The Pittsburgh Steelers will being their 2023 season on Sunday, when the San Francisco 49ers come to Acrisure Stadium to kick things off.
In terms of getting ready for the season, the hay, as Mike Tomlin likes to say, is in the barn.
The Steelers have been making moves for this season since March, have been practicing together since late July and have played three preseason games. There’s nothing much left to be learned until they put on the pads and play in a real NFL football game.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty left to learn. This week, we will examine three unanswerable at this point questions regarding the Steelers and their 2023 season, and set up the early season storylines that we’re watching.
CAN DEFENSE STAY HEALTHY, ELITE?
The biggest single place the Steelers can improve in 2023 when compared to 2022 is the number of times that No. 90 on defense goes onto the field.
T.J. Watt, the team’s superstar left outside linebacker, injured his knee in the preseason, suffered a torn pectoral muscle in the season opener, had knee surgery, missed seven games, then dealt with a rib injury after he returned and was limited to a career-low 502 snaps of defense.
After racking up 22.5 sacks, 21 tackles for loss and five forced fumbles in his NFL Defensive Player of the Year-caliber 2021 season, Watt finished 2022 with 5.5 sacks, eight tackles for loss and one forced fumble.
Clearly, the Steelers expect Watt to be healthier and more productive in 2023, but how healthy he — and the rest of the Steelers’ defense — will be is still very much up in the air.
Watt also missed two games in 2021 while dealing with groin and hip injuries, giving five separate ailments that either limited him or caused him to miss time over the last two seasons. That’s a disturbing trend.
Defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi seems to be farther along in trending toward the chronically injured category. He had surgery on his foot to end his 2021 season, was limited throughout the 2022 season despite missing just one game, and has been having foot problems again this training camp.
Cam Heyward is 34. Patrick Peterson is 33.The Steelers made some moves to upgrade their defensive this offseason, but it did not get substantially younger.
That’s an important factor to consider when determining how the Steelers’ season will go. The best team is not always the one that remains standing, but the one that stays the healthiest.
There’s reason to have hope that Watt can be much healthier and much more effective than he was in 2023, and with Markus Golden and Nick Herbig in the fold, the team seems much better poised to react to an injury at his position should one occur.
But even as promising as the young Herbig has looked, the Steelers defense would look a lot different if it misses one of its starts for significant time again.
There’s also a less big-bad and scary, but perhaps more existential crisis looming, as well. The Steelers have veteran, elite defenders and a young, promising offense. The hope is that the offense gets to a high level while the defense is still there. But Father Time in undefeated. What if the defense begins its inevitable decline before the offense catches up, healthy or not?
That’s a truly scary thought.