Bengals Steelers Football

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett looks to pass as Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Eli Apple pursues during Sunday’s game.

PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Steelers rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett played perhaps his best football of his young career in the first half against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.

Pickett completed 74 percent of his passes for 141 yards and a touchdown in the first two quarters, while averaging 10.1 yards per completion and ending the half with a quarterback rating of 112.

The second half was another story as the offense stagnated and had four consecutive three-and-outs in the third quarter. The unit even failed to get into the end zone after a spectacular T.J. Watt interception set the offense up deep in Bengals’ territory.

In the second half, Pickett completed just 48 percent of his passes for 124 yards, no touchdowns and a rating of 64.4.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is still encouraged by what he saw from Pickett in the rookie’s sixth NFL start.

“He’s getting better in all areas,” Tomlin said on Tuesday. “It’s moving in the direction that we would like it to. Sure, could it move faster? Absolutely. I don’t think anybody is patient, including Kenny. This is not a patient man’s business. You work while you wait, and that’s what he and we are doing, but he’s doing a nice job just in general.”

Tomlin called Pickett’s ability to step up in the pocket and make throws while under pressure against the Bengals “significant.”

Watt is doing ‘typical T.J. stuff’

Watt has played in two games since missing seven contests while on injured reserve. He’s made his presence felt in his first two games back, compiling 10 tackles, two quarterback hits, a half-sack and an interception.

“Typical T.J. stuff. He’s playing at a high level,” Tomlin said.

The pass rush has looked much different with Watt back on the field. The pass rush stats with and without Watt this season are jarring. In three games with Watt, the Steelers have 11 sacks.

In seven games without Watt, the defense posted just eight total sacks.

The biggest beneficiary of Watt’s presence on the field is his partner at outside linebacker, Alex Highsmith.

Watt draws so much attention from opposing offenses that Highsmith gets more one-on-one opportunities off the edge. Highsmith has nine sacks in the team’s first 10 games, and 5 1/2 of those sacks have come in the three games Watt has lined up on the opposite end of the defensive formation.

“(Watt’s) playing so well, Alex has been Defensive Player of the Week since he’s been back,” Tomlin said referring to Highsmith being named Defensive Player of the Week for his two-sack performance against the New Orleans Saints on Nov. 13, the first game Watt had played in since Week 1.

Tomlin discussed Watt’s ability to be effective, despite opposing offenses doing all they can to limit his production.

“He’s going to find ways to be disruptive whether they put two people on him, whether they hold him or what have you. I think that’s what elite guys do,” Tomlin said.

The coach also recalled a film study he did with Watt several years ago, where they reviewed tape of some prominent edge rushers and how they overcame what opposing offenses threw their way.

“I did an offseason study a number of years ago as he was moving into that elite status in an effort to have clear conversations with him,” Tomlin recounted. “I put Von Miller’s career sacks on a reel. I put some elite guys’ career sacks on a reel. All of their reels worked through chips and double teams and tight-end body positions and so forth. Top-notch guys, they deal with a lot of things, schematics, multiple people holding and they’re still top-notch guys.

“I know that T.J. embraces that component of being him. When we know that those things occur, that creates pure one-on-one opportunity for others, and everyone eats because of it. That’s just a function of team football.”

Injury updates

Tomlin provided updates on the three players who exited the Bengals game with injuries. Wide receiver Miles Boykin left early with an oblique injury and running back Jaylen Warren pulled a hamstring. Center Mason Cole didn’t play in the second half with a foot injury that has been ongoing throughout the season. Tomlin said the team will monitor how all three are able to practice during the week and says playing the Colts on Monday could benefit those who are injured.

“We got an extra day, really an extra day and half when you think about Monday Night Football, and so we’re going to leave the light on for all of these guys,” Tomlin said.

Tomlin says Warren’s injury is “not a significant hamstring, but his availability is in question.”

Thanksgiving and football

The Steelers don’t play on Thanksgiving this year, but Tomlin was asked if football’s connection with the holiday resonated with him as a child and if it still resonates with him today.

“It does. Turkey Bowls as a young guy — forget watching football, as a young guy, it was about playing football on Thanksgiving,” Tomlin said. “I just think it’s part of the love affair that our country has with this game.

“As a professional and somebody that’s been in this business and having participated on that day and some of the Thanksgiving Day games, man, it is an honor.”

Tomlin said he and the team have appreciated playing on Thanksgiving in the past.

“I remember when we were in Indy a number of years ago, we played on Thanksgiving and I was really appreciative of the opportunity of going into the living rooms of America, man, and being a part of that day for them,” Tomlin said.

“I talked to the team about it. There are a lot of challenges in professional sport, working through the holidays and so forth, man, but it’s an awesome opportunity as well. It’s something that we’re appreciative of.

“We remember our days as football lovers when we weren’t direct participants and how significant weeks like this were for young people and for families and it’s an honor to be a component of it.”

Amanda Filipcic-Godsey is a freelance writer in Pittsburgh. She covers Pittsburgh sports for CNHI Pa. newspapers. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaFGodsey.

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