Plenty Of Reasons For Steelers To Be Optimistic About 2023

The shift of a season’s end is so sudden. One moment you’re refreshing ESPN’s Gamecast 14 times to see if Joe Flacco will beat the Jets and save the Steelers season. The next, you’re talking about what free agents Pittsburgh’s defense will lose in the offseason.

The NFL is a fickle sport.

Even at 9-8, missing the playoffs is no fun. Especially when the path was right there. Everything broke perfectly for the Steelers until it didn’t and the team went from hopeful to eliminated.

Though another year’s gone by and the Steelers haven’t won a playoff game, their longest drought since Chuck Noll’s first days, there’s reason to believe that streak will end in 2023.

Growing pains are growing pains for a reason. That’s what this offense experienced this season. Early year struggles of a new, young group. Not a surprise. But the pain is all gain and by the end of the year, the offense made progress. It’s not where they want to be, not where they need to be, but what they gained was foundational. An identity. Who they were, how they were going to play, the style in which they’d win. Win they did, even if it wasn’t pretty. They ran the ball, early and often, to far greater success as the season wore on. Najee Harris got healthy, Jaylen Warren continued to emerge, and it took the pressure and demands off Kenny Pickett. The offense was conservative but took care of the ball, limiting opponent possessions, keeping the score close, and doing just enough late to emerge victorious.

The good news is this group that struggled and improved in 2022 will remain intact for 2023. The biggest free agents offensively are TE Zach Gentry and FB Derek Watt. Not exactly cornerstones of the unit. If the Steelers want either or both back, they can afford them. But the rest of the group, the entire offensive line, Pickett, Pickens, Harris, Warren, Pat Freiermuth, Diontae Johnson, you get the idea, they’re all slated to return. The young guys pressed into action this year should be even better next season, taking hard-learned lessons to make them better.

Knowing all that, the passing game should open up next year, take more chances, make more plays downfield, and not be scared of its own shadow to throw the ball more than 20 yards down the field while also being more efficient in doing so. Pittsburgh won’t be a top-five scoring offense next year, probably not top 10, but being a little above average is realistic. The sheer fact Pickett took strides and progressed was alone enough. He’ll define the future of the franchise. So many others rising with him only adds to the notion there are better days ahead.

Pittsburgh’s defense will be the side that’ll see more significant changes. An older group, nearly all key free agents reside on that side of the ball. Cam Sutton, Terrell Edmunds, Larry Ogunjobi, really the whole d-line sans Cam Heyward is up in the air. Some will go, some will stay, but the core won’t change. T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Heyward. If they have those three, they have a chance. The collective got better the second half of the year. A more forgiving schedule played a role but holding their last seven opponents to no more than 17 points is a remarkable streak, something the Steelers haven’t done in more than 20 years. The secondary gained health and continuity, Alex Highsmith broke out in a major way, and the team was simply more technically sound than a year ago.

It’s a well-coached unit. Teryl Austin and his ball-hawk mentality (the Steelers have finished 1st or 2nd in INTs three of the four years he’s been with the team), Brian Flores and his disciplined style, and the still-underrated Karl Dunbar guiding the d-line/outside linebackers.

The AFC North is going to be tough. The whole AFC, whew, top-tier quarterbacks everywhere you look. Nothing is going to come easy. Pittsburgh dug a hole this year they forced themselves to climb out of. Next year, they’re gonna start shoveling opponents. They can compete for the division, a Wild Card berth should be the expectation, and this team needs to end its playoff win drought. 2023 is the time to do it.

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