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State of the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers: Kenny Pickett poised to make Year 2 leap ... and nab a playoff spot?

Where does your squad stand in 2023? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Steelers organization, Steelers fans around the world and those who still pretend to love those bumblebee throwbacks ...

Mike Tomlin's Steelers did it. After sitting at 3-7 in late November, Pittsburgh won six of its final seven games to finish at 9-8, thus preventing the head coach from suffering his first losing season. Sixteen years on the job, zero sub-.500 campaigns. Pretty darn impressive. That said, it's been 14 years since this proud franchise hoisted the Lombardi Trophy and a dozen years since the Steelers reached Super Bowl Sunday. Are Tomlin and Co. in the ring hunt in 2023? Will they at least make a playoff push after a postseason-free 2022 campaign? That's what we're here to explore.

2022 rewind

One high from last season: An Immaculate anniversary. As noted just above, the Steelers finished last season pretty strong, prevailing in their final four games, including a tight win over the rival Ravens in Week 17 and a comfortable victory over the Browns in the season finale. But for me, nothing was more touching than the seeing the Steelers win the 50th anniversary of the "Immaculate Reception" against the Raiders in Week 16. With the game taking place just days after the sudden death of Franco Harris, it was an emotional scene at Acrisure Stadium, and the Steelers scored a touchdown in the final minute to come out on top, 13-10.

One low from last season: The beatdown in Buffalo. Pittsburgh had closer defeats that, in hindsight, included blown opportunities which ultimately cost the team a playoff bid. But still, the low point was not just losing a fourth straight game to start the season at 1-4, but losing said game 38-3. The Bills absolutely humiliated the Steelers, inducing a straightforward summation from Coach Tomlin in the postgame: "We just got smashed today."

2023 VIPs

Quarterback: Kenny Pickett. One of the highlights of the 2022 NFL Draft was the sheer joy from Franco Harris as he announced Pickett's selection at No. 20 overall. That would be the last time many of us would see the Hall of Fame running back before his passing, and Franco's unbridled enthusiasm over the Steelers selecting the local product out of Pitt was infectious.

Now, Pickett didn't exactly roar out of the gates, with his first start coming in the aforementioned 35-point loss to Buffalo in Week 5. The following Sunday, Pickett managed just 67 yards passing, and in Week 7, he threw three interceptions. But the rookie started to find himself after the team's Week 9 bye. In his final eight games, Pickett threw just one interception. He's far from a finished product, but the only first-round quarterback from last year showed enough promise as a rookie to suggest he could make a big jump in Year 2. Speaking of which ...

Projected 2023 MVP: Pickett. The Steelers suffered one loss over the final seven weeks of the season: a 16-14 setback vs. the rival Ravens in Week 14. In related news, Pickett was sidelined by a concussion in the first quarter of that game, with Mitch Trubisky coming in to throw three interceptions in relief. This helped to underscore Pickett's importance to the Steelers' operation. Although he didn't assemble the most awe-inspiring highlight reel in Year 1, Pickett simply showcased the poise to win games. At the end of the day, isn't that what it's all about? I anticipate that he'll take more command of the offense this fall and make the kind of leap that cements him as the rightful heir to Ben Roethlisberger's throne.

New face to know: Patrick Peterson, cornerback. Pittsburgh's pass defense wasn't terrible last season, but hey, any time you can add a presence like Pat Pete, you have to do it. (Like when the Chipotle manager offers you free guac. You don't sit there and question it -- you happily accept the kind gesture and enjoy your upgraded burrito.) Not to mention, the Steelers lost versatile cover man Cameron Sutton and safety Terrell Edmunds in free agency. But Peterson wasn't the only addition to the defensive backfield. Pittsburgh also added safety Keanu Neal in free agency and nabbed cornerback Joey Porter Jr. with the first pick of the second round. That latter, of course, is a Steelers legacy whose dad earned first-team All-Pro honors with the franchise. Heady stuff.

2023 breakout star: DeMarvin Leal, defensive end. A third-round pick in 2022, Leal's rookie season was limited to 11 games due to injury, but the versatile defensive lineman flashed some intriguing potential. The Steelers re-signed Larry Ogunjobi and drafted Keeanu Benton in the second round, but it won't surprise me if Leal emerges as a more impactful force on the defensive interior by midseason.

2023 braintrust

Table inside Article
Head coach Mike Tomlin
General manager Omar Khan
Offensive coordinator Matt Canada
Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin
Special teams coordinator Danny Smith
  • Pittsburgh has not suffered a losing season since 2003, the longest active streak in the NFL. (Only the Cowboys -- who went 21 straight seasons without a losing record from 1965 through 1985 -- boast a longer run than the Steelers' current 19-year streak.) In 16 years as Pittsburgh's head man, Mike Tomlin has compiled a .636 winning percentage (163-93-2), winning seven division titles and a ring in the process. Not too shabby.
  • Honestly, I'm surprised Matt Canada is still running this offense. Pittsburgh hasn't cracked the top 20 in scoring or total offense in either of Canada's two years at the helm. Over the past couple seasons, per NFL Research, the Steelers have averaged just 19.2 points per game (26th in the NFL) and 4.9 yards per play (31st). I'm assuming Pickett's more promising play down the stretch last season might have saved Canada's job, but the longtime college coach still needs to prove his worth at the NFL level.
  • Teryl Austin is in his first year as Steelers defensive coordinator, having spent the past three seasons in Pittsburgh as a senior defensive assistant and secondary coach. He previously served as defensive coordinator for the Lions and Bengals, producing mixed results. Maybe the third DC gig's a charm.
  • Omar Khan did a fantastic job exchanging Chase Claypool for what would turn out to be the first pick of the second round in April (Joey Porter Jr.). At least that's what the Steelers fans keep telling me. (I'm a Bears fan, in case you didn't know.)

Roster reshuffling

Below is a rundown of the Steelers' most notable roster developments for the 2023 season, including this year's draft class, as well as key acquisitions and departures via free agency and trade.

Table inside Article
Draft class (round-pick) Key additions Key departures
Broderick Jones, OT, Georgia (1-14) Allen Robinson, WR Benny Snell, RB
Joey Porter Jr., CB, Penn State (2-32) Le'Raven Clark, OT Derek Watt, FB
Keeanu Benton, DT, Wisconsin (2-49) Nate Herbig, OG Malik Reed, OLB
Darnell Washington, TE, Georgia (3-93) Isaac Seumalo, OG Tyson Alualu, DL
Nick Herbig, OLB, Wisconsin (4-132) Armon Watts, DT Chris Wormley, DL
Cory Trice Jr., CB, Purdue (7-241) Cole Holcomb, LB Devin Bush, LB
Spencer Anderson, OL, Maryland (7-251) Elandon Roberts, LB Myles Jack, LB
Patrick Peterson, CB Robert Spillane, LB
Chandon Sullivan, CB Cameron Sutton, CB
Keanu Neal, S Terrell Edmunds, S

2023 roadmap

Three key dates:

  • Week 1 vs. San Francisco 49ers. This works out pretty well for the Steelers. Yes, San Francisco is always a tough draw these days. But the 49ers head into this season with serious uncertainty at the quarterback position, so Week 1 might be the best time to play them.
  • Week 8 vs. Jacksonville Jaguars. This should be a pretty good midseason barometer for Pittsburgh, hosting a rising team that's favored to repeat as a division champion and potentially do some damage in the AFC playoffs.
  • Week 18 at Baltimore Ravens. I mean, the rivalry. Obviously. NO love lost in this juicy matchup. But also, this regular-season finale closes out a three-week stretch in which the Steelers will face three playoff teams from last season: vs. Cincinnati in Week 16, at Seattle in Week 17, at Baltimore in Week 18. If the Steelers end up with a playoff bid, they'll have earned it.

Will the Steelers be able to ...

... field a top defense with T.J. Watt back at full strength? The 2021 Defensive Player of the Year missed seven games last season after suffering a pectoral injury in Week 1, and Pittsburgh's performance revolved around Watt's availability -- or lack thereof. With Watt in the lineup, per NFL Research, the Steelers posted an 8-2 record while allowing 16.9 points and 288.8 yards per game. Without him? The Steelers went 1-6, giving up 25.3 points and 389.9 yards per game. That's a stark difference. I know I already pegged Kenny Pickett as the team's likely MVP in 2023, and I stand by that, because the Steelers won't go anywhere in a loaded AFC North if Pickett doesn't continue his progression. But give Watt his flowers, too, because the numbers show just how critical he is to the defense. (And yes, I promise to never again use that "flowers" phraseology in the remainder of this series. I already regret it.)

... rely on Najee Harris to get back to his rookie form? Harris rushed for exactly 1,200 yards as a rookie, making the Pro Bowl and creating big expectations for his sophomore campaign. But this past season, he barely cleared 1,000 yards, logging just a single 100-yard game. A Lisfranc injury in training camp certainly didn't help, as Harris struggled to get going over the first two months of the season, averaging just 3.3 yards per carry and 45.1 rushing yards per game while scoring a grand total of one touchdown. After Pittsburgh's Week 9 bye, though, he appeared to get his groove back, averaging 4.1 yards per carry and 74.8 rushing yards per game while scoring seven touchdowns. Your fantasy team might've already been buried by that point, but such is life. Can Harris carry over his production from the second half of last season into the 2023 campaign? Well, the Steelers continued their O-line overhaul by significantly upgrading the left side with free-agent guard Isaac Seumalo and first-round tackle Broderick Jones.

One storyline ...

... people shouldn't overthink: Diontae Johnson didn't score a touchdown last season. Dude still led the Steelers with 86 receptions and 882 yards. It seems impossible that he didn't hit paydirt once in 2022, despite being targeted 147 times. I feel like the guy could be due for a major positive regression this year. It's not like he's alergic to the end zone -- Johnson scored seven touchdowns in 2020 and eight in 2021. And it's not like opposing defenses will be able to solely focus on keeping Diontae from putting the ball in the paint. George Pickens looked pretty freakin' impressive as a rookie, piling up 801 yards at a healthy 15.4 per catch. Also, according to PFF, he hauled in 19 contested catches, ranking third behind only Justin Jefferson (22) and DK Metcalf (20). Pickens' promising play in Year 1 clearly factored into the Steelers' comfortability with trading Chase Claypool. Pittsburgh also added veteran wideout Allen Robinson in a different trade. And I haven't even mentioned Pat Freiermuth, the first tight end since 1990 with 60-plus receptions in each of his first two seasons. Long story short: I expect Johnson to score plenty of touchdowns as a prominent part of a well-rounded receiving corps with dangerous potential.

For 2023 to be a success, the Steelers MUST:

  • Return to the playoffs. And even that might ultimately prove underwhelming. The Steelers haven't been to a conference championship game since the 2016 season, which also marks the last time they won a playoff game. This is Pittsburgh. January irrelevance is not OK.

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