The Top Week 4 NFL Storylines: Kenny Pickett, John Harbaugh and Geno Smith

Plus, one of the NFL's "best" divisions is turning out to be pretty putrid

October 4, 2022 6:24 am
Kenny Pickett of the Pittsburgh Steelers jogs off the field after losing to the New York Jets.
It is officially Kenny Pickett time in Pittsburgh.
Getty Images

With the first month of Monday Night Football completed, the fourth week of regular-season NFL action is now completely wrapped up. While we can’t get to everything — like a concussion fiasco that doesn’t involve Tua Tagovailoa — here are four of the top Week 4 NFL storylines to appear over the course of the season’s fourth slate of 16 games and whether we’re buying or selling on ’em. (ICYMI, here’s what went down last week as well as a simply ridiculous Week 4 play from Lamar Jackson that would be ruined with any explanation.)

Buy: The Steelers are Kenny Pickett’s team now

Taken with the No. 20 overall pick in April’s NFL Draft, former Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett started off the season riding the pine in Pittsburgh as the Steelers limped to a 1-2 record heading into a winnable road game against the Jets in Week 4.

Trailing New York 10-6 at halftime, Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin finally made a call to the bullpen and yanked ineffective starter Mitch Trubisky, who rode the bench in Buffalo last season behind Josh Allen, in favor of Pickett.

On the scoreboard, the move didn’t end up paying off as the Jets got a late touchdown and knocked off the Steelers 24-20. Tomlin said he made the call to move to Pickett because the team “needed a spark” and the rookie first-rounder certainly came in a little hot by completing 10-of-13 passes for 120 yards to go along with two rushing touchdowns. The move also slightly burned Tomlin as Pickett tossed three interceptions, including one on a Hail Mary that ended Sunday’s game.

Now losers of three straight, the Steelers would be wise not to attempt to put the toothpaste back in the tube and should roll with Pickett through the inevitable ups and downs that come with being a first-year pro quarterback. Pickett, not 28-year-old Trubisky, is the future in Pittsburgh and the priority should be on developing the rookie. If the Steelers can win some ballgames in the process (and they certainly might because there probably isn’t a huge drop-off from Trubisky to Pickett), all the better).

The early returns likely won’t be pretty as the Steelers have matchups coming against the Bills, Buccaneers, Dolphins and Eagles before their Week 9 bye and all of those teams have strong defenses that will look to prey on Pickett’s inexperience. Probably playing from behind, Pickett is going to be forced to air it out and he will likely be intercepted as a result the same way he was on Sunday.

There will be picks, mistakes and other growing pains, but it will be worth it in the end if the rookie can progress and establish himself as the franchise quarterback the Steelers thought they were getting when they picked Pickett.

Sell: John Harbaugh will ever change his ways

After going for it on fourth-and-1 in September of last season and beating the Chiefs, Baltimore coach John Harbaugh continued to push back against conventional playcalling last season by being aggressive which led to his team losing due to failed two-point conversion attempts twice in three weeks.

Sunday against the Bills with the score tied after a furious comeback by Buffalo, Harbaugh’s aggressiveness was once again on display as he opted to go for it on fourth down from the 2-yard-line instead of having All-Pro kicker Justin Tucker attempt a chipshot field goal. As happened many times last year, Harbaugh’s bold call blew up in his face as Lamar Jackson tossed a pass into the end zone that was intercepted by Jordan Poyer for a touchback and gave the Bills the ball with 4:09 remaining on the clock.

Predictably, Buffalo was able to march down the field and kill the clock before Tyler Bass made a 21-yard field goal as time expired to give the Bills (3-1) the road win and drop the Ravens to 2-2 on the season. Afterward, Harbaugh defended the decision. “You kick a field goal there, now it’s not a three-down game anymore, it’s a four-down game,” he said. “You’re putting them out there, you’re putting your defense at a disadvantage because they’ve got four downs to convert all the way down the field and a chance to again score seven, and then you lose the game on a touchdown. It didn’t turn out (successfully), unfortunately, and we lost the game. So, in hindsight, you could take the points. But if you look at it analytically, you understand why we did it.”

Well, honestly, not really.

While Harbaugh is correct that Buffalo would have had to score a touchdown to win had the Ravens successfully converted a field-goal attempt that hardly seems a reason not to force the Bills to actually do it. Trailing by three with four minutes left, the Bills would have been more than capable of getting down the field and scoring. But the Bills also would have been more than capable of committing their third turnover of the day playing in a pressure-packed situation on the road in front of a rowdy Baltimore crowd. There was also the chance that Baltimore’s defense would have stopped Buffalo outright. Maybe not a great chance, but a chance nonetheless.

Instead, due to Harbaugh’s decision, the Bills were able to win the game with a field goal that only would have tied things up if the Ravens had just taken the points. But they didn’t — typical Harbaugh.

Buy: Geno Smith deserves an apology

A figurative, and literal, punching bag for much of his career after being drafted by the New York Jets in the second round in 2013, Geno Smith was surprisingly named as the starting quarterback for Seattle by Seahawks coach Pete Carroll prior to the season after failing to impress in some spot starts last season for Russell Wilson.

In Week 1, Smith and Wilson, who now plays for the Broncos, faced off in Seattle and it was the former backup who emerged victorious in a 17-16 win for the home team that saw one of the more bizarre coaching decisions of the season. The Seahawks went on to lose in Weeks 2 and 3 but Smith played reasonably well in defeat and was one of the brights spots for Seattle heading into Sunday’s matchup against the Detroit Lions in Week 4.

That bright spot turned into a solar flare on Sunday as Smith completed 23-of-30 attempts for 320 yards and two touchdowns and added 49 rushing yards and a rushing touchdown as the Seahawks eked out a 48-45 win over the Lions. Extremely efficient passing the ball in the win, Smith raised his completion percentage on the season to 77.3%, the highest completion rate in NFL history through a team’s first four games among quarterbacks who attempted at least 125 passes, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Statistically the most-accurate passer in the NFL through four weeks, 31-year-old Smith is off to the best start of his career in his 10th season in the NFL and has the surprising Seahawks at 2-2 after entering the season with a record of 13-21 as a starter. Smith, who now has 1,037 passing yards, six touchdowns, two interceptions and a 108.0 quarterback rating on the season, has actually outplayed Wilson (980 yards, 4 TD, 1 INT, 91.1 QB rating) thus far and is making Carroll look like a genius. Smith is also making many who doubted him, present company included, look foolish for labeling him as a bust.

“Geno played some spectacular football,” Carroll said after Sunday’s win. “Spectacular football. Not just the throwing and the catching, but the command of the game and running the whole show. He did an incredible job, and he ran the ball, too, for 50 yards or something. Fantastic day, I don’t know how you could do a whole lot more, play a whole lot better than that.”

Will it last once the Seahawks play teams that aren’t the Lions? We’ll find out. Either way, Smith deserves his props.

Sell: The AFC West is really the NFL’s best division

Pegged by as the best division in the NFL prior to the season thanks to the presence of Patrick Mahomes (Chiefs), Justin Herbert (Chargers), Derek Carr (Raiders) and the aforementioned Wilson (Broncos), the AFC West has failed to live up to the hype thus far as its four teams have a collective record of just 8-8. Meanwhile, the NFC East has a collective record of 11-5 and is home to the only remaining undefeated team in the NFL, the Philadelphia Eagles.

While the AFC West certainly has a legitimate title contender in the Kansas City Chiefs (3-1), the Chargers (2-2), Broncos (2-2) and Raiders (1-3) all appear to be deeply flawed and have done nothing to distinguish themselves in what is shaping to be an up-for-grabs AFC.

Thought to be darkhorse Super Bowl candidates prior to the season, the Chargers picked up a less-than-convincing win against the putrid Texans on Sunday a week after getting throttled at home by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Inconsistent yet extremely talented last season, the Chargers appear to be the same team they were a year ago and have yet to put things together under third-year coach Brandon Staley. There are some who believe the Chargers, who have typically been one of the NFL’s most maddening teams, never will right the ship as long as Staley is the one steering it. On paper, the Chargers have five winnable games coming up (Browns, Broncos, Seahawks, Falcons and 49ers) and if they aren’t above .500 following that stretch expect Staley’s seat to get very warm.

In Denver, first-year coach Nathaniel Hackett’s seat is already hot just four games into his time with the Broncos as the team has struggled mightily to put points on board despite having Wilson on the roster. Dead last in red zone scoring (30%) and now averaging just 16.5 points per game putting up a season-high 23 in a loss to the Raiders on Sunday, the Broncos have yet to really tap into Wilson’s abilities. Of course, there’s also the possibility that the former Super Bowl champ is actually a bit cashed that the dip in play from him that we saw last season wasn’t the expectation but instead the new rule. Denver fans had better hope that isn’t the case as Wilson and his massive contract aren’t going anywhere.

Neither is Las Vegas coach Josh McDaniels, who collected his first win with the Raiders on Sunday despite getting zero touchdown passes from Carr. To get McDaniels the win, the Raiders played good defense and pounded the ball with running back Josh Jacobs. That hardly seems like a recipe for success in a division where points were supposed to be plentiful, but things are clearly not turning out as predicted in the AFC West, at least thus far. While there’s still plenty of time and anything could happen, preseason predictions of the Chiefs (66%), Chargers (57%) and Broncos (49%) all making the playoffs are almost certainly not going to come true as the AFC West is not actually the best division in pro football.

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