INDIANAPOLIS — For a brief moment Monday night, Kenny Pickett traveled back in time. As he walked onto the turf at Lucas Oil Field, Pickett drifted back to eight months earlier when he made the same walk across the field, not as the Pittsburgh Steelers starting quarterback, but as a top prospect in the 2022 NFL draft.
On the same field where he took the test he’d been studying for his entire life at February’s NFL Combine, impressing teams with his accuracy, speed and mobility, Pickett won his first NFL road game and completed his first fourth-quarter comeback with a 24-17 victory against the Indianapolis Colts.
“You walk out, you remember all the drills you went through, throwing out there for the Combine, and then you snap back into trying to go win a football game,” Pickett said Monday night. “I felt comfortable on the road here and working the silent count and having great communication with the guys. I think my previous experience has only helped me in this game.”
Pickett spent four days in Indianapolis for the annual Combine, a refined kind of meat market where all 32 teams pick over and analyze the best prospects of the draft class. Because of his familiarity with the Pitt quarterback, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin didn’t spend much time with Pickett — whom the team eventually drafted No. 20 overall as the first quarterback off the board — but that didn’t make the combine gauntlet any less stressful as Pickett met with other quarterback-needy teams in intensive job interviews to become their next franchise star.
For Pickett, the short trip was a whirlwind. A 10-hour day at the hospital near the stadium for diagnostic tests and physicals to document every previous injury and potential medical concern. Then team interviews, formal and informal. And then the media scrums where he was peppered with questions about his below-average hand size. And finally, the testing.
“It was a blur,” Pickett told ESPN. “You train your entire offseason, and I’ve been doing the combine stuff back to when I was in like eighth grade getting ready for the camps and stuff. You’ve been training a long time to get ready for it. So you wanna be at your optimal performance. … You just gotta stay ready for long periods of time. So I just remember the time in between certain things, trying to stay warm, trying to stay ready, like that was always the battle I felt like I was fighting.”
Pickett grew familiar with the long carpeted hallway mazes of the Indianapolis Convention Center and the interconnected indoor walkways, moving from one end to another for meetings and to get to and from his hotel and the stadium. He threw warm-up passes next to a set of escalators, and in his brief moments of down time, he hung out in the convention center suite rented out by Team Test, Pickett’s training facility, that housed foam rollers and theraguns, along with couches, speakers — usually playing country music — and a television. But amid the chaos of the Combine, Pickett was still honed in on his goal of establishing himself as the best quarterback in the class.
“He has that kind of military [mindset], like he’s just laser-focused and he’s so non-emotional, which is great because there are no highs and lows with him,” said Tony Racioppi, Pickett’s longtime quarterback coach. “He’s just so focused on the job and the goal that nothing wavers him, you know, good or bad. That’s the reason he’s gonna be a great pro for a long time.”
Pickett ran the 40-yard dash at the combine, recording a 4.73 on the turf at Lucas Oil Field in a drill run by longtime Steelers scout Mark Gorsack. That was the moment when it sunk in that he was really living his dream.
“It probably hit me when I went to get on the line for the 40,” Pickett said. “I remember sitting on the couch all the time with my dad every year watching that growing up. So when I hit that line it was like dead silent in there. You’re like, ‘Oh sh– like this it, I’m running the 40.’ But besides that, once you get to throwing routes and stuff, like that’s where I’m comfortable.”
Monday night, Pickett continued to show he was comfortable at Lucas Oil Stadium, picking up right where he left off in the combine as he completed 20 of 28 attempts for 174 yards. Continuing to develop in his mastery of the offense and in his relationships with his receivers, Pickett showed poise under pressure and delivered crisp passes in the game’s most crucial moments.
On what turned out to be the Steelers’ game-winning drive, Pickett connected on three significant throws: a third-down strike to George Pickens over the middle for a 13-yard gain as the Colts brought pressure, an 8-yard throw to Diontae Johnson as the Colts were blitzing, and a short throw to tight end Pat Freiermuth that turned into a 17-yard gain on third-and-6. Three plays later, backup running back Benny Snell Jr. found the end zone, and Pickett put an exclamation point on the scoring drive with a scramble-drill connection to Pickens for a successful two-point conversion.
“He’s always had that swagger,” Pickens said. “You see the hair [style], like he already got the swag, he already got that type of competitiveness.
“…I always felt like he’s been a great player. I always felt like he had that grittiness to him. That’s really what UGA bred me on. So like that’s the first thing I fell in love with, just [Pickett’s] hard tenacity. He’ll never quit, which is what I love. Sometimes the game and the circumstances don’t add up, but like he’ll never quit.”
It was the kind of game — and game-winning drive — that only reaffirmed the Steelers’ belief in Pickett, who’s experienced his growing pains in the spotlight since taking over the starting job at halftime of the Week 4 loss to the New York Jets. But after a rocky start where he committed nine turnovers and threw two touchdowns in his first five games, Pickett has gone three games without throwing an interception. In that stretch, the Steelers have won two of three games.
“He’s getting better every week, and it’s in a very natural way because of experience,” Tomlin said. “He’s a competitor, he’s smart. But it’s still a lot of meat on the bone and it’s just the process. He’s good enough and we’re good enough to win while that happens. We’re not grading him or us on a curve. We’re acknowledging he’s very much in development. With each snap comes exposure and sharp guys that are competitors, they grow from those things.”
To Tomlin, Pickett’s development isn’t mysterious. It’s exactly what he expected to see from him, even if it hasn’t been on the timeline he initially planned. And Monday night, in the place where he took a significant step in his football journey, Pickett took another major step toward becoming the quarterback the Steelers thought he could be when they watched him throw the football on the same field eight months earlier.
Kenny Pickett era blooming after quarterback’s full-circle win in Indianapolis