Steelers win preseason opener on Kenny Pickett’s TD pass with 3 seconds left

If the preseason opener is any indication, the Pittsburgh Steelers aren’t going to be the notoriously slow starters that took the field last year in Ben Roethlisberger’s final season.

With veterans Mitch Trubisky and Mason Rudolph competing to be Roethlisberger’s successor, the offense got off to a good start Saturday night, and first-round pick Kenny Pickett finished it with a touchdown pass in the final seconds for a 32-25 victory against the Seattle Seahawks at Acrisure Stadium.

Trubisky started and led the Steelers to a touchdown on the opening possession, something the offense didn’t do in the final eight regular-season games in 2021. Rudolph led touchdown and field goal drives, and Pickett threw a pair of touchdown passes while playing the entire second half.

“They moved their units, did the informal things associated with the position from a leadership and communication standpoint,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “They were engaged. It was a good first time out for all three.”

Pickett led the Steelers into the end zone on his first and last possessions. He threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to running back Jaylen Warren and a 2-point conversion to Connor Heyward – two of his fellow rookies – for a 25-17 lead with 6:44 left in the third.

Then, after the Steelers got the ball back with 1 minute, 10 seconds left in the game, the former Pitt star led a 43-yard touchdown drive that ended with his 24-yard pass to Tyler Vaughns, who dived into the end zone with 0:03 left to snap the 25-25 tie.

“Really, the whole night was special,” said Pickett who completed 13 of 15 passes for 95 yards. “The first one to have as an NFL player, to finish it that way in that stadium with a lot of family and friends there, it was awesome.”

Pickett completed his first 10 pass attempts, going 5 of 5 for 33 yards on the 75-yard touchdown he directed in the third quarter.

“I told him before the game that you always remember your first preseason game,” Trubisky said. “They all kind of blend together after that, but I told him it’s going to be a memorable one tonight.”

It also was memorable for seventh-rounder Mark Robinson, whose strip sack led to Tuzar Skipper’s fumble recovery, which gave the Steelers renewed life with 1:10 left and set the stage for Pickett’s heroics.

Pickett’s touchdown pass to Vaughns came one play after he gained eight yards on a run and ended a five-play drive.

“He moved his group, he played situational football, and he displayed competitive spirit,” Tomlin said. “A lot of good things to build on.”

The start by the offense was encouraging considering that the Steelers averaged 6.7 points in the first half last season, went five games in a row without scoring a first-quarter touchdown and totaled nine first-quarter points in the final eight regular-season games.

Working with an offense that didn’t include playmakers Najee Harris, Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson and Pat Freiermuth, Trubisky completed 4 of 7 passes for 63 yards and threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Gunner Olszewski to end the first possession of the game.

“I was amped up and ready to go,” Trubisky said. “I wanted to lead the team right down the field and score right away. It was a good way to start the game and set the tone.”

Trubisky left after two series. Rudolph was 9 of 15 for 93 yards and a pretty 26-yard touchdown pass to second-round pick George Pickens. He played three full series and one play of another.

Rudolph entered with 3:11 left in the opening quarter after Steven Sims’ 38-yard punt return left the offense only 23 yards from the end zone. A missed block on the first snap resulted in Rudolph having the ball stripped from his grasp. He recovered the ball for a 10-yard loss. This led to a third-and-13 from the 33. Rudolph dropped back and lofted a rainbow pass to the right corner. The throw was perfect, and so was the catch as Pickens kept both feet in bounds before crossing the pylon, and the Steelers held a 14-0 lead after the extra point.

“I wanted to give him a chance,” Rudolph said. “I didn’t want him to outrun it. I wanted him to at least high-point it. He kept a lot of space on the sideline to keep the ball on his shoulder. It was a great catch.”

On the next possession, Rudolph led the offense from the Steelers 16 to the Seahawks 3, the drive lasting 17 plays and 8:22 before it stalled and Nick Sciba kicked a 21-yard field goal for a 17-3 lead. The short passing game was emphasized on this drive, and Rudolph had completions of 9, 8, 8, 6, 8, 10 and 9 yards. On first-and-goal from the 7, Miles Boykin couldn’t hold onto a pass in the end zone. On third-and-goal from the 3, Rudolph threw into a crowd looking for Sims.

“One throw I’d like to have back,” Rudolph said. “But for the most part, I was happy with the way we moved the ball down the field.”

On defense, the Steelers were without Cameron Heyward, Tyson Alualu and Larry Ogunjobi up front, T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith at outside linebacker and free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. The defense limited the Seahawks to three points over the first four possessions before Geno Smith scored on a 2-yard run with 21 seconds left in the opening half, cutting the Steelers’ lead to 17-10.

McFarland led the Steelers with 56 yards rushing on seven carries. Warren added 34 yards on six attempts, and he added a team-high four receptions for 30 yards.

The Steelers rushed for 185 yards, averaging 6.9 yards per carry. The Seahawks countered with 159 and averaged 6.1 yards per attempt. Despite the absence of many starters among the front seven, it wasn’t a good start for a unit that allowed the most rushing yards in the NFL last season.

“The standard is the standard, and we were below the line,” Tomlin said. “We’ve got to get better there.”

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at jrutter@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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