With just mere hours standing between the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49ers opening week matchup, it’s time to unleash some spicy takes. Coming off an undefeated preseason, optimism around the team is pretty high, and deservedly so. With the fan base eagerly awaiting the Steelers first week one home opener since 2014, here are three bold predictions that are worth keeping receipts on throughout the regular season.
Minkah Fitzpatrick Wins Defensive Player of the Year
There hasn’t been a safety win the award since Steelers legend Troy Polamalu took home the honors back in 2010, which makes this the definition of a Hail Mary prediction. Minkah Fitzpatrick is coming off a 2022 campaign in which he totaled six interceptions before being named First-Team All-Pro for the second third time in his career. Due to his unmatched playmaking skills and down-to-down consistency, there’s a real argument to be made that he’s the most impactful safety in the entire league. So how does Fitzpatrick go from the best player at his position to defensive player of the year conversations?
For starters, the Steelers defense is flushed with talent, particularly up front, with one of the most fearsome pass-rushing duos in the league in T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith. With all of the talent that Pittsburgh has acquired, it would be a travesty if they weren’t among the league leaders in pressure rate in 2023. We know what pressure to even the best quarterbacks in the sport, it forces them into more frequent mistakes, which often come in the form of turnovers. The biggest beneficiary in those scenarios will be Fitzpatrick. His track record indicates that he’ll make good of more opportunities to get his hands on the football.
It’s also worth noting that the Alabama product also has a flair for the dramatic. Whether it’s pick-sixes, game-sealing interceptions or blocking a PAT at the buzzer, it always feels like his best moments come when his team needs it most. He’ll obviously need to maintain, if not increase, his turnover production but those signature moments will stick with voters at season’s end. At 26 years old, Fitzpatrick is at the height of his powers and a true “queen on the chess board” piece for Mike Tomlin’s defense. If Pittsburgh can reach its ceiling as a top-five defensive unit behind their star safeties steady play, he deserves the recognition that will follow.
Minkah Fitzpatrick's game-sealing interception showed off his incredible instincts and range in the back end. Read Mariota's eyes like a book and triggered downhill in a blur.
This was Minkah's 3rd INT this season with the Steelers running Tampa 2, which is the most in the NFL. pic.twitter.com/C3pi3hFQkn
— Derrick (@Steelers_DB) December 8, 2022
George Pickens Leads the NFL in 20+ Yard Receptions AND Doubles His 2022 Touchdown Total
George Pickens’ rookie season was chocked-full of highlight reel-worthy plays of him dunking on defenseless cornerbacks on an almost weekly basis. Even at 21 years old, Pickens established himself as one of the premier deep threats in the league, capable of running by defenders or winning in contested catch situations. The 2022 second-round pick has unbelievable body control, excellent hands and an uncanny ability to prevail in tight spaces. So what factors could lead to this predicted sophomore leap?
The connection between Pickens and his quarterback Kenny Pickett, who was flawless this preseason, should only grow stronger with reps. His role within the offense should theoretically grow but make no mistake about it: Pickens is going to be the primary deep threat this season. In 2022, the wideout ran 113 go/fly routes according to Sports Info Solutions, significantly more than anyone else in the NFL. Pickett showed a willingness to throw the ball down the field to #14 anytime he was shown man coverage or single high pre-snap indicators. There will be no shortage of shots down the sideline in this offense under offensive coordinator Matt Canada.
Pittsburgh’s offense should hopefully sustain its positive momentum, leading to more red zone opportunities in 2023. Pickens’ 6-foot-3 frame and jump-ball prowess should come in handy near the goal line. Anyone who has ever been around him has been left in awe of his raw talent, acknowledging his limitless potential. It’s no secret that the Steelers understand that they have something special here. With expanded responsibilities in what should be an improved offensive ecosystem, Pickens should be able to provide plenty of fireworks this season.
Pittsburgh running Verts against Atlanta's C1.
Gonna see a lot of this in 2023. Anytime Pickett gets single high, he's going to take shots to Pickens down the field until someone proves that they can stop him from making these acrobatic catches.
This was a dime, too. pic.twitter.com/Ni6V75gOug
— Derrick (@Steelers_DB) August 25, 2023
Alex Highsmith Makes First Pro-Bowl Appearance
Few players made themselves more money with their play last season than Steelers EDGE rusher Alex Highsmith. After amassing a career-high 14.5 sacks, Pittsburgh rewarded him with a massive four-year, $68 million dollar contract extension. His underlying numbers were good, but not quite elite last season. In 2022, Highsmith’s 9.8% pass rush win rate ranked 36th among players at his position with 50% of snaps. So what about his game suggests there’s yet another jump coming this fall?
From an athletic tools perspective, Highsmith has the explosiveness that teams covet. Highsmith has an effective go-to move (ghost)and a signature counter (inside spin) in addition to his red-hot motor that never quite stops running. He’s also displayed a very good understanding of how to set up his moves over the course of a game to leave offensive tackles constantly guessing. One major improvement shown last season was his focus on getting the football out, forcing five fumbles in his third year as a pro.
When the Steelers made Highsmith one of the 15 highest-paid players at his position, it was abundantly clear that they felt as if there was another level to his game that had yet to be unlocked. Who can blame them? Highsmith has gotten better and more productive every year of his career while exceeding expectations every step of the way. With T.J. Watt back in the fold and at 100%, Highsmith should reap the rewards as opposing teams focus heavily on slowing down the 2021 Defensive Player of the Year. 2023 should be a culmination of a promising young player beginning to scratch the surface of his potential as a pass rusher.
Alex Highsmith came up incredibly clutch on the Colts final drive.
1st down- Explosive get off to beat the jump set, sacks Matt Ryan
3rd down- Crosses the tight end face to make the run stop on Jonathan Taylor
4th down- Powerful bull rush, forces Matt Ryan off his spot pic.twitter.com/RgkoNBWiOT
— Derrick (@Steelers_DB) December 2, 2022