The Pittsburgh Steelers are probably getting more hype than any team projected to finish in last place in the AFC North division going into the 2023 NFL season.
It may have something to do with the fact that the Steelers have not had a losing record in the last 19 seasons, and head coach Mike Tomlin has always found a way to keep the team in playoff contention deep into the year. Last place may also be a bad judgment when the Steelers have finished ahead of Cleveland in every season since 1990.
But the hype could also be due to the way the Steelers looked in the preseason. Kenny Pickett was practically flawless in running the offense, and the Steelers’ starting unit scored 5 touchdowns on 5 possessions this preseason.
There are countless examples of preseason results leading to the exact opposite results in the games that count, but there is no denying the Steelers have looked sharp. They also turned a 2-6 start into a 9-8 finish, so the top online sportsbooks giving them over/under 8.5 wins could just be one of the biggest steals this year.
But with the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens still preferred in the division, and the Cleveland Browns hoping for better quarterback play, the Steelers have a tough road to a 20th season without a losing record.
Perhaps the biggest story in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, this year is the lack of change as the team retained embattled offensive coordinator Matt Canada. But the team will be looking for natural progression from its young skill players, a healthy T.J. Watt, and an inspiring draft class to lead the way back to the playoffs this year.
Will the Offense Still Be Blaming Canada?
Tomlin is all for keeping continuity in the coaching staff, so it was not that surprising to see the Steelers keep Matt Canada as the offensive coordinator. But the results are going to have to be significantly better this season to justify the move because most teams would have fired a coach with Canada’s resume.
The Steelers have not had a single game with 400 yards of offense in the 35 games that Canada’s been on the job. Every other team in the NFL has at least 3 such games in that time. The Steelers have not scored more than 30 points in 25 straight games, the longest active streak in the NFL.
Pittsburgh also had a league-low 2 touchdowns that did not come in the red zone last season, so generating big plays was a big problem.
Kenny Pickett only threw 7 touchdown passes on 389 attempts last year. You can see why Diontae Johnson set NFL records for targets and catches in a season without a single touchdown catch.
But Pickett is no longer a rookie. George Pickens, who made some ridiculously talented catches last year, is no longer a rookie. Running back Najee Harris and tight end Pat Freiermuth are going into their 3rd seasons. The Steelers drafted left tackle Broderick Jones in the 1st round, though Dan Moore may still hold onto that job for a line that was not as terrible as expected in 2022.
No More Wiggle Room
Canada is all out of excuses this year. His quarterback is no longer too old (Ben Roethlisberger), too untrustworthy (Mitch Trubisky), or too green that you need to keep the training wheels on (Pickett last year).
If this offense is not more productive and efficient, then Canada must go. He just better hope they did not blow through all their best plays in the preseason, because the Steelers already had multiple plays for touchdowns this August that would have been their longest scores of 2022.
The offense has exciting potential, but you hope they do not have to overcome their coaching to succeed this year on talent alone.
Watt Returns to Lead Defense
It would not be hard to make the argument that T.J. Watt is the most valuable defensive player in the NFL today. The Steelers are 1-10 in games Watt did not play since 2017. They are also 1-2-1 in games where Watt did not play at least 50% of the defensive snaps, so that means 2-12-1 in 15 games where Watt does not play at least half of the snaps.
Even last year, the Steelers won in Cincinnati on opening day in a game where Watt was incredible. But he was injured and did not return until after the bye. The Steelers were 1-6 without Watt, then finished 7-2 with him.
Watt You Talking About?
It is true that Watt was not the same dominant performer in his return from injury last year, and the record had a lot to do with the low caliber of quarterbacks the Steelers faced to end the season. Beating up on Andy Dalton, Matt Ryan, Marcus Mariota, Tyler Huntley, Sam Darnold, Derek Carr, and Deshaun Watson (2022 version) is not as impressive as the stats sound.
But Watt is a difference maker, and as one of the frontrunners for another Defensive Player of the Year award, a fresh slate of health for him is exciting for this defense that still features Cameron Heyward and Minkah Fitzpatrick too. Watt’s absence also helped Alex Highsmith break out last year with a career-high 14.5 sacks.
The Steelers also made additions to the secondary in signing future Hall of Famer Patrick Peterson, and they drafted Joey Porter Jr. with the 32nd pick. Many believed Porter would be a 1st-round pick, so hopefully he takes this with a chip on his shoulder to play for the team that his dad became a household name for. The Steelers have not had many great corners in the Tomlin era.
This draft class should be very useful for this defense for years to come. Beyond Porter, the Steelers added new nose tackle Keeanu Benton in the 2nd round, and 4th-round linebacker Nick Herbig was excellent in the preseason.
2023 Schedule Analysis
In theory, getting a more experienced offense (emphasis on quarterback) and a fresh slate of health for your best defender should produce better results than the 9-8 record the Steelers had last year. But what does the schedule say?
The Steelers are a home underdog in Week 1 against the San Francisco 49ers, but this team already won in Buffalo and Cincinnati the last 2 years. This is really a lesser challenge, and the Steelers could be primed to upset Brock Purdy as he looks to prove his rookie year was not a fluke.
Same Old Brownies
But even if the Steelers start 0-1, they get the Cleveland Browns, at home, on a Monday night in Week 2, a situation they thrive in. The Steelers usually are good at getting a split with the Ravens, and beating the Bengals is not improbable either.
They also will get a couple of games against rookie quarterbacks in Houston (Week 4) with C.J. Stroud and Indianapolis (Week 15) with Anthony Richardson. The Steelers host the projected worst team in the league (Arizona) in December. Four days later, they will host a New England team they could have defeated last year in a low-scoring game if Watt was available.
It would not be crazy for the Steelers to pick up a few wins during a 3-game homestand in the middle of the year against the Jaguars, Titans, and Packers. Trips to the Rams and Seahawks are also winnable in NFC West games.
The division title may still be a stretch if the offense is not on par with the Ravens and Bengals. The Steelers will likely blow a winnable game against the Raiders on the road (per usual).
But the team does look to be moving in the right direction, and it will be fun to see how much Pickett and Pickens can improve this season. Take over 8.5 wins as one of your best NFL ATS bets this season.
NFL Pick: 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers Over 8.5 Wins (-150) at BetRivers
2022 Recap: The Bye Week Bump
It sure looked like Pittsburgh’s streak without a losing season was going to end with a 2-6 start last year. That was even with getting a gift in Cincinnati on opening day when the Bengals botched a pair of short kicks that would have won the game if not for an injury to the long snapper.
But that was a pyrrhic victory as T.J. Watt finished the game with an injury that would knock him out for half the season. Without their best defender, the Steelers lost close, winnable games to teams like the Browns, Patriots, Jets, and Dolphins where Watt could have made a difference.
They also picked an interesting time to bench Mitch Trubisky for rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett. He made an impact on the offense against the Jets, but the defense blew a 10-point lead in the 4th quarter in a crushing loss. Pickett made his 1st start in Buffalo, a 38-3 loss where he played better than the numbers suggested.
Pickett was knocked out of the Tampa win with a concussion, then returned a week later in Miami. He threw a pair of crucial interceptions late in the 4th quarter, wasting a defensive effort that shut the Dolphins out after halftime.
On the bright side, the 2-6 start only saw the team get blown out by elite teams like the Bills and Eagles. If the Steelers could get Watt back and Pickett could cut down on the interceptions, then they had a shot once the schedule eased up after the Week 9 bye.
That was exactly what happened. The Steelers finished 7-2 with the defense dominating and only 2 turnovers with Pickett on the field. Pickett was concussed a 2nd time against the Ravens, leading to Trubisky throwing 3 interceptions off the bench in a tough 16-14 loss at home.
Pickett returned for the big Saturday night game against the Raiders in Week 16. In the final minutes, he led a game-winning touchdown drive in the same situation he botched in Miami before the bye.
A week later in Baltimore, Pickett did the same thing and against a better defense in a 16-13 win. The Steelers beat the Browns 28-14 to end the season 9-8, another winning record. But this time it was not good enough for the playoffs.
Pickett did not improve dramatically as a passer after the bye week, but he did significantly cut down his turnovers and had a few impressive game-winning drives as his game management was better. The Steelers went from converting 33.6% on 3rd down in their first 8 games (ranked No. 27) to converting 54.3% in the final 9 games (ranked No. 1).
Odd Team Out
The Steelers joined the 1995 Vikings as the only teams since 1991 to convert 50% of their 3rd downs in the final 9 games of the season and not qualify for the playoffs. The Vikings would make the playoffs in 1996.
Pittsburgh’s defense did not allow more than 17 points in the final 7 games of the season, the longest streak the team has had since 2001. It is tied for the longest streak by a team to end a regular season since the 2006 Ravens, and the last team with such a streak to miss the playoffs was the 1976 Giants.
The Steelers ended last year doing things that you expect from playoff teams, but 2-6 was just a little too deep of a hole to dig out of for that.