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Steelers need to overcome a lot to meet playoff expectations in 2023

The Steelers are set to begin yet another training camp at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa, and, believe it or not, there are some actual expectations for the franchise as it prepares for the 2023 regular season.

Oh, sure, fans may be realistic enough to know a Super Bowl–Seventh Heaven–probably shouldn’t be the goal. But what about making the playoffs? What about winning a postseason game for the first time in six years? Is either possible in 2023? Anything is possible, but the Steelers will have a lot to overcome to meet even those less-lofty expectations.

Read on to see just some of the obstacles the Steelers will face in 2023.

Trying to win with an outdated philosophy

It’s no secret that head coach Mike Tomlin played it safe in 2022. It was his first season without Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback, and the offensive approach couldn’t have been more conservative. The philosophy a season ago was to win with defense and running the football. If the quarterback was to be a huge factor in winning games, it was by not turning the football over. If things were close at the end, well, Tomlin had no choice but to let the quarterback try and win it. Otherwise, he had to be the ultimate game manager.

Perhaps the best example of this approach being successful was in Week 1 when veteran Mitch Trubisky played it as as safe as humanly possible during a 23-20 overtime victory against the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

Trubisky completed 21 of 38 passes for 294 yards and a touchdown in 70 minutes of action, as the game was won on Chris Boswell’s 53-yard field goal on the final play of overtime. Did the running game do most of the heavy lifting that day? Not even close; Pittsburgh racked up 75 yards, with 36 of them coming on six carries by receiver Chase Claypool. Running back Najee Harris may have scored the only offensive touchdown of the day for the Steelers, but it was on a catch.

Harris only tallied 23 yards on 10 carries on the ground.

The star of the day was a Steelers’ defense that sacked quarterback Joe Burrow seven times. Pittsburgh’s defense also recorded five takeaways–including four interceptions. In fact, the Steelers’ first score of the game came when safety Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepted a Burrow pass and returned it for a touchdown early in the first quarter.

Unfortunately, the Steelers’ approach took a huge blow when T.J. Watt, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, suffered a serious pectoral injury late in regulation and was lost for the next seven weeks. Without Watt, the Steelers lost six of their next seven games and were sitting at 2-6 at the bye.

Watt returned in time for a Week 10 game vs. the Saints at Acrisure Stadium. Pittsburgh won that game and six more down the stretch to finish with a 9-8 record. The Steelers may have missed the playoffs by one game, but they established an identity on offense over the final nine weeks. That identity was the best execution of the blueprint Tomlin laid out at the beginning of the year.  Kenny Pickett, the rookie first-round pick, became the starting quarterback after he was thrust into the lineup midway through a Week 4 matchup against the Jets at Acrisure Stadium. The youngster may have thrown nine interceptions on the season, but eight of them came before the bye.

As for the rushing attack? While it was very underwhelming before the bye, it became the engine for the offense over the final nine weeks. Pittsburgh finished with 2073 yards on the ground in 2022. Harris eclipsed the 1000-yard mark with 1,034, while rookie Jaylen Warren added another 379.

The offensive line, a unit that had been much-maligned over the first eight games, really began to gel over the final nine weeks, especially when it came to blocking for the run.

Can the Steelers use that same blueprint in 2023, however? Things may have improved over the final nine games, but the offense was still very anemic. Even with a more effective ground game that helped the Steelers finish sixth in the NFL in time of possession with an average of 31:18 a game, they still only scored 20.8 points per week after the bye–or just 2.7 points more per game than they averaged all year. Yes, it was 5.8 points per game higher than the offense was averaging before the bye, but the unit certainly didn’t pass the eye test in terms of effectiveness.

What about the defensive side of the philosophy? The unit did finish 13th which, believe it or not, was 11 spots higher than it finished in 2021 when Watt was the best defensive player in the NFL. Obviously, it stands to reason that Watt’s injury hurt the defense and hindered the team’s ability to win in 2022. But even with Watt playing at a dominant level in Cincinnati in Week 1, and even with the defense terrorizing Burrow for most of the game–especially Fitzpatrick–the Bengals still managed to rack up 471 yards and would have won the game in regulation, if not for Fitzpatrick blocking an extra point with seconds remaining.

Pittsburgh’s ranking in time of possession a year ago was encouraging, considering the Bengals, 49ers and Eagles, three of the best teams in the NFL in 2022, finished third, fourth and fifth, respectively. However, it’s no secret that those aforementioned teams also have explosive offenses. In fact, Pittsburgh’s defense had few answers for the Eagles in a 35-13 blowout loss at Lincoln Financial Field right before the bye. Pittsburgh may have won the battle of time of possession–34:18-25:42–but not much else, as Philadelphia’s high-powered offense hit on several big plays to establish a huge lead early in the game.

Maybe the Steelers can have a top-10 defense in 2023 with a healthy Watt. Perhaps the addition of a veteran such as cornerback Patrick Peterson can solidify the secondary. Maybe the defense’s improved depth can make up for a key injury or two.

But it’s hard to imagine even an elite defense being able to produce more than another nine-win season if Tomlin is hellbent on utilizing the same ultra-conservative approach on offense in 2023.

PS,

The Chiefs, your defending Super Bowl Champions, finished 13th in time of possession in 2022.

Kenny Pickett

There is optimism that Pickett really is the future at quarterback for the Steelers. Unfortunately, the fans don’t have much to pin that optimism on. Pickett’s rookie stat line of 2,404 passing yards, seven touchdowns and nine interceptions doesn’t inspire much hope on its own. Thankfully, Pickett did appear to improve over the second half of his rookie season. And there were those two game-winning drives in Weeks 16 and 17, respectfully.

There wasn’t much else from Pickett in 2022, save for his ability to throw on the run, a trait that might already be similar to, dare I say, Patrick Mahomes. But Pickett will have to develop many more elite characteristics if he’s going to rise to the level of the top quarterbacks in the NFL. While this may happen sooner rather than later, the odds of Pickett making that kind of jump in 2023 seem long.

A major improvement would be nice, though.

Even that might not be enough to allow the Steelers to truly compete in 2023. The AFC is loaded with good-to-great teams, led by good-to-great quarterbacks. Pittsburgh’s three AFC North opponents head into 2023 with quarterbacks far more accomplished and experienced than Pickett. Throw in Mahomes in Kansas City, Justin Herbert in Los Angeles, Josh Allen in Buffalo, the newly-added Aaron Rodgers in New York…I can go on, but there is no need.

You get the point.

There is a serious arms race currently taking place in the AFC, and Pittsburgh might be outgunned with a second-year quarterback who may need another season of seasoning before he’s able to compete with that level of firepower.

Matt Canada

I hate to mention Canada’s name because, as far as many fans and media members are concerned, the blame for what ails the Steelers begins and ends with him. This has been the case with every offensive coordinator since the days of Bruce Arians, but at least Arians accomplished something in Pittsburgh. The same could be said for Todd Haley. Heck, you can even make a case for Randy Fichtner. Sure, it would be a weak case, but you could point to some successes during his three years as the Steelers offensive coordinator.

As for Canada? Where is the evidence that he’s anything but an incompetent offensive coordinator?

Maybe you could have given him the benefit of the doubt over his first two years. After all, his marriage with Ben Roethlisberger in 2021 was a match made in hell. As for 2022, it was pretty obvious that Canada was getting his conservative marching orders from Tomlin. Maybe that was because the Steelers went with a rookie quarterback for most of the year. Maybe it was because Tomlin simply wanted to try and win with running and defense, no matter who was at quarterback (Trubisky wasn’t exactly slinging it when he was in there). Either way, Canada did nothing in 2021 and 2022 to convince anyone he can be an effective offensive coordinator in 2023.

And the next time Canada attacks the middle of the field with the passing game, will be the first since he took over as OC in 2021.

No star power on offense

The Steelers offense is very young and seems to have a few budding stars–including Harris, tight end Pat Freiermuth and receiver George Pickens. Throw in Pickett and a seemingly improved offensive line, and there is cause for optimism that the unit could take a step forward in 2023.

It’s going to have to take a few steps forward if the Steelers are going to compete with the elite teams in the AFC, however. The Chiefs have star power oozing from every orifice of their offense. You can say similar things about the Bills and Bengals.

There were plenty of offensive All-Pros in 2022, but none of them were in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers may have some superstars on defense, but modern football is all about having star power on the offensive side of the ball. The  mid-2010 Steelers were able to carry a so-so defense to division titles and an AFC Championship Game appearance because they had superstars at quarterback, along the offensive line, wide receiver and running back.

Having defensive star power might help the Steelers stay afloat in 2023, but it might not allow them to truly compete in a stacked AFC.

The Field

I think it’s safe to assume the Chiefs, Bills and Bengals have already qualified for playoff spots. They’re deep, they’re talented, and they’re led by arguably the top three quarterbacks in the game today.

The Jets were a young and improved team in 2022 that seemed to be only a quarterback away from becoming a serious contender. That might be a reality now that New York has traded for Rodgers.

The Ravens are always a legit contender when Lamar Jackson is healthy. He hasn’t been healthy much over the past two years, but you can’t count on injuries.

The Chargers are a talented team with a quarterback in Herbert who appears to be close to reaching the same level as Burrow and Allen…maybe even Mahomes.

The Dolphins, who just edged out Pittsburgh for the seventh and final playoff spot in 2022, look to be a talented team on the rise.

The same could be said for a young Jaguars squad, fresh off of an improbable AFC South title followed by an even more improbable comeback win over Los Angeles on Wildcard Weekend. Trevor Lawrence may be as talented as any young quarterback in the NFL, and he may just be hitting his stride heading into his third season.

The Browns have a talented roster and will have the services of quarterback Deshaun Watson for a full season in 2023.

The Raiders, like the Steelers, a team always in contention for that final wildcard spot, replaced the respectable Derek Carr with the respectable Jimmy Garoppolo. Much like Carr, Garoppolo will never be one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks, but he’s really good.

What I’m saying is this: Even if the Steelers improve as a team in 2023, that might not be enough to make the playoffs. And even if it is enough, it might not be enough to do any real damage once they get there.

The oddsmakers

The over/under for Steelers wins in 2023 is 8.5. That means Vegas is expecting Pittsburgh to finish with eight or nine victories. If that total looks familiar to you, it’s because it’s the same number the oddsmakers gave the Steelers one year ago before they went on to finish 9-8.

Vegas is rarely wrong.

There you have it.

Finally, this isn’t to say the Steelers can’t compete for and win a playoff game in 2023, but they’re going to have to hurdle at least a few of these obstacles in order to do so.

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