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Kenny Pickett and the Steelers’ starters cap an impressive preseason in a win over the Falcons

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett passes against the Atlanta Falcons during the first half of a preseason NFL football game Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Hakim Wright)

 Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett passes against the Atlanta Falcons during the first half of a preseason NFL football game Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Hakim Wright)

BY CHARLES ODUM contributing

ATLANTA (AP) — Mike Tomlin didn’t waver in his decision to play quarterback Kenny Pickett and other Pittsburgh starters even when Atlanta coach Arthur Smith countered with his backups.

“I just think it’s difficult to box without sparring,” Tomlin said.

Pickett and the Steelers scored an early knockout.

Pickett led two touchdown drives and showed he and the Pittsburgh starters are ready for real games as the Steelers overpowered the Falcons 24-0 on Thursday night in the final preseason game for both teams.


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Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren ran for touchdowns to cap the only drives led by Pickett, who completed 4 of 4 passes for 86 yards in his short but productive playing time. The Steelers (3-0) scored touchdowns on each of their five preseason possessions led by Pickett.

“I think it’s proof that the hard work we put in paid off in the preseason,” Pickett said.

Tomlin said his plan to stick with Pickett and other starters on offense for two series was not influenced by Smith holding out his starters.

“I don’t care what the Joneses do,” Tomlin said. “We’re going to do what we do.”

The second-year QB completed passes of 33 yards to Diontae Johnson and 35 yards to George Pickens on the opening drive before Harris scored from the 1. Pickens, the former University of Georgia standout, reached up for the sideline catch inside the 5 despite tight coverage from Falcons cornerback Natrone Brooks.

“They’re both great players,” said Pickett of Johnson and Pickens. “I wanted to make sure I did my part and put the ball out there for them.”

Pickett had a 16-yard pass to Harris before Warren scored on an 8-yard run to cap Pittsburgh’s second drive.

Atlanta’s backups were overwhelmed on both sides of the ball when matched with Pittsburgh’s first-team units. Even so, Smith insisted he’ll enter the regular season with confidence.

“I feel the team has got an impressive feel to it in all phases,” Smith said, adding the Steelers’ big plays early in the game and a Falcons late red-zone turnover made for “a bad recipe.”

With quarterback Desmond Ridder watching from the sideline, backup Taylor Heinicke was sacked by T.J. Watt for a loss of 7 yards on Atlanta’s first possession. Running back Godwin Igwebuike was dropped by linebacker Elandon Roberts for a loss of 4 yards on Atlanta’s first snap.

After two drives produced a 14-0 lead, Mitch Trubisky replaced Pickett. Backup running back Anthony McFarland Jr. had a 31-yard run to set up Chris Boswell’s 38-yard field goal on Pittsburgh’s third possession.

McFarland’s 5-yard scoring run pushed the lead to 24-0 in the second quarter.

Pittsburgh’s first punt came with less than two minutes remaining in the half.

The Falcons (1-1-1) wasted a scoring opportunity in the third quarter when running back Carlos Washington Jr. lost a fumble recovered by Steelers free safety Kenny Robinson at Pittsburgh’s 8-yard line.


Logan Woodside made a final push to make the Falcons’ roster as the third quarterback behind Ridder and Heinicke. Woodside took over in the second quarter and played the second half, completing 24 of 31 passes for 196 yards. He was sacked four times.

“I thought he played well,” Smith said.

Woodside fumbled when hit by linebacker Quincy Roche late in the game. Toby Ndukwe recovered for Pittsburgh at the Atlanta 25.

Teams must trim their rosters to 53 players on Tuesday.


The first-half statistics reflected the domination by the Steelers, especially with their starters on the field. Pittsburgh outgained Atlanta 253 yards to 55 in the half, including an overwhelming 128-5 advantage on the ground.

McFarland had 10 carries for 55 yards. The Steelers finished with a 310-199 advantage in total yards, including 175-40 in rushing yards.


One notable Atlanta player in uniform was rookie left guard Matthew Bergeron, but he only watched and that served as confirmation of his status as a starter. The second-round pick from Syracuse moved up after Matt Hennessey was lost for the season with a knee injury on Aug. 16.

Another question on the Falcons’ offensive line is who will handle the swing tackle spot behind starters Jake Matthews and Kaleb McGary. If Jalen Mayfield, who can also play guard, doesn’t win the swing tackle spot, the Falcons could look for help following roster cuts next week.


Falcons receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside had a 14-yard catch on the opening drive of the second half before limping off the field later in the drive with an apparent leg injury. Tomlin said the Steelers had no significant injuries.


Pittsburgh: Opens the regular season against San Francisco on Sept. 10.

Atlanta: Hosts Carolina on Sept. 10 in the first of two home games to open the regular season.