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Fans don’t have to be illogical when discussing the Steelers prospects in 2023

“Absolutely, Bryan. I think these 2019 Steelers have a new spirit. They’re closer. They’ve bonded over the controversial offseason, and this closeness will manifest itself on the field.”

I don’t know if that was ever an exact quote from yours truly back when I was doing a weekly podcast four years ago, but I remember saying a lot of things like that when it came to talking or writing about the 2019 Steelers and the loss of receiver Antonio Brown, who infamously disgruntled his way out of Pittsburgh following an ugly collapse to close out the 2018 regular season.

“Donte Moncrief doesn’t need to give the Steelers a 100-plus catch season, Bryan. He needs to give them two-thirds of that production. He’s a veteran, and according to reports out of training camp, he is developing excellent chemistry with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.”

Moncrief was a veteran receiver whom the Steelers had signed in free agency in the 2019 offseason; he came to Pittsburgh with 200 career receptions in five seasons with both Indianapolis and Jacksonville. Moncrief would be joining a new Steelers receiving corps that included JuJu Smith-Schuster, the 2018 team MVP who was quickly becoming the most popular player among the fans; James Washington, a second-round pick from the year before who was looking to rebound from a disappointing rookie campaign; Diontae Johnson, a rookie third-round pick and a bit of a poor man’s AB; Johnny Holton; and Ryan Switzer, who many hoped could fit the slot receiver mold of a Wes Welker/Julian Edelman.

Those six players, though not nearly as talented as Brown individually, were collectively going to pull their weight and usher in a new receiving era in Pittsburgh.

That never quite happened.

Moncrief, for example, tallied a broken finger and four receptions before being released.

The inability to replace Brown’s production may have had something to do with Roethlisberger suffering a serious elbow injury in Week 2 and being lost for the rest of the season.

But who are we kidding? It also had something to do with Brown, despite his palpable toxicity and selfishness, not being around to lift the Steelers up all by himself–a feat he had managed to perform countless times during his nine seasons in Pittsburgh.

I think the departure of Brown in 2019, along with the exodus of All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell who signed with the Jets after holding out all of 2018, are great starting points when discussing what it was like being a Steelers fan the last few seasons.

Fans had to sort of talk themselves into thinking the team could still be good despite not being able to truly replace the talents of both Brown and Bell–two perennial superstars whom Mark Madden often called “The Toxic Twins.”

Steelers faithful had to find illogical reasons to believe that Roethlisberger, 38 and coming off a major elbow injury and subsequent surgery, could regain his prime form and compete on the same level as Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and Aaron Rodgers in 2020.

We often pushed back at those national pundits when they disrespected the Steelers, especially all throughout the 2021 offseason; Pittsburgh was cash-strapped due to years of kicking the can down the road, and with resources quite scarce, offered Roethlisberger, 39, a chance to come back at a reduced rate.

He did.

Even with Roethlisberger around for one final season, the Steelers were in rebuild mode heading into 2021; despite then-general manager Kevin Colbert getting into some hot water for making this statement following the departures of Brown and Bell in 2019, Roethlisberger really did have “52 kids under him” in 2021.

To put it more bluntly, the 2021 Steelers were essentially a carcass and 52 newborns.

How that old carcass dragged those babies to a playoff berth is beyond me, but that didn’t change the fact that the 2021 Steelers were a hard team to watch week in and week out. I said as much in a column I wrote following a 36-10 post-Christmas drubbing at the hands of the Chiefs. 

The negative reaction to that article–including a “Worst Take” Award–told me that many fans were still trying to find illogical reasons for why the Steelers were good.

Even last year, with veteran Mitch Trubisky and then rookie Kenny Pickett replacing the retired old gunslinger, fans were conning themselves into believing the Steelers could compete.

“Sure, Bryan, I think the Steelers can win even without T.J. Watt.”

I remember saying something like that on the podcast the day after Pittsburgh survived the Bengals in a Week 1 overtime win to begin the 2022 campaign. The Steelers may have survived, but Watt, the 2021 Defensive Player of the Year and the team’s new reason for any hope of a season, did not.

Watt missed seven games with a pectoral injury, and the Steelers lost six of them. They were not a fun team to watch during their 2-6 start. Frankly, they didn’t look a whole lot better while winning seven of nine games to close out the year.

The fans just didn’t want to accept the obvious talent gap that existed between the Steelers and the true NFL contenders over the past few years.

Thankfully, it feels different heading into 2023.

Pickett has a year under his belt and just turned in one helluva preseason.

Many players who were babies just a couple of years ago are now capable veterans.

The rebuilding that took place over the past few seasons was frustrating, but it now looks to be finished. The Steelers have built their roster up and out. They have superstar-capable talent and even decent depth at several positions.

I’m not suggesting the Steelers are “there” just yet, but they’re more capable of doing damage this season than they have been since 2018.

How many games will Pittsburgh win in 2023? I think 10-plus is realistic. I believe Pickett will make a giant leap in his second season. It appears that George Pickens, a second-year receiver with all the talent in the world, is on the cusp of greatness.

That offensive line is now deep and talented. The defense, if it remains relatively healthy, can be a major factor in 2023.

I genuinely expect these Steelers to compete for and maybe even win the AFC North this year.

I can’t believe I actually believe what I’m saying.

But I do.

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