The Kenny Pickett vs. Will Levis showdown on TNF will be bigger than you think

What will it mean if Kenny Pickett gets shown up by Will Levis on Thursday Night Football?
Steelers, Kenny Pickett
Steelers, Kenny Pickett / Michael Longo/For USA Today Network /

Pittsburgh Steelers fans keep holding their breath and waiting for that 'wow' performance by quarterback, Kenny Pickett. Though the second-year quarterback often comes alive in the fourth quarter, we really haven't seen that one dominant performance by Pickett from start to finish.

The same cannot be said for rookie QB Will Levis. The second-round quarterback was thrust onto the field early in the first quarter against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 8 and immediately took the football world by storm. In his first NFL action, Levis showed off his elite arm talent as he slung the ball for 4 touchdowns on just 29 attempts. This equated to a remarkable passer rating of 130.5.

Now these two young quarterbacks will face each other under the lights and in the national spotlight of Thursday Night Football. While a mid-season game between the 4-3 Steelers and the 3-4 Titans might not seem like the matchup to circle on your calendar, this game could have a huge impact on the career trajectory of Pickett.

Why the Steelers vs. Titans game is so important for Kenny Pickett

In his first 20 starts in the NFL, Pickett managed to top a passer rating of 100 just once in his NFL career, and he's only managed a passer rating above 90 in a grand total of 3 games. To no surprise, Pickett's 78.0 career passer rating is among the lowest of all quarterbacks since he came into the league as a first-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.

In addition to his pedestrian passer rating, Pickett has managed to throw for more than one touchdown pass in a game just once in his career so far. Additionally, Pickett has just one game of over 265 passing yards (but it came in a blowout loss to the Bills last year), and the Steelers have not earned 400 yards of total offense since before Pickett became the quarterback.

Leading up to the 2022 NFL Draft, we could tell without a doubt that Kevin Colbert was fixated on taking a quarterback in the first round of the draft -- almost as a final parting gift. However, the 2022 draft class was known to be one of the weakest in years at the QB position, and many draft analysts couldn't even agree on which signal caller should have been drafted first.

My argument from the beginning was that the answer for the Steelers was probably to be patient and wait to draft a QB the following year. It was easy to look ahead to the 2023 class and see a handful of quarterback prospects who would have been the top pick had they entered the NFL a year earlier.

One of those guys was Will Levis. The Kentucky star possessed all the traits and talent you could ask for in a franchise quarterback, but still needed to hone in on his craft and fix some mental mistakes. Now in his first NFL action, Levis has already put up a more impressive game than anything we have seen from Pickett in a year-and-a-half of play.

What really stings is that -- because they were dead set on taking a QB last year -- the Steelers passed on Levis not once, but twice in the 2023 NFL Draft. We knew that Pittsburgh wasn't going to draft another quarterback this past April, but if they only would have been patient, Levis would have fallen into their lap.

Obviously, there are a lot of factors that could contribute to the slow start for Kenny Pickett. His offensive line has not been very good, and it doesn't help to have an offensive coordinator who is void of creativity. At the same time, if he really is a 'franchise' quarterback, you need to be able to overcome adversity and prove that you are the player who can lead this team to a Super Bowl.

Earlier this year, Pickett was shown up by Houston Texans rookie quarterback, C.J. Stroud, back in Week 4. Can he afford to be grossly outplayed by another rookie signal-caller for the second time in the first eight games of 2023?


Record-wise, Pickett has been doing better than most first or second-year quarterbacks in recent years, but he's really been riding the coattails of T.J. Watt and a defense that seems to make plays at the perfect time. He needs to show that the Steelers can win because of him, not in spite of him.

If Will Levis comes out looking like the gunslinger he was in his NFL debut and shreds the Steelers' defense apart on Thursday Night Football, many fans are going to be ready to give up on Kenny Pickett. Rib injury and all, this is a huge game for Pickett and he needs to prove why he was the right choice for Pittsburgh in the first round of the draft last year.

All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference.

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