Even after a widely praised free agency haul and strong draft class, the fate of the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers largely rests on the shoulders of one man. Quarterback Kenny Pickett. As he goes, so go the Steelers in a difficult AFC North and conference that’s full of the best quarterbacks in football. Count Ryan Shazier as someone who has complete confidence in Pickett to make a sophomore jump. He joined NFL Network’s Good Morning Football Thursday morning to explain why.
“I’ve spent time with Kenny,” Shazier told the show. “Just living in Pittsburgh, I’ve seen Kenny from when he was at Pitt all the way until now. That’s what a lot of people haven’t seen. Through his whole career, Kenny has gotten better every single year.”
Though tempted to leave Pitt after the 2020 season, Pickett returned to school for 2021. It was the right decision, leading to a breakout season that made him a first-round quarterback and the first passer selected in the 2022 draft, 20th overall by the Steelers. After spending the first three games on the bench, he made his debut in the second half of the team’s Week 4 game against the New York Jets. His first start came the following week.
Pickett and the Steelers offense went through tons of growing pains but things got better after the bye week. Pittsburgh focused on its running game, put less on Pickett’s plate, and went 7-2 down the stretch to nearly make the playoffs. For Shazier, that progression and Pickett playing his role were encouraging signs.
“It’s about winning. That’s what Kenny is. He’s a winner,” Shazier said. “He understands how to not turn the ball over…that’s why I said I think he’s going to be a legend because he’s going to come in here, understand we’re a defensive team, make smart decisions. He has a lot of weapons now. He’s going to go out there and control the game. He doesn’t need to have Patrick Mahomes numbers to be a legend.”
Those “legend” comments refer to a March tweet in which Shazier made that declaration. Over the Steelers’ final nine games in 2022, Pickett threw just one interception. His overall numbers were far from the game’s best, and he threw only seven touchdowns all of 2022 but the stats don’t paint the picture of his progression. Nor do they fully incapsulate the weighty moments he thrived in. Pickett led back-to-back game-winning drives to beat the Las Vegas Raiders on Christmas Eve and on the road against Baltimore to keep Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes alive.
There’s no question Pickett will need to be more productive in 2023. Averaging one touchdown per game isn’t going to get the job done. But, as Shazier notes, the Steelers have a stronger supporting cast this season. There’s a revamped offensive line, the addition of Allen Robinson II along with the expected progression of second-year WR George Pickens, and a clearer identity about the type of offense Pittsburgh wants to run.
Still, the Steelers will be in a tough battle to make the playoffs. The AFC North has four legitimate playoff contenders in Cincinnati, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. Around the AFC, the New York Jets are now a big-time threat with Aaron Rodgers, Jacksonville has found their man in Trevor Lawrence, while the Los Angeles Chargers and Miami Dolphins will be popular Wild Card picks, too. There are only seven playoff spots and definitely more than seven playoff-worthy teams in the AFC. Pickett will have to match what some of those quarterbacks can do while the rest of the team will have to elevate their play.