New Steelers OC Arthur Smith lets cat out of the bag with Kenny Pickett

Remember that Pittsburgh Steelers QB competition? Yeah, about that...

Arthur Smith, Atlanta Falcons
Arthur Smith, Atlanta Falcons / John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
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The Pittsburgh Steelers are expected to enter training camp with an open competition at the quarterback position. At least, that is what Mike Tomlin told reporters after their season-ending loss to the Buffalo Bills.

Kenny Pickett struggled in 2023, completing 62.0 percent of his passes for 2,070 yards, six touchdowns, and four interceptions in 12 starts. On the other hand, the offense flourished in the final weeks of the season with Mason Rudolph under center. He captained multiple 300-yard games and put together an admirable effort in Pittsburgh's Wild Card loss.

While Tomlin is broadcasting the desire for an open competition to put pressure on Pickett, it would appear that his new offensive coordinator didn't get the memo. Arthur Smith, fired by the Atlanta Falcons after three straight 7-10 seasons as head coach, will serve as Pittsburgh's new play-caller in 2024. He spoke to Missi Matthews of Steelers.com about Pickett in his first interview with the organization. It sure sounds like Pickett is the starter — no ifs, ands, or buts about it.

"There’s a relationship that’s got to be built between me and Kenny. And that’s so paramount between the playcaller and the quarterback. The quarterback is obviously the one out there between the white lines, and there’s a trust that’s going to be built daily, and it goes both ways. I’ve got to earn Kenny’s trust and vice versa as we build this offense and all the things we want to work on, and we want him to work on and take command of this offense."

Not want Mason Rudolph wanted to hear, I'm sure.

Steelers OC Arthur Smith endorses Kenny Pickett as starting QB

This was the inevitable outcome, of course. Pickett was always going to enter training camp as the starter and end training camp as the starter. Mitch Trubisky is still under contract, but he's a level below Pickett. Rudolph is a free agent and he's probably going to sign elsewhere, especially if the Steelers don't give him a real chance to retain the starting gig. His performance late in the season was enough to earn that opportunity from another team.

Pittsburgh could draft a young quarterback to develop in Pickett's shadow, but it's hard to imagine Mike Tomlin opting for an even less experienced QB1. Smith has a mixed-bag track record as play-caller. He was great during the Tennessee Titans' 2019-20 peak, but he could never figure out how to maximize his star talent in Atlanta. A big problem was his lack of faith in the Falcons' quarterbacks. He never took the training wheels off of Desmond Ridder and persistent medicority was the result. Smith cannot fall into the same traps with Pickett — the same traps that plagued his much-maligned predecessor, Matt Canada.

The Steelers still finished 10-7 despite all their offensive woes in 2023. Tomlin teams have a naturally high floor — the man has never finished below .500, so it's hard to imagine Smith not at least clearing the low bar set by Canada. But, if the Pickett era is going to work out, Smith has to bring innovation to the table. He has to actually build the trust he's talking about, not only in Pickett, but in the Steelers' top playmakers. If the Steelers want to accomplish more than a first-round exit, a lot of pressure is on Smith to bring the offense to life.

A strong argument could be made that Pittsburgh's best chance to take the next step is by replacing Pickett. Rudolph was flat-out better last season. He at least deserves a chance to outperform the third-year gunslinger in camp. The team could always try to bring in some stiff competition for Pickett. That said, don't get your hopes up. It's clear Pickett is the man in Pittsburgh for now.

STEELERS RUMORS. Mason Rudolph latest, Hines Ward return, dark horse QB target. Mason Rudolph latest, Hines Ward return, dark horse QB target. dark