Steelers rookie Kenny Pickett entered concussion protocol after the back of his head slammed to the ground while being sacked by the Ravens' Roquan Smith on Sunday. The quarterback played in Pittsburgh's ensuing drive after initially clearing protocol, but exited for good after he was re-evaluated.
On Tuesday, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin labeled Pickett as day-to-day while confirming that he is still in the concussion protocol. Tomlin said that Pickett's practice availability will largely determine whether he will play in Sunday's road game against Carolina. Mitch Trubisky and Mason Rudolph will share practice reps while Pickett is in the protocol. Trubisky started the Steelers' first four games and saw relief work on two occasions since losing the starting job back in Week 4.
As far as who would start if Pickett can't play, Tomlin said he is taking a day to day approach. As far as Pickett's future playing status is concerned, Tomlin said that he will lean on the team's medical experts. If Pickett is cleared to play, he will play, Tomlin said.
"If he's able to work, we'll work him," Tomlin said of Pickett. "If he's unable to work, obviously, we'll divvy those red reps up between Mitch and Mason. We'll play both guys if he's unable to work in a practice setting in an effort to make a determination [for] what's best as we lean in on the latter part of the week.
"But again, when you're dealing with someone in the in the protocol, you just simply take it day by day, and whatever the medical experts tell us in terms of the rate of work, or the quality of work, we'll adhere to it and we'll kind of frame up our planning and make decisions accordingly."
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Tomlin noted that Pickett was able to be a full practice participant the last time he was in the concussion protocol. Pickett came out of the protocol to play in Pittsburgh's Week 7 loss to Miami after entering the protocol during the Week 6 win over Tampa Bay.
Trubisky played the remainder of Sunday's game against the Ravens. He went 22 of 30 for 276 yards and a touchdown but also threw three interceptions that included two in the red zone. Rudolph, Pittsburgh's third string quarterback, was in street clothes on Sunday while being a healthy scratch for a 13th time in as many games. Tomlin said that both quarterbacks taking reps this week is a result of Trubisky and Rudolph continuing to display readiness while being large components of the team's game-planning in recent weeks.
Pickett is 4-5 as the Steelers' starting quarterback while helping lead lead them to three straight wins prior to Week 14. After lobbing eight interceptions in his first five games, Pickett did not throw a pick in any of his last four starts. Along with taking care of the ball, Pickett been largely accurate in completing 65% of his passes. He has also been a legitimate running threat with three rushing touchdowns and a 5.1 yards-per carry average.
The Steelers' offense will have their work cut out for them on Sunday. The Panthers' defense has played extremely well under interim head coach Steve Wilkes. Led by pass rusher Brian Burns, linebacker Shaq Thompson and cornerback Jaycee Horn, the Panthers have allowed an average of just 15.7 points per game over their last three games. Carolina has given up an average of just 280.3 yards per game over that same span.
The success of their defense has helped Carolina improve to 5-8 after a 2-7 start. They control their own playoff fate with four games to play in the regular season.
Conversely, the Steelers will need to win out and get outside help in order to have a shot at making the playoffs for a second straight year. Pittsburgh (5-8) has to leapfrog Cleveland (5-8), Las Vegas (5-8), Jacksonville (5-8), the New York Jets (7-6), the Los Angeles Chargers (7-6) and New England (7-6) to grab the AFC's final playoff spot.
More in their control, the Steelers are also trying to avoid having the franchise's first losing season since 2003. Pittsburgh's 18 straight non-losing seasons is the longest such run in the NFL.