PITTSBURGH -- A wave of emotion flowed over the home crowd when Kenny Pickett trotted onto the field to begin the second half of Sunday's home game to the Jets. It looked like something out of Hollywood, as the local college standout engineered two scoring drives to give the Steelers a 20-10 lead.
The script took an unexpected turn, however, just when it looked like Pickett and the Steelers were putting the finishing touches on a potentially season-changing win. The Jets scored to make it a three-point game, then recorded an interception -- the second of the half -- of Pickett with the Steelers in New York territory. Zach Wilson parlayed the pick into a game-winning drive, as the game ended with Jets defender Lamarcus Joyner catching Pickett's Hail Mary heave, securing the visitor's 24-20 win.
"Just thought we needed a spark," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of replacing Mitch Trubisky with Pickett at the start of the second half. "We didn't do much in the first half. Not enough offensively. Thought he could provide a spark for us."
Tomlin would not commit to Pickett remaining in the starting lineup next week, as the Steelers prepare for a tough road game next Sunday against the Bills.
Trubisky, who was pulled after the Steelers offense was limited to six points in the first half, did not see the switch coming.
"It's a tough deal," Trubisky told reporters after the game. "It's definitely not what I wanted, not what I expected. But it's part of it."
The crowd began to sense that a change could be coming at the start of the second half, as Picket stood near the field with his helmet on as the second half began. The paid crowd of 66,578 then roared when the former Pitt Panthers standout took the field to begin his first drive. Pickett, who later said that he was told by Tomlin at halftime that he would be starting the second half, quickly picked up a first down on a sneak before going deep for Chase Claypool. The pass -- his first in the regular season -- was picked off by Jordan Whitehead, the Jets' savvy veteran safety.
"I told those guys if they're one on one, I'm going to give them a chance," Pickett said of his decision to go deep. "We all feel really good about that receiver room and how talented every guy in there is."
Minkah Fitzpatrick made Pickett's first pick a moot point after he came up with an interception of Wilson on the Jets' ensuing drive. Pickett capitalized with his first career touchdown run, giving the Steelers the lead and reenergizing the crowd.
Pittsburgh's defense then forced a punt before Pickett engineered a 12-play, 82-yard drive that was punctuated by his second touchdown run, as the Steelers led 20-10 with 13:36 left. The drive included three third-down conversions: a 7-yard run by Pickett on third-and-6, a 13-yard completion from Pickett to fellow rookie George Pickens on third-and-4, and an 18-yard completion from Pickett to tight end Pat Freiermuth.
Despite the Jets putting together a touchdown drive of their own, it still looked like Sunday would be Pickett's and the Steelers' day, especially after Pickett's 26-yard, third-down completion to Pickens that brought the ball to the Jets' 31 with under five minutes left.
"I feel like the whole crowd was cheering him on," Pickens said after the game. "We were already ready to go. It's just next man up. We were already ready, though."
Similarly to two weeks ago in Cleveland, the Jets shocked the home crowd, a crowd that likely had already started to make its postgame celebration plans. A play after his big completion to Pickens, Pickett fumbled the snap, resulting in a 5-yard loss. He then threw his second, and most fatal, interception after he threw a high pass to Freiermuth on the near sideline. The pick, which was caught by Michael Carter after Freiermuth tried in vain to catch the pass, set up the Jets' game-winning score.
"I wanted it higher than that," Pickett said of the throw. "Either Pat was going to get it or it was going to be out of bounds. I didn't put it high enough.
"I cannot throw an interception there. I wanted to possess the ball and not do that and give them good field position. So, I can't make that mistake."
Pickett blamed himself for the final outcome, and his second interception was certainly one of the game's deciding plays. But, as defensive captain Cam Heyward said after the game, the onus also falls on the Steelers defense to come up with a stop in those situations. Instead, the Jets traveled the remaining 65 yards to take the lead for good, similarly to how the Browns and Patriots had late-game scoring drives against Pittsburgh's defense in recent weeks.
The defense, which was without T.J. Watt for a third straight game, had no answer on the drive for Wilson, who completed each of his five passes for 57 yards.
"(The) offense did enough," Heyward said afterward. "As a defense, we didn't get off the field enough, especially in the second half. And that's going to haunt me.
"We have to work together on defense. ... It's a cycle where we all have to work together. If one guy wants to eat, he better depend on the other 10 to eat. And the other 10 have to do their job. We all have to be accountable to make these plays and be a good defense."
Was the offense good enough? The unit had more first downs than the Jets (20 to 19), were 50% on third down, and won -- by the slimmest of margins -- time of possession. The running game, while it still averaged fewer than 4 yards per carry, gained a solid 119 yards for the day. Najee Harris had his best effort of the season with 74 yards on 18 carries.
"We're good in the running game," Harris told CBS Sports after the game. "The big plays are going to happen."
Total yards is one area where the Jets offense was better. New York gained 348 yards to Pittsburgh's 297. Trubisky was 7 of 13 for 84 yards in the first half while he and the offense endured boos from the crowd after seemingly every possession. Pickett went 10 of 13 for 120 yards with the three picks as well as the two scoring runs.
"I thought he did some good things," Tomlin said of Pickett's performance. "I thought there was some energy there. We scored some touchdowns, but obviously, we turned the ball over."
The fact is that the Steelers offense was more efficient with Pickett in the huddle on Sunday. Pittsburgh scored 14 points with Pickett in the game and six points with Trubisky under center. Pickett's late-game pick, however, prevented him from emphatically taking the job on Sunday.
"I wanted to win more than anything," Pickett said afterward. "I wanted to win more than anything. So, I don't know what I proved to anybody. But we didn't win. That's one thing we didn't do. That's my only focus."
Pickett's perspective is the right one, and it was one shared by his 52 teammates in what was a somber postgame locker room. The loss dropped the Steelers to 1-3, with upcoming games against the Bills, Buccaneers and Dolphins. Pittsburgh has got to start stacking wins if it is going to avoid its first losing season since 2003.
Along with the next opponent, the Steelers also have to overcome the negativity associated with their current record. They also have to navigate through the drama of a quarterback controversy. This is the time, Harris said, where the Steelers' leadership has to come to the forefront, regardless of who is under center moving forward.
"It's the most important thing we can do right now," Harris said when asked about the Steelers' leadership maintaining a positive attitude. "It's hard. There's a lot of stuff going on, so trying to keep it all together. It's the hardest thing, and trying to perform at the same time. It's part of being a captain. I embrace it."
"It's important for the leaders to not try to change too much of what we're doing," Fitzpatrick added during a one-on-one with CBS Sports. "But it's our time to step up, make the necessary adjustments and make sure everybody's moving forward and not taking steps backwards. ... It's our job, the guys that are seen as leaders, to go in there every day, keep staying on the little details and holding the guys on a high standard."
Do the Steelers have those types of leaders in place?
"We do," Fitzpatrick said. "I think now, we've got to take it to the next level and exemplify what it takes to be a good leader."