Steelers look to escape loaded AFC North in 2023

Aidan Weiss | Staff Writer

As the start of the NFL season approaches, hopes are high throughout western Pennsylvania as the Steelers try to contend for the AFC North crown and beyond. Last season, the Steelers finished with a 9-8 record, finishing third in the AFC North, and barely missing a playoff spot. With the moves made in the offseason, the team is expected to take the leap forward and get into playoff position.

The core of the offense is all back, mainly revolving around second-year quarterback Kenny Pickett. Pickett is coming off a rough statistical rookie season in which he had only 2,404 passing yards and seven touchdowns compared to nine interceptions. However, he showed promise in leading the team on many game-winning drives, such as in back-to-back weeks against the Las Vegas Raiders and the rival Baltimore Ravens.

Pickett has many weapons on hand. Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren will compete for reps in the backfield, while receivers Diontae Johnson and George Pickens, and tight end Pat Freiermuth will suppliment the pass game.

In addition to this core, the team also made a trade with the Los Angeles Rams to bring in slot reciever Allen Robinson, who is looking to bounce back after a rough season in 2022.

Additionally, notable acquistions were made to bolster the offensive line. The team signed starting left guard Isaac Seumalo from Philadelphia, and drafted left tackle Broderick Jones in the first round of the draft. However, Jones appears entrenched in the backup role behind Dan Moore at left tackle, and Chukwuma Okorafor, James Daniels and Mason Cole all return to their roles from last season.

The defensive side of the ball was the strength of the team last year, as they finished among the top-10 across the NFL in most statistical categories. Along the defensive line, arguably the best defensive player in football, T.J. Watt, is hoping to play a full schedule this season after missing six games last year due to a torn pectoral. In his last full season, Watt tied the NFL record for sacks with 22.5. He will be supplemented by the newly extended Alex Highsmith and his NFL-leading five forced fumbles last season, along with veteran Cameron Heyward and his 10.5 sacks. Defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi also returns to round out the starters. The team also brought new talent to the defensive line through the draft by selecting Wisconsin run stuffer Keeanu Benton in the second round and outside linebacker Nate Herbig in the fourth.

Meanwhile, the linebacker core was completely redone, as Mark Robinson is the only remaining inside linebacker from 2022.

General Manager Omar Khan went to the free agent market to find replacements, bringing in Cole Holcomb from Washington on a three-year deal and Elandon Roberts from Miami on a two-year deal. Additionally, Kwon Alexander was signed during preseason to shore up the rotation depth. This group is considered to be the biggest question mark on the roster, and their play will be crucial in determining just how competitive the Steelers can be.

Another player to watch at the position is second round draft pick Joey Porter Jr. the son of former Steelers linebacker Joey Porter.

At cornerback, the team returns Levi Wallace from last year, but their big-name addition was former All-Pro Patrick Peterson.

Star saftey Minkah Fitzpatrick returns alongside Damontae Kazee. Additionally, the team added Keanu Neal to provide depth and open the door for potential three-safety looks.

Finally, the special teams will be the same with kicker Chris Boswell, punter Pressley Harvin and long snapper Christian Kuntz, a Duquesne alum, all returning. As other teams throughout the league scramble to trade and add their kickers, it seems that Pittsburgh is content with Boswell, who looked strong throughout preseason.

The team also returns most of the coaching staff, as Head Coach Mike Tomlin returns for his 16th season in charge. However, the big story of the offseason was whether to retain offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who’s play calling often drew criticism from fans. A common theme was his resistance to utilize the sidelines and their dynamic receiving core in the pass game. He is back, along with defensive coordinator Teryl Austin.

The Steelers are looking to compete in 2023, even within their crowded division. Both the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens are coming off of postseason appearances, and the Cleveland Browns enter Deshaun Watson’s first full season since 2020 with playoff-or-bust expectations.

All three teams are generally considered to be in their “window to win”, with star players under the age of 30 under center. In fact, Kenny Pickett is the only startring quarterback in the division who has not made a pro bowl.

Considering the amount of promising talent on this year’s squad, fans are hoping the Steelers will be able to compete in what is likely the deepest division in the entire league.