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- The Steelers sure look like the same team as last year. What should we expect, then?
The Steelers sure look like the same team as last year. What should we expect, then?
If, after five games, I had told you that the Steelers held a 3-2 record, few would have been surprised. That mark seems to hold legitimacy after facing the 49ers — one of the best teams in the NFL — plus the Browns, Texans and Ravens, who have had promising years.
However, the method through which Pittsburgh has won 60% of its contests until its bye has not been as anticipated based on its offseason.
Based on a near-spotless offensive preseason and the acquisition of several gap-filling, high-upside players, most expected the Steelers to be a team to have taken a jump, particularly regarding its scoring production. But, that’s been anything but so far.
The Steelers’ offense ranks 28th in offensive DVOA and has scored 20+ points in only one game (given that they scored two defensive touchdowns against Cleveland). On top of that, Matt Canada’s unit has accrued 15.8 points per game (30th), sits 29th in offensive EPA/play and is last in success rate.
Sound familiar? Last season, the Steelers scored 18.1 points per game, but ranked in the top 14 in offensive DVOA, EPA/play and success rate. In 2021, Pittsburgh scored 20.2 points per contest and was 31st in success rate, 25th in DVOA and 23rd in EPA/play.
For three straight seasons, the Steelers have fielded one of the most pitiful offenses in the league. Despite signing Allen Robinson and Isaac Seumalo and drafting Broderick Jones and Darnell Washington, the unit has largely had no rhythm and failed to move the ball downfield throughout the entirety of 2023. Per Arjun Menon, Pittsburgh has gone three-and-out on 47% of its drives, the worst in the NFL — underscoring a staggering lack of cohesion.
In the last three seasons, which coincides with Canada’s tenure as offensive coordinator, Pittsburgh has amassed 28+ points in five of 38 games, good for a 13.2% rate of contests. The only squad with fewer such games in that span is the Giants. To put it bluntly, not scoring and looking lost on offense is nothing new whatsoever.
With such woeful production from one side of the ball, it may be perplexing to understand how Mike Tomlin’s team could be above .500 and with a legitimate chance of making the postseason. Therein lies the exact beauty (really repulsiveness) of Steelers football: winning rockfight games because of stellar and clutch defensive play.
In 2023, the Steelers’ defense is 11th in defensive DVOA, 10th in EPA/play and 16th in success rate, permitting 22 points per game. In both of the last two years, Pittsburgh has allowed no more than 23.4 PPG and has ranked no worse than 13th in success rate. While the team’s defense has been far from perfect, it’s relied on pretty consistent pass rush consistency and timely stops to not just limit damage, but also buoy maybe the worst offense in the NFL.
Rehashing Pittsburgh’s three wins through this point largely fits that exact script, for which Tomlin & Co. may as well win a Tony Award at this point. In all three, Pittsburgh’s offense scored no more than 23 points and posted under 333 yards (!). Meanwhile, Teryl Austin’s defense got home to opposing quarterbacks at least four times, and notched a minimum of three turnovers.
The formula truly could not be more clear for Pittsburgh, whether evaluating just this season or the broader few years: do just enough offensively as a game winds down to score some type of points after not doing so for nearly 50-55 minutes, and pair it with sacks and turnovers — particularly when games are in their waning stages. In light of the fact that Tomlin is not believed to make any noteworthy staff or personnel changes subsequent to the team’s bye, don’t expect that to be any different in the second part of 2023.
Rather than beckon for the firing of Canada, which appears little more than a chimera at this rate, what should fans expect the rest of the way?
Candidly, not much improvement in scoring. Yes, the return of Diontae Johnson should be significant in pairing with George Pickens, who’s proven capable of handling WR1 duties without the fifth-year man. But, Canada is still liable for play designs that do very little to confuse defenses; Kenny Pickett has yet to read the field or hang in the pocket at a consistent level; and the team’s offensive line has not seemed to fully gel so far.
In terms of down the line, the team should still be able to stay afloat for much of the year, especially against weaker teams where its frustrating yet somewhat successful style has proven effective. Pittsburgh should be able to win against the Titans, Packers, Cardinals, Patriots and Colts, with the rest of its games seeming to be somewhat of toss-ups. Even in a strong AFC and looking truly lost at times, Tomlin’s team has a real shot at making the playoffs.
If the Steelers are able to sneak in — as they’re wont to do — to the postseason, though, things may not be pretty. The 2021 team adhered to much of the same blueprint, only to get routed by the Chiefs in Kansas City, 42-21. A matchup against AFC frontrunners like KC, Miami or Buffalo would likely not be pretty for the black and gold because of a clear talent, scheme and coaching deficiency.
Overall, it’s not as if this Steelers team is a carbon copy of last year; after all, Pickens’ breakout and improved linebacker play have been definite bright spots, while cornerback play has taken a dip. But, with 12 games left on the docket, it’s hard to get the sense that any radical changes have — or will have — manifested themselves, meaning more anxiety-inducing football on the brink of contention should be in store.