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Wednesday Warning: From Ben to Kenny and the formula to help him win and develop

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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) - When it comes to charting the growth of the Steelers' offense with rookie Kenny Pickett under center, it's sometimes hard to measure progress when weighing the results against the expectations in certain areas.

Head coach Mike Tomlin, however, sounded very optimistic about the former first-round pick's development after four full games played in the NFL.

"It's been really impressive," Tomlin said Tuesday during his weekly news conference. "I think his general growth – if you ask me to summarize the rate of growth, the range of growth – it's been really impressive in all areas, and I think it's reasonable to expect it to continue."

Now that the foundation surrounding Pickett has finally been laid, the time has come for him to build on it.

A few weeks ago, I listed the areas where the Steelers as a team could help accelerate Pickett's development, primarily in playing sound defense, running the ball efficiently, and winning the turnover battle. Not only did each of those areas come into play during the Steelers' Week 10 win against New Orleans, but Pickett himself played a role in checking off that list.

Sunday was the first time the Steelers rushed for 200-plus yards as a team since Le'Veon Bell ran for 236 yards on 38 carries in a 27-10 win over the Buffalo Bills in Week 14 of the 2016 season.

It was also the third game this season where the Steelers' defense allowed 20 points or less, and the team had an even or positive turnover margin, all of which resulted in wins. This method of winning games isn't particularly new to Tomlin, as 25 of the team's 32 wins since Week 3 of the 2019 season have followed the exact same blueprint.

It also isn't a strange occurrence to this team's development of a rookie quarterback taking over as a starter. During the team's 14-game win streak after Ben Roethlisberger took over as a rookie starter in 2014, 11 of those wins included the exact same criteria.

The offense also rushed for more than 120 yards in 13 of those 14 games. This was the exact ideal situation former head coach Bill Cowher spoke of in his criticism of the Steelers' offense a few weeks ago.

But the journey of this season cannot end with just reaching the basic expectation surrounding Pickett. He too, like Roethlisberger, must take a stride forward as a more efficient passer to keep the offense on schedule. And while Sunday's performance didn't jump off the page statistically, it was still Pickett's most efficient game as a starter, and once again, his first win having played all four quarters, which is still the ultimate goal.

"We're just trying to win football games, and he's a component of it," Tomlin said Tuesday. He's got to get better and play better each and every week. We expect that. He expects that, and there's a lot of meat on the bone in all areas of his game. But that's not a wild statement because he is a young guy."

Pickett's 199 passing yards on 18-of-30 completions (60%) might appear pedestrian on paper, what with it being his worst completion percentage and second-lowest yardage total in a four-quarter game. But his 79.7 passer rating and 6.63 yards per attempt are also his best performances under those same circumstances, and Sunday they were enough to help his team win.

During the 13 Steelers' consecutive wins with Roethlisberger under center in 2014 (he sat out to rest Week 17 in favor of Tommy Maddox), he averaged 14 completions on 21 attempts for 188 yards and a touchdown per game, not necessarily an eye-popping stat line worthy of a future Hall of Famer. However, combined with an efficient run game featuring a future Hall of Fame running back in Jerome Bettis, and the league's top defense in yards (258.4) and points allowed (15.7) per game, Roethlisberger did just what the team needed to win games.

But here's where Roethlisberger and Pickett's development roads diverge: Big Ben threw 17 touchdowns and 11 interceptions during his first season as a starter, seemingly light years ahead of Pickett's one touchdown and five interceptions through four full games. But perhaps keeping out of the interception column against New Orleans is the first step toward Pickett closing that gap.

The next step for Pickett will be getting sharper in his decision-making and making more plays by any means necessary, but there are early signs he is moving in that direction as well.

Besides having his most efficient game as a passer, Pickett also had his most efficient game as a runner, rushing for 51 yards on eight carries and scoring his third rushing touchdown of the season.

"Every time I say, 'Quarterback mobility,' I always say 'The prudent use of quarterback mobility,' and I do so intentionally because there's risk associated with that, and risk is something that we all weigh," Tomlin said. "I just think that's a component of the equation each and every week.

"Mobility is a good thing, but when and how to use it while managing the risk component of it is also an element of the equation and will always be, particularly at that position."

Pickett's ability to use his feet to make plays, combined with the running game's most efficient performance of the season opened up the opportunity for something else that's been lacking: making throws down the field for big gains. Pickett's 36-yard completion to Diontae Johnson deep down the right sideline late in the third quarter checked another important item off the list.

Next up is his improvement in the red zone, and Pickett admits that is a place he needs to improve.

"We're not where we need to be," Pickett said Wednesday. "Obviously, there's less grass, so it's tighter windows, the timing, everything is faster. I've got to meet the guys at certain spots with the ball and they've got to get there on time.

"The game changes when you get down there. The calls change. The system changes. There are definitely things we need to get better at."

The emphasis on team growth might be the best way to supplement Kenny Pickett's development as a starting quarterback in the NFL. The pieces around him are finally starting to fall into place, but how far things go beyond that – and how far the Steelers go as a result, will be up to him.

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