The Steelers' 2022 quarterback journey, and what happens next

PITTSBURGH -- Mike Tomlin sat behind the dais in the fluorescently lit room at Acrisure Stadium and spoke for three minutes.

Of the 436 words the Pittsburgh Steelers coach said, few explained why he benched Mitch Trubisky for rookie first-round pick Kenny Pickett at halftime of the Steelers' 24-20 loss to the New York Jets on Sunday.

Even fewer indicated where Tomlin and the team would go from here, from a 1-3 start with a gauntlet of the NFL's best teams in front of them.

"We just thought we needed a spark," Tomlin said. "We didn't do much in the first half, not enough offensively and thought he could provide a spark for us.

"I'm not going to talk extended as we sit here. We did what we needed to do to put ourselves in position to win this game. We'll do it again. But I like to just keep it where we are in terms of what transpired here today. We'll deal with next week, next week."

It's what Tomlin didn't say, though, that best describes the Steelers' current predicament.

To borrow a phrase the coach introduced in August 2020, the quarterback switch is the jello they can't get back in the box.

The Kenny Pickett era is here, and there's no going back.

From the minute the former Pitt quarterback was selected with the No. 20 overall pick, it was inevitable Pickett's time would eventually arrive, perhaps sooner rather than later after a bumbling beginning for the Steelers' offense.

But it's how it arrived that's the most surprising.

After definitively saying he wasn't considering changes to his quarterback or offensive coordinator following a Week 3 Thursday night loss to the Cleveland Browns, Tomlin reaffirmed his faith in the offense in his weekly Tuesday news conference. Known for delivering messages to his team through his media sessions, Tomlin was clear Tuesday: Shut out the noise and stay committed to the plan.

"The best way to sum up my evaluation of it, whether it's the collective unit or components of the unit, is that we've been better with every outing, and so it's reasonable to expect those improvements to continue," Tomlin said Tuesday. "We haven't done enough to win the last two football games, so there's reason for alarm as it pertains to that, but largely I'm seeing improvements in all areas, whether it's individuals or whether it's the collective.

"It's our job to tune out the noise and to remain committed to the path that we're on and work to get better in an effort to change the outcome of these games. I expect our guys not to blink and to continue to work, so I have to display that as a leader, and I intend to."

While he didn't necessarily offer a ringing endorsement of Trubisky, Tomlin again preached patience, and the players in his locker room echoed their commitment to buying into the offensive plan.

In practice, the quarterback rotation remained the same. In open locker room sessions, Pickett declined interview requests, citing his status as a backup quarterback.

The Steelers, an old-school organization that trusted the process long before it became an NBA team's motto, appeared committed to Trubisky and to giving Pickett the best opportunity to succeed as the next franchise quarterback by keeping him on the sideline as he and the offense developed.

There were no indications a change was on the immediate horizon, until suddenly, it was there. Pickett exited halftime Sunday wearing his helmet as he warmed up on the sideline, while Trubisky stood with a ballcap on his head.

"No, I was never told that," Pickett said, confirming there was no indication of an imminent quarterback change. "Just Coach came in at halftime and said I was going. I just kind of put all the preparation in and prepare like the starter. I spent a lot of time at the facility to get ready. ...

"You don't get a lot of reps, but that's why I have to be tuned in really mentally, go through every single read that Mitch was getting in practice, in game, watch the film as if I'm the one playing so I could be prepared if my opportunity did come, which it did today."

Trubisky was as surprised as Pickett.

"It's a tough deal," he said, answering questions tersely. "It's definitely not what I wanted. Not what I expected. But that's part of it."

Tomlin wanted a spark, and Pickett gave him one, but it flickered and sputtered and never bloomed into a steady flame. He successfully executed a 1-yard quarterback sneak on fourth-and-1 during his first drive, but on the very next play, Pickett's first pass attempt was picked off when he tried to go deep to Chase Claypool.

But after a Minkah Fitzpatrick interception, Pickett dove into the end zone for his first professional touchdown and the Steelers' first lead of the game.

On the next drive: three first-down passes -- including one to tight end Pat Freiermuth for an 18-yard gain with pressure inches away and a smile appearing on his face -- and a 2-yard touchdown run. Each time, the KEN-NY chants at Acrisure were deafening.

"I feel like the whole crowd was cheering him on," wide receiver George Pickens said. "We were already ready to go. It's just next man up."

But Pickett's spark was like using leaves to start a campfire. As quickly as it flared up, it smoked out.

The next drive ended in an interception (two plays after a 26-yard completion to Pickens), when the Steelers needed to hold on to the ball as they clung to a three-point lead late in the fourth quarter.

The Jets' ensuing drive gave the comeback kids from New York the lead, and Pickett's last-ditch answer fell short as his Hail Mary attempt came down in the hands of Jets safety Lamarcus Joyner in the end zone.

"I do not like to lose," Pickett said. "This is not a good feeling. I don't want it to be a familiar feeling, so I definitely want to get back out there and get a victory, get us back on track.

"I think [I have] a little bit of an edge to me. I want that to rub off on everybody. I want us to have an attitude when it's out there on the field. I'm excited to get back to work, get us back on track."

Pickett's final stat line (10-of-13 passing, 120 yards, 3 INTs, 2 rushing TDs) isn't eye-popping, and the offense wasn't flawless with him running it. But there was an energy shift that pulsed through the huddle and through every crevice of Acrisure Stadium when he was in the game, the kind of buzz that has been absent through the start of the season.

Pickett threw the ball under pressure and then smiled in the face of the man who tried to sack him. He used his legs to pick up a first down and to evade pressure and throw on the run. He shook a defender to run into the end zone.

That the offense responded to Pickett's spark isn't to be overlooked. The players thought highly enough of Trubisky to vote him a captain, but they played with -- and for -- Pickett in a way they simply hadn't for Trubisky.

When he signed with the Steelers in free agency, Trubisky was regarded as a steady leader, a respected, all-around good guy.

But the former Chicago Bear and Buffalo Bill wasn't their guy, and he never would be.

Tomlin won't commit to a quarterback for the Steelers' Week 5 game in Buffalo or beyond (a brutal stretch that includes Tampa Bay, Miami and Philadelphia), but it would be nearly unprecedented to give the reins back to Trubisky. The 2017 first-round pick was meant to be a bridge, and the Steelers crossed it.

There's no turning around now.

The jello is out of the box.