Talk about being thrown to the wolves as a rookie quarterback.
For Pittsburgh Steelers rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett, he’ll not only be making his first career start in the NFL on the road against the AFC and Super Bowl favorite Buffalo Bills, he’ll also be doing so against the NFL’s No. 1 passing defense under head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier.
A hostile environment at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park and going against the NFL’s top passing defense? Sheesh.
That said, the Steelers know a thing or two about having success against a top-flight pass defense in a rookie’s first career start, that being one Ben Roethlisberger on the road against the Miami Dolphins in a monsoon in 2004.
Turns out, if Pickett and the Steelers are able to find a way to beat the No. 1 pass defense in the Bills on Sunday, Pickett would become the first quarterback in NFL history since Roethlisberger, ironically, to beat the league’s top pass defense in his first career start. We are living in a simulation, I have no other words to describe it.
On the year, Buffalo has allowed just 603 passing yards through four games, good for an average of 150.75 yards per game. On top of the low amount of yardage allowed through the air, Buffalo is allowing a 64.9% completion percentage, three touchdowns, seven interceptions and an average of 5.3 yards per attempt, which is tied for third-best in the league through four weeks.
Even without star safety Micah Hyde and cornerback Tre’Davious White, the Bills continue to click at a high level in the secondary with rookies Kaiir Elam, Christian Benford, and Dane Jackson playing rather well at cornerback, and Jordan Poyer leading the way at safety without his long-time running mate in Hyde.
It will be a tough task for Pickett on the road against the best pass defense in the league — which gets a huge boost from an elite pass rush led by Von Miller — but there’s history there for the Steelers, dating back to 2004.
On Sept. 26, 2004, Roethlisberger went into Miami with the Steelers and led the black and gold to a 13-3 win in awful conditions. That night, Roethlisberger completed 12-of-22 passes for 163 yards, one touchdown and one interception, finding Hines Ward midway through the fourth quarter on a 7-yard strike to close out the game.
It helped that Duce Staley rushed for 104 yards on 22 carries, while the star-studded defense picked off Miami QB A.J. Feeley twice and sacked him three times, resulting in a dominant display defensively.
Still, facing off against a secondary featuring high-level cornerbacks in Patrick Surtain and Sam Madison, not to mention safeties Sammy Knight and Arturo Edwards, Roethlisberger was good enough, connecting with Ward nine times for 96 yards and the score, and Plaxico Burress two times for 60 yards, including a 42-yard bomb in the rain, to give the offense some life.
The game has changed dramatically from 2004 to now, obviously, and the Steelers don’t have a good-to-great rushing attack like they did back then, or even a suffocating defense at the moment like the early 2000s group, but there is precedent there from the black and gold.
It could happen again, allowing Pickett to join Roethlisberger in rarefied air.