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ESPN sees the 2023 Steelers as a playoff team, if they have a good offseason

The 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers are anything but a sure thing, but the folks at ESPN like what they’ve built thus far.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Philadelphia Eagles Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

With the NFL preparing for championship weekend of the NFL Playoffs, the Pittsburgh Steelers and 28 other teams are all watching the AFC and NFC’s Top 4 teams duke it out this Sunday.

Everyone knows the Steelers were one of the league’s hottest teams entering the offseason, winners of 7 of their last 9 games, and 4 straight prior to being eliminated from postseason play with a 9-8 record.

Entering the offseason, the Steelers have their work cut out for them. There are some gaping holes which need to be filled on the defensive side of the ball, and the offense is buoyed by a great crop of young talent. If the Steelers have a good offseason, both free agency and the 2023 NFL Draft, the future is bright for the black-and-gold.

How bright? ESPN’s Bill Barnwell provided seven teams who didn’t make the playoffs in 2022, but would in 2023 if they can have a good offseason. As you can imagine, he has the Steelers pretty high on his list of those teams. Let’s take a look at the list first.

Top 7 non-playoff teams to make the 2023 playoffs

7. Arizona Cardinals
6. Las Vegas Raiders
5. Tennessee Titans
4. New England Patriots
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
2. Green Bay Packers
1. Los Angeles Rams

Now that you’ve seen the list, time to see Barnwell’s reasoning behind it. Here is what he had to say:

Mike Tomlin’s streak of seasons without a losing campaign is too strong for regression toward the mean. The Steelers declined from 2021, but it was only by a half-game — that team went 9-7-1. Of course, that slight decline also was enough to push them out of the postseason picture; a 9-7-1 mark would have snuck them in as the 7-seed ahead of the Dolphins.

My concerns for the Steelers heading into the season were that they might not have great quarterback play after Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement, might not be able to protect their new passer, couldn’t get much more out of two top stars T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward and ran up a 7-1-1 record in games decided by seven points or fewer — which is tough to sustain — all while playing one of the NFL’s toughest schedules.

Did that turn out to be true? Some yes, some no. The Steelers ended up facing the second-toughest schedule, per Football Outsiders, and Watt missed half of the season because of a torn pectoral muscle. They dropped down to 6-5 in games decided by seven points or fewer, although some of that fortuitous close-game work showed up in Week 1 against the Bengals, when the Steelers needed to block an extra point and survive a 29-yard miss from Evan McPherson to win in overtime.

On the other hand, Pittsburgh’s offense was better than expected, as a Kenny Pickett-led attack ranked 15th in Total QBR and 18th in pass block win rate. Tomlin’s team was 14th in DVOA, right in line with its record. The worst element of Pittsburgh’s performance was on special teams, where it ranked 27th in DVOA, but that’s less sticky than the offense or defense, so we would expect the Steelers to improve there in 2023.

There are still some elements of Pittsburgh’s performance, though, suggesting it was a little fortuitous. The Steelers intercepted a league-high 20 passes, and while any secondary with Minkah Fitzpatrick is capable of doing that in a given season, remember that they picked off 13 a year ago. They recovered only three fumbles on defense, which was the fewest of any team, but they also only lost five fumbles on offense, which was the second fewest on that side of the ball.

While the Steelers outperformed their point differential by 1.7 wins, they otherwise performed about in line with their record. For them to take it a step further and advance into the postseason, the natural steps forward would include a full season from Watt and a second-year leap from Pickett, who improved as the season went along.

Split Pickett’s season into two halves, and you see the growth. The first-round pick posted a 43.2 QBR during his first seven games, a stretch in which he threw eight picks and averaged just over 6.0 yards per attempt. In his final six games, while his completion percentage (59.2%) and yards per attempt (6.4) were below average, he turned the ball over just once, putting up a 62.5 QBR.

The Steelers went 5-1 in those games, and the one loss came in a game in which Pickett exited after one pass attempt. Admittedly, four of the five wins also came against quarterbacks who were either backups (Tyler Huntley) or about to be benched (Matt Ryan, Derek Carr, Marcus Mariota), but there’s the shell of a winning formula present if Pickett can protect the ball.

Pittsburgh’s cap also is in better shape now that Roethlisberger’s dead money is a thing of the past. It is still $3 million over the projected cap mark, which isn’t thrilling for a team with a quarterback on a rookie deal, but it can clear out more than $24 million by releasing cornerbacks William Jackson and Ahkello Witherspoon and quarterback Mitch Trubisky. The Steelers will want to re-sign corner Cameron Sutton, who is coming off his best season, but they actually have some financial flexibility if they want to go shopping for more significant help along the offensive line. They also landed the No. 32 overall pick in the draft when they traded wideout Chase Claypool to the Bears, which is a valuable selection for a player who was likely going to leave after 2023.

The other hope for the Steelers has to be that the AFC North gets a little easier because of cap issues. Joe Burrow and Tee Higgins are about to get massive contracts in Cincinnati. Lamar Jackson is hitting the franchise tag in Baltimore, reducing the Ravens’ financial flexibility. Deshaun Watson’s cap hit rises from $9.4 million to $55 million, and while the Browns will likely restructure his deal, the early returns on the quarterback were dismal. Pickett might not be the best quarterback in the division, but the flexibility afforded the Steelers by his deal could help them get back on top of the North in 2023.

Barnwell makes a strong case for the Steelers to be a contending playoff team next season, but there is a large caveat to his argument.

“if they have a good offseason”

Sure, the Steelers possess salary cap space, and the Claypool trade has them equipped with some serious draft capital; however, you have to utilize the cap space and picks wisely or it means nothing.

The pressure will be on new General Manager (GM) Omar Khan and Andy Weidl to pull all the right strings and make all the right moves to bolster this lineup and have the Steelers as contenders, and not pretenders, in 2023.

Be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the Steelers as they prepare for the lengthy NFL offseason.