a nearly impossible task for his starting debut. The game went worse than expected. And it won’t get much easier from here. The Steelers face a stingy Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense in Week 6 before road games at the Miami Dolphins and Philadelphia Eagles, who entered Sunday as the NFL’s only unbeaten team.
This isn’t a moment for Steelers fans to pile on Pickett. Debut schedules don’t get much tougher for rookie quarterbacks. Pickett’s got enough on his plate.
The goal for the Steelers at this point is not to make a run to the playoffs. In a brutal AFC, those dreams appear to be dashed amid a 1-4 start. Instead, the focus is for Pickett to survive a tough slate and develop as an NFL quarterback. If he comes through the other side relatively unscathed, the Steelers might have found something amid their struggles.