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Pittsburgh Steelers 2023 NFL Preview: Mike Tomlin's excellence kept the them from bottoming out

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Sofia Villar)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Sofia Villar)

You may have heard once, twice or a thousand times last season that Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has never had a losing season.

That fact became commonly overplayed last season, but there's a good reason: It's an incredible feat. The NFL isn't college football, where the best programs stay dominant because they can get the best players each year. The NFL is designed so no team stays on top too long. Tomlin's teams haven't always been on top. But for 16 seasons, they've never been bad either.

Last season should have been bad. They had to replace Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger with either Mitchell Trubisky or rookie Kenny Pickett, who was a first-round pick but not considered an elite prospect. The Steelers switched from Trubisky to Pickett after a few frustrating weeks. Pittsburgh was 2-6 heading into the bye. The Steelers looked like they were heading to a terrible season. There's no shame in that. It happens to everyone.

Then the Steelers inexplicably got hot. They won three of five. Then, needing to win out to keep Tomlin's streak alive, they went on a four-game winning streak to end the season. For a while in Week 18, when the New York Jets were tied 6-6 in the fourth quarter against the Miami Dolphins and the other scenarios the Steelers needed to make the playoffs were happening, Pittsburgh looked like it might make the postseason. The Jets lost on a 50-yard field goal with 18 seconds left, the Dolphins made the playoffs, but the 9-8 Steelers had a lot to be proud about heading into the offseason.

Last season showed that no matter what is going on with the Steelers roster, it's unlikely they'll ever be that bad as long as Tomlin is coach. And the Steelers should feel, after going 7-2 following the bye, that the next step in 2023 will be forward.

Pickett wasn't good as a rookie, but he had some great clutch moments that should give the Steelers hope he'll improve. The Steelers' draft this year, run by general manager Omar Khan for the first time since he took over the GM spot, was praised by almost everyone. They did well in free agency too.

Anyone who is resentful of the Steelers' seemingly never-ending run of success might not get the satisfaction of seeing them slide to the bottom of the NFL. Not soon, anyway.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin led his team to a winning season in 2022. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin led his team to a winning season in 2022. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

That doesn't mean the Steelers will be right back to being a Super Bowl contender. They did well to stay alive in the playoff race until the very end of last season, but building back up was always going to be a multi-year task. There are plenty of questions about Pickett. Some key veterans, particularly their excellent defensive lineman Cameron Heyward, are aging. The Steelers were helped out by good injury luck (Pittsburgh had the fewest adjusted games lost to injury last season, via Football Outsiders), plenty of close wins and a schedule down the stretch that wasn't too tough.

But there's something to be said about having a reliable floor. The Steelers don't have a wide range of outcomes this season. They likely won't be great but won't be bad either. And, if Tomlin's history is an indication, they won't have a losing record. You might hear about that streak again this season.

Offseason grade

Losing cornerback Cameron Sutton was a blow, but the Steelers were able to add veteran Patrick Peterson as a replacement. The only question is if Peterson hits the wall at age 33. Guard Isaac Seumalo, added from the Eagles, will help a rapidly improving line. There were other moves that should be upgrades: losing linebackers Devin Bush and Robert Spillane but signing Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts, and losing safety Terrell Edmunds but signing Keanu Neal. The Steelers countered every loss with a comparable add. Then the draft was a hit. Offensive tackle Broderick Jones in the first round was a great marriage of value and need. Cornerback Joey Porter Jr. in the second round was more than just a feel-good story; it was the fruit of a shrewd trade when the Steelers shipped Chase Claypool to the Bears at the deadline last season. Porter could help right away. Fellow second-rounder Keeanu Benton will help the defensive line and third-rounder Darnell Washington is a massive tight end and intriguing prospect. The Steelers' draft got the second-best consensus grade among experts, compiled by Football Outsiders. The Steelers finished last season strong and then had a very good offseason.

Grade: A

Quarterback report

Kenny Pickett's last-minute drives to beat the Las Vegas Raiders and Baltimore Ravens last season give the Steelers something to build on with their young quarterback. Overall, Pickett wasn't great. He had seven touchdowns and nine interceptions. He had a rating of 76.7. Among all quarterbacks with at least 200 attempts, only Zach Wilson of the Jets had a worse rating. Pickett struggled as a deep passer and against pressure. But that's all typical for a rookie, especially one who wasn't considered an elite prospect. Pickett did some good things and now the Steelers can see if he can take a big step forward in year two.

BetMGM odds breakdown

Hey, remember all that stuff about Mike Tomlin never having a losing record? The Steelers' win total at BetMGM is 8.5. The over is -145 odds (you can bet 9.5 wins, with the under having -165 odds). If you want to bet on this being Tomlin's first losing record in his 17th season, go ahead. Last season should have been a reminder that expecting the Steelers to post a losing season isn't a good investment plan. I'm on over 8.5 wins.

Yahoo's fantasy take

From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "Diontae Johnson made history last year, the wrong kind of history — somehow he collected 147 targets and didn't score a single touchdown. That outlier performance is unlikely to repeat. That said, George Pickens looks like the upside play if you're considering a Pittsburgh receiver.

"Pickens as a rookie averaged 9.5 yards per target last year, Johnson merely 6.0, and Pickens outscored Johnson, 4-0. To be fair, the players run different routes and have different strengths, but Pickens is more athletic and is also five years younger. Given that Pickens is also a round cheaper in Yahoo ADP, I'll place my chip on Pittsburgh's sophomore target. Perhaps Johnson offers more floor, but in their relative draft pocket, upside is generally more important. Pickens is your ceiling play."

Stat to remember

Diontae Johnson set a weird record in 2022. He had 86 receptions and no touchdowns. That's the most receptions without a touchdown over a season in NFL history. It was fluky. Johnson had 15 touchdowns in the two previous seasons, and he was still a productive receiver. He'll be fine. So will the rest of the Steelers' pass-catching group. George Pickens was a highlight maker as a rookie and while that might lead to him being overrated a bit, you can see the talent from the 2022 second-round pick. Allen Robinson II had a miserable season with the Los Angeles Rams but the Steelers paid practically nothing in a trade to give him another shot. Pat Freiermuth is on track to be one of the NFL's best tight ends, and athletic 6-foot-7, 264-pound rookie Darnell Washington could be a very interesting piece. Running backs Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren lead a solid running game but can also catch passes out of the backfield. They combined for 69 catches last season. Kenny Pickett has good talent around him.

Burning question

Is T.J. Watt the NFL's most valuable defender?

The title of most valuable defensive player is still probably owned by Aaron Donald, but Watt has a case. When he's out of the lineup, the Steelers' defense isn't the same. Watt missed seven games last season with a torn pec. That absence coincided with Pittsburgh's 2-6 start.'s Grant Gordon had a startling comparison: With Watt, the Steelers allowed 288.8 yards and 16.9 points per game. Without him, they allowed 389.9 yards and 25.3 points per game. That's a massive difference. After Watt came back, the Steelers allowed an NFL-best 272.9 yards per game, via Gordon. Watt is one of the NFL's true defensive difference makers, though the splits with and without him also speak to the Steelers' lack of edge rusher depth beyond Watt. But as long as Watt is on the field, the Steelers should have a top-10 defense.

Best-case scenario

It would be hard to find someone who thinks Kenny Pickett can take a massive leap and be an MVP candidate this year or next. But what if he becomes a top-10 quarterback? He was a former first-round pick and there's a good infrastructure around him. The Steelers will be competitive but the key to unlocking more, like a division title or deep playoff run, is Pickett's development. There were some good signs last season. If Pickett improves more than most people expect, it's a team with a lot to like including a very good defense. It's hard to see the Steelers winning a tough AFC North, but it's not impossible.

Nightmare scenario

You can't just praise a hot streak over one half of a season because it came at the end, and ignore the bad first half that preceded it (we'll revisit this theory in the Detroit Lions' preview). The Steelers were 2-6 at one point last season. A softer schedule after the bye, some close wins and that winning record changed our perception of the Steelers. Maybe they're more like the team we saw before the bye last season, with a quarterback who doesn't have enough upside and not enough around him to win games. I can't pick the Steelers to fall too far, but at some point Mike Tomlin will have a losing season. Right?

The crystal ball says ...

The Steelers play in a really tough division. They're the first AFC North team to appear on this countdown. Maybe Pittsburgh is a little too high in these rankings, but that's due to respect for Mike Tomlin and the Steelers' organization. I won't pick the Steelers to make the playoffs, but they'll be in contention all season and will finish around .500. Probably above it.

Other team previews

32. Arizona Cardinals

31. Houston Texans

30. Chicago Bears

29. Tennessee Titans

28. Los Angeles Rams

27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

26. Indianapolis Colts

25. Washington Commanders

24. Las Vegas Raiders

23. Carolina Panthers

22. Denver Broncos

21. Atlanta Falcons

20. Green Bay Packers

19. New England Patriots

18. New York Giants

17. Minnesota Vikings

16. New Orleans Saints

15. Pittsburgh Steelers

14. Cleveland Browns

13. Los Angeles Chargers

12. Jacksonville Jaguars

11. Seattle Seahawks

10. Baltimore Ravens

9. Miami Dolphins

8. New York Jets

7. Detroit Lions

6. Dallas Cowboys

5. San Francisco 49ers

4. Buffalo Bills

3. Cincinnati Bengals

2. Philadelphia Eagles

1. Kansas City Chiefs