5 Steelers Poised to Lead Pittsburgh’s Offensive Resurgence
The Steelers’ 2022 regular season turned out to be a smoother transition from the Big Ben Era than many fans and pundits expected. Instead of dropping through the NFL floor into the cellar as some predicted, the Steelers were playing respectable football during the latter part of the season while compiling a 9-8 record. But anytime a Steelers team fails to qualify for the playoffs, particularly when it falters in key matchups against top-echelon opponents, the need for further upgrades becomes evident.
Based on what we’ve seen so far in Steelers training camp — and also in Friday’s preseason opener in toasty Tampa — Coach Tomlin’s team appears on track as we move closer to Opening Day. In terms of positional depth and sheer talent, the 2023 Steelers roster appears to have the makings of a significantly better team than the one we watched last season. As their annual training camp comes to an end, the Steelers look tangibly stronger as the result of talented rookies acquired in the 2023 NFL Draft, the continuing development of other young players drafted during the previous two years, plus the signings of some veteran free agents. Taken as a whole, these changes might turn out to be precisely the upgrades necessary to propel this team to the level of legitimate playoff contenders.
What remains to be seen is the extent to which the Steelers’ new blood translates to their capability for seriously challenging AFC powers such as the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals. Likewise, the Steelers’ season opener with the San Francisco 49ers will be a stern test, not only of their preparation for games that count, but also of how competitive this team can be in matchups against one of the league’s strongest teams.
Sophomore Kenny Pickett obviously occupies the hottest seat of all due to the traditionally stratospheric expectations of fans and pundits concerning the team’s starting QB. Natural comparisons will be made to Ben Roethlisberger at a comparable stage of his storied career. While not necessarily valid, such comparisons seem unavoidable due to the overriding importance of Pickett’s role in the team’s success.
But looking beyond the QB position, the ability of the Black-and-Gold to reach the next level seems likely to hinge on the performance of several young players expected eventually to distinguish themselves as NFL stars. The focus here is on the offensive players (listed in order of importance) poised for breakout seasons in 2023:
1) Najee Harris: So far during his brief NFL career, No. 22 has suffered mainly from spotty OL play. Some Harris critics might forget how many times during the past two seasons Najee has been running into brick walls. But in view of significant upgrades to the Steelers’ OL, this looks like the season when run-blocking no longer will be an obstacle. For Pittsburgh to reclaim its accustomed status as a perennial NFL contender, Najee must become the team’s offensive catalyst — not only with his speed and power as a ball carrier, but also with his ability to be a dangerous receiver option. Given adequate space to work his magic, few would doubt Najee’s ability to deliver game-changing plays on a regular basis.
2) Jaylen Warren: The Steelers have only scratched the surface of No. 30’s unique abilities to serve as the ideal bookend to Harris. By the end of the 2023 regular season, it won’t be too surprising to see this backfield tandem emerge as one of the league’s best. With his tough burst up the middle in Tampa, Warren once again showcased the slashing, elusive running style which gives the Steelers’ running attack a genuine, two-fisted punch. Like Najee, Jaylen is reliable and equally dangerous as a receiver with his uncanny ability to make cuts on a dime and break tackles. The aforementioned OL upgrades will be equally beneficial for improving Warren’s production this season.
3) George Pickens: Just as the potential of Harris and Warren remains largely untapped, the same applies to Pickens. This is a receiver who’s already nearly impossible to cover under normal circumstances, let alone considering his remarkable ability to consistently make acrobatic, contested catches. And with his talented teammates Diontae Johnson and Pat Freiermuth, Pickens will have ample opportunities to capitalize on single-coverage.
4) Broderick Jones: 2023 likely will be distinguished as the year when the Steelers finally decided to bite the bullet and invest their No. 1 draft pick in a player capable of anchoring an improved OL. During the past few seasons, the Steelers have attempted a patchwork approach on the OL. Predictably, the results were disappointing. Barring injury, it’s hard to imagine that Jones won’t be starting at some point during his rookie season — probably sooner rather than later.
5) Darnell Washington: As impressive as Calvin Austin III has been in training camp, as well as in the first preseason game, Washington seems more likely to make a greater overall impact on the offense because of his exceptional size and ability to bolster the Steelers’ blocking schemes. While Austin deserves honorable mention in this category, it’s unlikely his impressive speed, by itself, will translate consistently to the result we saw on his TD pass from Mason Rudolph in Tampa.
By comparison, Washington gives the Steelers a two-headed monster at the tight-end position which will make defending Pickett’s offense a far more difficult assignment. Particularly in short-yardage and Red Zone situations, Washington’s dual value to the team as a blocker seems to carry greater value. Even the speediest NFL wideouts typically find themselves matched up against equally fleet cornerbacks. But a huge, athletic tight end can provide more versatility to an offensive scheme.
Considering the impressive talent level of these young players, this is quite an exciting time for Steelers Nation. During the months ahead, regardless of the setbacks which inevitably occur during a 17-game grind, the Steelers faithful have every reason to believe this season will hasten the evolution of Pittsburgh’s offense to the point where it more closely resembles the kind of unit fans have so anxiously been awaiting.