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AFC North Preview – Pittsburgh Steelers

George Pickens Fantasy

The Steelers had a very up-and-down 2022, with Mike Tomlin amazingly keeping his streak of non-losing seasons alive. The 2022 Steelers featured their usually stout defense, but it was the late-season development from Kenny Pickett that provided Pittsburgh fans with hope that their 7-2 finish to the season can keep them rolling in 2023. This Steelers season preview will break down their offseason to determine if enough was done to build on their strong finish.

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AFC North Preview – Pittsburgh Steelers

Draft Analysis: A

Draft analysts raved about what Pittsburgh accomplished in the first two days of the draft and this article agrees. What’s the best way to figure out if your young quarterback can play? Build through the trenches and keep them upright, of course! By trading up four spots in the first for Broderick Jones, Pittsburgh secured the last franchise tackle in the class. He should be an instant upgrade at either tackle spot.

Joey Porter, Jr. in the second round feels like a good value given his first-round grade by draftniks. First-round corners have an extremely high bust rate, and the position’s general importance is often overstated in today’s NFL. If the rest of your defense can’t hold up, having a single elite corner doesn’t mean much.

On the flip side, a good pass rush can mitigate having iffy coverage on the back end. Drafting a projectable corner like Porter in round two is a lot safer than burning first-round capital. Porter obviously comes with a Pittsburgh household name and elite athletic traits. The one issue Steeler’s faithful will have with Porter is that he has oven mitts for hands. Nothing can break a fan’s heart faster than a dropped pick-six, and his college tape had no shortage of those.

Keeanu Benton, who was drafted with Pittsburgh’s other second-round pick, is your typical plug-and-play nose tackle. He won’t fill up stat sheets, but he’s a safe prospect and a good candidate to earn a second contract. Darnell Washington is an excellent value in the third as a fascinating tight end prospect who should serve as a blocking TE2 right away. His combination of size and athleticism leads you to believe there’s more there than his underwhelming college production would indicate.

Season Outlook: 8-9


The success of Pittsburgh’s 2023 season will depend largely on growth from Kenny Pickett in year two. As a rookie, Pickett displayed the poise that made him a first-rounder despite his advanced age and athletic deficiencies. It felt like every week he was leading fourth-quarter comebacks down the stretch.

One could reasonably expect a 15+ touchdown increase in output from Pickett given what he showed. There is, however, a major concern in his ability to meet those targets: the return of Matt Canada as Offensive Coordinator. In Canada’s first two years as OC, Pittsburgh has finished 23rd in both years in total offense. They even regressed from a paltry 20.2 points per game in year one down to 18.1 in year two.

Some of that can be attributed to going from a washed legend to a rookie at quarterback, but the tape tells of a generally unimaginative scheme that fails to put playmakers in a position to succeed. Pickett and the rest of the offense will likely need to overcome Canada’s failings to take a leap forward.


Elsewhere on offense, the offensive line still looks like a glaring weakness even after adding Jones in the draft. Even if Jones is rock solid from day one, they could be below average at every other position up front. Najee Harris has never shown the ability to overcome below-average blocking, and he can’t be expected to start now. It should be another very tough year running the football in the Steel City.

The good news is that the receivers in Pittsburgh are as shiny and deep as ever. George Pickens feels like a candidate to explode in year two and Diontae Johnson is perennially wide open. Now if only Johnson would quit dropping so many passes. Add in a healthy Pat Freirmuth plus whatever Allen Robinson has left in the tank and it should be a solid receiving core.


Defensively the Steelers have another top-10 unit on paper. TJ Watt is a star up front and may be the most valuable defender in the league. The team stats and record when he plays versus when he doesn’t are mind-boggling for a defensive player. Elsewhere, Cam Heyward feels like he is going to continue to anchor the defensive line forever. Alex Highsmith also returns as a promising complement to Watt off the edge. On the back end, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Patrick Peterson are turnover machines that should reap the benefits of Pittsburgh’s strong pass rush. There isn’t a weak unit on this defense, and they have rare depth at a lot of positions.

The defense has all the ingredients to keep games close once again. However, Pittsburgh was the only team with a winning record that scored under 20 points a game last year. That makes the big finish to their season feel a bit more lucky than good. If Pittsburgh is going to outperform the 8-9 projection, it will very likely be because of their defense.

Post Schedule Release Prediction: 10-7 (6 Seed)

This simulation result came down to the aforementioned faith in the defense and in Mike Tomlin’s track record. Pittsburgh has a tough opener against San Francisco, then shifts to a much more winnable schedule the following weeks. This projection actually felt conservative while picking the games. If the defense plays as expected AND Kenny Pickett makes a larger-than-expected leap, look out for the Steelers!

**The post-schedule release prediction is based on a single simulation, with each game on the schedule picked only once. Difficult schedules to begin a season tend to lead to higher deviations between the season outlook and simulation results. Take a hypothetical team projected to have a season outlook of 8-9. If that team projects to start 1-5 due to a brutal opening stretch, it can derail their whole season. Coaches on losing teams tend to lose locker rooms faster and players on those teams tend to lose motivation. Teams that play an underachieving team later in a season, would likewise get a boost in their win rate.

Main Image: Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports


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