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Tribune News Service
Gerry Dulac

Gerry Dulac: Kenny Pickett provided a spark, but Steelers still fizzled at the end

Mike Tomlin got the spark he wanted and the crowd got the player they have so fervently wanted when the hometown hero, Kenny Pickett, was sent into the game after halftime to rescue the Steelers.

And he didn’t disappoint either one.

He ran for a pair of touchdowns, made quick decisions like a crafty veteran and repeatedly got the ball to his two favorite playmakers, receiver George Pickens and tight end Pat Freiermuth. It was the dawn of a new era, the future of Steelers football, and it was only four games into Pickett’s NFL career.

But overlooked in the euphoria of Pickett’s debut is this sobering reality: The Steelers aren’t a very good football team. They proved it again in a last-second 24-20 loss to the New York Jets, a game in which the offense coughed up four interceptions and the defense couldn’t stop quarterback Zach Wilson when they absolutely had to.

“What transpired is not anything mystical,” Tomlin said after the Steelers had lost their third consecutive game to drop to 1-3 for the second year in a row. “It’s not about rabbit’s [feet] and so forth. We’ve got to play better.”

The Steelers might need a rabbit’s foot to salvage a season that doesn’t offer much immediate promise. Their next four games are against teams with a combined 12-3 record, three of which are on the road.

And they apparently will try to move forward with a rookie quarterback who looked every bit like a first-round draft pick, especially when he completed all five attempts for 54 yards on the longest scoring drive of the season that gave the Steelers a 20-10 lead at the start of the fourth quarter.

But he looked every bit the part of a quarterback playing in his first NFL game when he tried to throw a cross-field sideline pass to Freiermuth from the Jets 36 that was intercepted by cornerback Michael Carter II with 3:34 remaining. That turnover led to the Jets’ game-winning touchdown — a 2-yard run by running back Breece Hall with 16 seconds remaining.

“I cannot throw an interception there at that point of the game,” Pickett said. ”We were moving the ball well, we wanted to be aggressive. But at the same time, the clock was our friend there and I wanted to possess the ball and not do that and give them good field position. I can’t make that mistake.”

Pickett was 10 of 13 for 120 yards, but all three incompletions were interceptions, including his first NFL pass — a deep attempt to Chase Claypool on the fifth play of his opening drive.

Tomlin said he made the decision to switch to Pickett because he wanted to give the team a spark after a first half in which they trailed, 10-6. The decision did not sit well with Trubisky, who was not happy he was benched.

“It’s a tough deal,” Trubisky said. “It’s definitely not what I wanted, not what I expected.”

He wasn’t alone. Pickens, who finished with six catches for 102 yards, was surprised Tomlin said the offense needed a spark because, “I felt like before (Pickett) got in we were doing good regardless.”

The defense didn’t put Trubisky in an enviable spot, not at home in front of a pro-Pickett crowd, when they let the Jets take a 10-0 lead. But receiver Diontae Johnson didn’t help, either, when he let a Trubisky pass skip off both hands for an interception that the Jets turned into a field goal.

But even after the Jets made it 10-0 on the “Philly Special” play — a reverse from rookie receiver Garrett Wilson to receiver Braxton Berrios, who threw a 2-yard touchdown to Wilson — Trubisky put together a field goal drive that came within the front portion of Johnson’s left foot of connecting on a 23-yard touchdown.

The Steelers made it 10-6 thanks to a roughing the passer penalty on defensive end Carl Lawson on Trubisky’s Hail Mary pass to Claypool as time expired. That allowed Chris Boswell to hit an untimed 59-yard field goal, the longest in Acrisure Stadium history.

“I took some shots, we didn’t connect, didn’t score any points, I got pulled at halftime,” Trubisky said. “That’s how it goes. Just business as usual. I’m disappointed, obviously, but that’s part of it.”

In the end, it came down to the ill-timed interception by Pickett that led to the Jets’ 10-play, 65-yard touchdown drive. But just as significant, it was another example of the defense failing to protect a lead and get off the field. Wilson, who was wildly erratic for most of the game — he had connected on just 12 of 30 attempts to that point — was 6 for 6 for 63 yards on the winning drive.

“It’s frustrating losing to people that you know you’re better than, more talented than, especially when you have the team that we have,” said safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who set up the first touchdown with his third interception of the season and 34-yard return. “We’re a great team with a lot of talent. I think we are way better than what we’ve been putting on display.”

If so, they better find a rabbit’s foot to change their luck. Because even the arrival of their new quarterback isn’t enough to hide their deficiencies.

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