In hurricane weather forecasting, one of the most difficult things to predict is when a storm will take a big leap in strength. They call it rapid intensification, with storms sometimes climbing from a Category 3 to a Category 5 in just a few hours. The trajectory of the storm is relatively easy to predict, but the growth in strength is often not linear. There will sometimes be a slow build. Other times, it explodes into existence. That’s where we are with the Pittsburgh Steelers right now.
The trajectory is easy to predict. A young team that was playing a rookie quarterback and without their best overall player for most of 2022 should be better this year. But how good will the Pittsburgh Steelers be in 2023? Or perhaps the more pressing question is, how much better can the Steelers be in 2023 than they were in 2022? That is a much more difficult question.
One of the most highly regarded offseasons by a Steelers team in quite some time followed by a nearly flawless preseason from the first teams on both sides of the ball will instill a high level of confidence.
The Steelers should expect to be better in 2023 than they were in 2022, but while we’ve highlighted some unknowable questions this week, like what is the ceiling for Kenny Pickett, is Matt Canada the guy as an offensive coordinator, and can the defense stay healthy and great long enough to let the offense catch up?
But there still is plenty that is knowable, and the optimism that has surrounded the team this summer feels legitimate, based on that.
The young offensive players should continue to improve.
Najee Harris showed promise down the stretch in 2022 of being able to be a back that operates with more efficiency and not just volume. This time last year, Jaylen Warren was a wide-eyed undrafted rookie. With a year under his belt, he’s ready to be a real game-changer as a chance of pace.
George Pickens has diligently been working on a more expansive route tree. Darnell Washington will be an asset in the blocking game, freeing up Pat Freiermuth to be a more dangerous receiver.
Then there’s Pickett. So much rests on the shoulders of the team’s first-round pick a year ago, but he has taken every challenge head-on so far, and seems poised to have a significant jump in 2023. The ceiling remains far off and distant, but being better than he was last year feels nearly assured at this point.
They got the right vets.
Isaac Seumalo has completely changed the tone and trajectory of the offensive line with his high-quality play and leadership. The Steelers are blocking better, and not just No. 73. He’s made the others around him better, too.
Allen Robison II feels like the perfect complement to the two star receivers, both in terms of his physical traits and his been-there, done-that off-the-field demeanor. On the field, he will provide a much-needed check-down and third-down security blanket-type wideout for Pickett.
Patrick Peterson has taken second-round pick Joey Porter Jr. under his wing, to the point that he’s trying to get Porter to replace him as the team’s starting outside cornerback. When the team goes to a sub package, Porter will come in on the outside, Peterson will shift to the slot and the mentor will be able to do his thing right next to the protege.
Elandon Roberts is a master of the 3-4 defense, coming from the New England Patriots system, and he is already a vocal leader, excellent communicator and the kind of coach on the field that the Steelers have lacked at linebacker since the retirement of Vince Williams.
The schedule is much easier.
This time last year, you could scan down the Steelers three trips to Super Bowl contenders in Cincinnati, Buffalo and Philadelphia and say, “Well, they sure won’t win all of those, and might not win any of them.”
They nearly didn’t, needing Minkah Fitzpatrick’s blocked extra point to beat the Bengals in Week 1, and then still only managed a split with Cincy by dropping the home game when Joe Burrow lit them up for 37 points. There still might be burn marks from what the Bills and Eagles did.
The Bengals remain, but those other super-tough road games? Gone. They have a game at Seattle in December that figures to be challenging, and the Jacksonville Jaguars are coming to Pittsburgh late in October, but those are the only two non-division games against a 2022 playoff team. They’ll instead face two teams starting rookie quarterbacks in Indianapolis and Houston after not seeing a single one in 2022.
So how good will they be?
The Vegas betting line says 8.5 wins. It’s a joke, not only will the Steelers clear it, they will be the first team in the NFL to top their win total this season. They play three 2022 playoff teams in the first 11 weeks of the season, and two of them are at home. A 9-2 start is not only possible, it might be likely.
The brutal stretch over the last three weeks of Cincinnati at home on Dec. 23, at Seattle on Dec. 31 and at Baltimore on Jan. 7 means the team will have to have some house money to play with, but even if they stumble into the playoffs, this should figure to be a team that is going to the postseason.
I have the Steelers finishing 12-5 and losing the AFC North on a tiebreaker to the Bengals, who will continue to be a thorn in their side, but making it to the playoffs as a Wild Card.
That’s a big leap from 9-8. Only three AFC teams had more than 10 wins a year ago. It should remain an extremely competitive conference. Even if 12-5 isn’t good enough to win the AFC North, it would make the Steelers one of the clear top teams in the entire league.
But growth isn’t always linear, as our hurricane example showed. When the Steelers leaped from obscurity to relevance in 1972, they won five more games than they had the year before. The first year of the Bill Cowher era in 1992 saw a four-win leap. Ben Roethlisberger caused a nine-game improvement from 2003 to 2004 to set off the last run of greatness for the franchise. It would not surprise me at all to see another big leap at the start of Pickett’s time at the helm.
Hey, that’s just one man’s opinion, but I did have it right last year.
STEELERS GAME-BY-GAME PREDICTION
Week 1 vs. San Francisco W
Week 2 vs. Cleveland W
Week 3 at Las Vegas W
Week 4 at Houston W
Week 5 vs. Baltimore L
Week 7 at L.A. Rams W
Week 8 vs. Jacksonville L
Week 9 vs. Tennessee W
Week 10 vs. Green Bay W
Week 11 at Cleveland W
Week 12 at Cincinnati L
Week 13 vs. Arizona W
Week 14 vs. New England W
Week 15 at Indianapolis W
Week 16 vs. Cincinnati L
Week 17 at Seattle L
Week 18 at Baltimore W