PITTSBURGH -- After he went through the requisite stretches and team walk-through, Kenny Pickett jogged over to the first of three practice fields beside the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
As the Pittsburgh Steelers' 2022 first-round pick stood near the 50-yard line, veteran center Mason Cole walked up to Pickett and extended his fist, and the two fist-bumped.
Then the center took his spot a couple yards in front of the quarterback and snapped him the ball. Just like that, Pickett's first practice as the Steelers' official starting quarterback began.
"Obviously, yeah, going from no reps to now getting reps," Pickett said, describing the difference at practice. "I haven't had a lot of time with these guys, so this is real valuable time for me and for them, for all of us to get on the same page."
"I try to keep it all the same. ... I got into a really good routine talking with Coach [Mike] Tomlin in the preseason and during the regular season about having a good routine of preparation, so when the time comes, I really don't change. ... I feel good with where I'm at right now."
"In an effort to be better, in an effort to score more points, in an effort to move the ball more fluidly, we decided to go to Kenny in hopes that he would provide a spark for us," Tomlin said. "We felt that not only in terms of our ability to move the ball, but just in terms of energy. Hopefully, that's a catalyst for us as we try to move forward and change the outcome of some of these games."
The Steelers are on a three-game losing streak after an improbable overtime victory against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 1, and they enter Buffalo as 14-point underdogs, according to Caesar's Sportsbook.
Entering this week, Pittsburgh is the only team since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger to never be at least a 14-point underdog. Pittsburgh's largest underdog role since the merger is +13.5 against the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX, and its largest underdog role under Mike Tomlin is 12 points in last year's wild-card game against the Kansas City Chiefs, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
But Pickett is used to daunting tasks.
As a true freshman in 2017, Pickett got his first career start against Miami and led the Pitt Panthers to a 24-14 upset over the No. 2-ranked Hurricanes, who had been previously undefeated entering the final game of the regular season.
"It's the attitude in which you go about it," Pickett said, explaining his mindset entering Sunday's game. "Everyone else thinks we're underdogs. We don't. We're going to go in there with some confidence. We know how great we can be when we're detailed, and we execute it at a high level, so that's something that we need to take care of during the week or we won't have a shot."
It's that demeanor that has continually impressed Pickett's teammates since he was drafted by the organization in April with the No. 20 overall pick.
"Kenny does a great job, especially for young quarterback, just commanding the huddle," Cole said. "He comes up there with a sense of urgency, and guys are listening to him, and that's really respectable. You don't see that a whole lot with younger quarterbacks and for him to have that maturity is huge."
Pickett's teammates also responded to his on-field attitude, a "swagger," as wide receiver Diontae Johnson described it. For many offensive players in the locker room, their confidence in Pickett was cemented after seeing him jaw and smile in the face of Jets defensive lineman Quinnen Williams after the quarterback completed an 18-yard pass to Pat Freiermuth milliseconds before Williams hit him. Not only did Pickett absorb the contact and come up smiling, he also didn't let that knock him off his game.
"When I saw him get up and talk trash, I was like, 'OK, yeah, I like that,'" left guard Kevin Dotson said. "I like that about him. I can't have that happening. I can't let him get hit, definitely as a young QB. You can kind of mess him up if they do get hit kind of early, start flustering them, start making them think they have to get it out faster than they have to. I can't let that happen ... but it definitely gives you a little confidence in him."
For Pickett, getting popped by Williams isn't unfamiliar. In fact, as a freshman running the scout team at Pitt, he relished the contact.
"When you start a game, getting that first shot, I don't know, it just feels good," he said. "You're ready to play. On scout team, it wasn't the most fun all the time, but I'm competitive, and I'm not the nicest guy, so I like to say some stuff. But it's all good. I like to compete."
With a murderers' row of opponents on the docket including the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Miami Dolphins and Philadelphia Eagles, Pickett will have to maintain that competitive spirit and swagger to keep up the spark Tomlin believes Pickett can give.
"We had all the confidence in Mitch, but now we have all the confidence in Kenny," Cole said. "We're just going to take it and roll, and control what we can control."