The Pittsburgh Steelers will begin 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 not 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, their 2023 season, and set up the early season storylines that we’re watching.
IS MATT CANADA THE GUY OR THE GOAT?
The 2023 Steelers look very different than the 2022 Steelers so far. There’s the new parts, nearly too multiple to name, but just for some highlights: Isaac Seumalo, Allen Robinson, Broderick Jones, Darnell Washington, Patrick Peterson, Joey Porter Jr., Keeanu Benton, Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts, Keanu Neal, Markus Golden and Nick Herbig.
Of the holdovers, there is plenty of promise for better play and not just status quo. Offensive starters George Pickens, Pat Freiermuth, Najee Harris, Kenny Pickett, Jaylen Warren and Dan Moore Jr. are entering at most their third season.
T.J. Watt, the best player on the defense, expects to be far healthier than he was a year ago. The above-listed secondary additions aim to allow the team to get the most out of Minkah Fitzpatrick.
There’s a lot about the Steelers that should expect to be better in 2023 than 2022. But there’s also one very important place where it’s unclear if the team has gotten better, or will be good enough, and that’s offensive coordinator.
The Steelers’ decision to retain Matt Canada after a largely unsuccessful first two seasons as offensive coordinator was a somewhat controversial one, but it made sense on many levels.
The offensive got better as the 2022 season went on, Pickett won’t have to deal with learning a new offense in his second professional season, and Canada projects to actually have an offensive line that’s good enough to execute his offense for the first time since he’s been with the Steelers.
While the arguments to retain Canada are valid, his presence still serves as the single biggest unknown entering the 2023 season.
Like the oldest of those offensive youngsters, Canada is entering his third season on the job as Steelers offensive coordinator, but the first two have not gone all that well. The Steelers finished 26th in scoring, 23 in yards and 28th in yards per play a year ago. About the only thing they did at a consistently high level was not turn the ball over, finishing tied for fifth with 19 giveaways.
The Steelers had a well above-average defense a year ago, finishing 10th in points, 14th in yards, tied for 20th in yards per play and 13th in takeaways. They can be even better with a full season of Watt, but there is only so much better that the defense can be.
In order for the Steelers to take a leap forward as a team, they will need a leap forward from the offense.
The preseason provided a tantalizing glimpse of what could be, with the first-team unit scoring a touchdown all five times it left the Pittsburgh sideline. For now, that and the personnel improvements are all we have do go on.
Canada does not have an extensive track record of success to the point that we should expect him to be better than he’s been. He has only been an NFL coach for three seasons, one as Steelers quarterbacks coach and two as coordinator. His last two college stops were a miraculous resurrection of Maryland’s season that still finished at .500 as interim head coach in 2018 and abject failure at LSU in 2017.
The daring success of his offense from the 2016 season at Pitt is a long way in the rear-view mirror, and the NFL is not the ACC.
Furthermore, even in his collegiate successes, Canada was not some kind of quarterback whisperer. Jacoby Brissett is the best quarterback he’s ever had. Nate Peterman is probably second best. That’s not some kind of lengthy track record of quarterback development to bank on him being the guy to unlock Pickett’s ability to its fullest.
There was tactical innovation in college. His usage of shifts, motions, jet sweeps and other things that were revolutionary circa 2016 were eventually borrowed by most other coordinators. What he did with that Maryland team in 2018, not only from and Xs and Os standpoint, but from a leadership standpoint, was incredible.
But we haven’t seen a lot of further innovation. The offensive play calling and playbook overall in 2022 could be described as bland.
There could be a good reason for that. The team had an offensive line that it clearly (and rightfully) did not entirely trust. Pickett was a rookie quarterback that turned the ball over a good bit early on his starting run — a trend that needed to be minimized.
Perhaps Canada is the tactical genius that he appeared to be at times in college and the 2022 Steelers offense was intentionally overly simplistic. Perhaps Canada just isn’t that good.
The fanbase isn’t likely to turn on Pickett just yet, even if he has a disappointing 2023. But Canada? After 2023, he’ll either be the guy or the goat.