PITTSBURGH -- With two touchdowns through two games, the Pittsburgh Steelers' offense has certifiably lost its mojo.
The Steelers are averaging 247 yards per game, second-fewest in the NFL -- and 75 fewer per game than a season ago. After finishing the season with one interception in his final eight games, quarterback Kenny Pickett has thrown three picks to two touchdowns in the first two weeks of a highly anticipated second season, one that only attracted more hype with a near-flawless preseason and training camp. And, they're going to be without receiver Diontae Johnson until at least the Week 6 bye.
Perhaps the Steelers need an extraterrestrial intervention to get back on track.
It's good news for the Steelers, then, that they have a bona fide alien in their locker room.
At 6-foot-3, 200 pounds with a catch radius as wide as Saturn's rings, George Pickens moves like a visitor from outer space -- and he believes he is one.
"I just think I'm an alien. Period. For real, for real," Pickens said in training camp. "Just by the stuff I be doing, how I carry myself on and off the field."
It might feel hyperbolic, but Pickens isn't wrong. His routine one-handed grabs defy physics, and his lanky frame seemingly ignores the laws of gravity with contortionist catches.
And against the Cleveland Browns, Pickens showed he has plenty of speed, too, when he reached a top speed of 20.56 miles per hour on his 71-yard touchdown reception, per Next Gen Stats, his fastest speed as a ball carrier in his career.
That skill set coupled with Pickens' out-of-this world confidence give him the tools to be the next great Steelers wide receiver -- and to be the thing that pulls the Steelers' offense out of its funk.
"He's an unbelievable player," Pickett said. "We've got to try and find ways to get him the football. Throughout [the Cleveland] game you watch it. They try to double him a lot and continue to be unique. Move him around, just get him the football and then let him do his thing."
PICKENS DIDN'T ANOINT himself an alien.
Others did that for him.
Classmates and recruiting analysts first took notice of Pickens at Hoover (Alabama) High and branded him a "freak of nature," Pickens said. Before long, the descriptors of the five-star wideout, who would go on to become a star at Georgia, were otherworldly.
"I was just always to myself, so I didn't really start out believing it," Pickens said. "That's just what people started calling me. It went from 'freak of nature' to 'alien'. Just crazy words."
He might not have started out believing he was an alien, but he quickly embraced the label.
"He believes he's an alien," wide receivers coach Frisman Jackson said during training camp. "I've been coaching the wideout room for 15 years. They're all the same, man. They all got some personality to them. Say some crazy stuff. You kind of just let it roll with the punches.
"You got to have a little bit of that, I hate to say it, craziness to you just with the position, you got to go across the middle to catch the ball. The spotlight's on you a lot of times because you playing outside the numbers."
Though Pickens downplayed the significance of playing in a prime-time game ahead of Sunday night's matchup against the Las Vegas Raiders (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC), there's little doubt he thrives being the center of attention.
Less than 15 minutes into his first prime-time game exactly a year ago, Pickens extended his right arm, leaned back until he was nearly parallel to the turf and fluidly snagged a perfectly placed pass from quarterback Mitch Trubisky near the sideline for the team's longest play of the night. It set up for a touchdown three plays later.
He jumped up and put a finger to his facemask, shushing the crowd at Cleveland Browns Stadium.
Pickens showed flashes of dynamic playmaking in his first preseason, but the Week 3 catch against the Browns was Pickens' official announcement to the NFL that his spaceship had landed.
Pickens finished his rookie season third on the team in receiving yards and targets, but he led the Steelers with 15.4 yards per catch, and he had the second-longest reception of the season.
He showed prowess in making the most difficult catches, grabbing a league-high nine receptions over expected in tight windows since 2022, according to Next Gen Stats. In his rookie season, he had 17 tight window receptions for 347 yards.
With that foundation, Pickens entered his second season with galactically high expectations.
"Really just a prolific year, just making crazy catches, making regular catches, running good routes," Pickens said of his goals for the season. "Just be an overall receiver. I felt like I was already there, but I just want to boost it another level."
He lived up to that early with highlight reel catches in training camp as he built chemistry with Pickett. And in limited action during the preseason, he pushed the bar higher with a 33-yard touchdown where he shook off a Tampa Bay defender before sprinting to the end zone.
"That's exactly what you're going to see -- more of catch and run, my full speed, real speed," Pickens said.
That preseason play hasn't carried over immediately to the regular season. The offense was sluggish, and in Week 1, Pickens had five catches on seven targets for 36 yards.
He broke through the next week, though, as he picked up 57 yards after the catch for the career-long 71-yard touchdown.
"I just felt the energy of the team," Pickens said after the win. "It just felt good to win, to be honest and make a splash. But always, like I said, I do it in practice so I kind of work on it, but just for it happen in a game is great."
LATE LAST SEASON, Pickens came off the field in Atlanta, ripped off his helmet and yelled at his coaches to get him the ball.
He finished the game with one catch for two yards on two targets.
Even if Pickens is covered, he's open. That's what he believes to his core. It's an attitude that puts him on the cusp of being one of the league's elite receivers -- and what could be his undoing.
"He has a lot of self-confidence," Jackson said. "He believes he's open every single time. He believes that in his heart, and there's no fakeness or anything about it that he's the best player on the field. When you have belief in self, you can go a long way, and he has that belief in self."
There's a delicate balance between self-confidence and an inflated sense of self. To be clear, Pickens is incredibly valuable to the Steelers and to their offense. And playing with a massive chip on his shoulder makes him one of the most dangerous offensive players in the NFL, not only for his catching ability, but also for his physical blocking and gritty yards after catch. But it can also make him a magnet for unforced, costly errors.
He's already been flagged once this season for unsportsmanlike conduct, and last season he was ejected against the Cincinnati Bengals for a hard hit on Tyler Boyd on an onside kick recovery attempt with 40 seconds remaining.
During training camp, Pickens argued with officials after they negated his touchdowns because he stepped out of the back of the end zone and didn't reestablish himself before making the catch.
Another time, he celebrated a long touchdown by throwing the football down at the end of the play. Pickens tried to jog off, but running back Najee Harris intercepted the wide receiver and told him to go back and pick up the football.
"George is a talented receiver," Harris said. "We all know that. You just got to work on just having the right mindset, keeping his composure and not doing too much to penalize the team. So just doing small things like that kind of helps him just stay level-headed and not penalize the team."
To help with that, Harris said he requested to have Pickens' locker near his in both the Steelers' practice facility and Acrisure Stadium. And during training camp, Pickens and wide receiver Allen Robinson II shared a suite in the dorms, an arrangement specifically made by the coaching staff to pair the young player with a veteran.
"I think about going into my second year, which is one of my best years in this league, and just some of the things that I had to take on and where my mind was at and things like that," Robinson said. "Being able to share some of those experiences with him to be able to help him out along the way."
PICKENS DOESN'T LISTEN to the external hype about him being on the cusp of a breakout season. He's too busy playing Madden.
When Pickens is in control, the offense scores at least 50 points, and he said virtual Pickens gets between 10 and 20 targets a game.
With Johnson out against the Browns, those Madden numbers were closer to reality. Pickens had 10 targets for the first time in his career. And though he had four catches, he still racked up a career high 127 yards -- only his second 100-yard game.
With Johnson out at least until the Steelers' Week 6 bye, Pickens is likely to continue being a focal point of the offense -- especially if it continues to jumpstart a scoring drive.
"I'm going to put it in his zip code and he'll do the rest," Pickett said. "That's kind of been the MO here since I've started, so he's an unbelievable player. Just continue to put the ball, throw it his way and let him do the rest."