After a fourth-quarter change of possession in the Steelers' win in Atlanta Sunday, Pickens walked off the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and appeared to angrily shout: "Throw me the f---ing ball" in a moment captured by the television broadcast.
"I'd rather say 'Whoa' than 'Sic 'em,'" Tomlin said Tuesday. "I want a guy that wants to be a significant part of what it is that we do. Now, the appropriate and professional and mature way to express that, we're growing and working on, and we will continue to. But that spirit, that competitive spirit, the guy that wants the ball. I want that guy."
Pickens declined an ESPN interview in the locker room after finishing with one catch for two yards on two targets. During the game, Pickens was also visibly frustrated on the bench, and defensive captain Cam Heyward and wide receivers coach Frisman Jackson spent time talking with him. Afterward, some criticized Pickens for his actions on social media.
"I would imagine T.J. [Watt] wants to lay the quarterback down more," Tomlin said. "We got competitors. This is professional football. These guys know that they have to deliver. And so for a guy that wants to do that, I'm not going to make that a negative no matter how silly I think the commentary is, or people talking about him expressing frustrations and stuff and trying to make it a negative storyline. I laugh at that."
Pickens is third on the team with 60 targets this season, behind tight end Pat Freiermuth (74) and wide receiver Diontae Johnson (96). A week earlier, Pickens had six targets to Johnson's eight and finished with three catches for 57 yards in the Nov. 28 win against the Indianapolis Colts. He could've had more yards, but he had at least two drops and was consoled by Johnson and rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett on the sideline.
"Stay focused, just try not to get down and out, just keep playing," Johnson said of his message to Pickens on Sunday. "You never know when the ball's going to come to you. ... I've been there before. Just try not to let it get to you as much so it don't take you out the game."