I like to think of myself as an objective Steelers fan. At the very least, I am not afraid to face reality when it comes to expectations for my team in any given year. That being said, it’s hard not to get a little excited when I look at what the Pittsburgh Steelers are building in the leadup to the 2023 season.
The emphasis has been clear: Get bigger and nastier up front, specifically on offense to boost a running game that’s primed to pummel opponents on the regular. On the defensive side, the focus seems to be on a return to a hardnosed, bully-like approach up front, setting the tone on early downs before unleashing the league’s best pass rush duo and a playmaking secondary on money downs.
This 2023 Steelers squad is shaping up to be a throwback unit that looks to overwhelm opponents with sheer size and will power.
“We’re bigger, stronger, and nastier than you, and you know it.”
It reminds me of a certain team that flew under the radar in 2019 on it’s way to an AFC Championship game appearance as a smash-mouth squad on both sides of the ball. That team is none other than the Tennessee Titans, who rode an unstoppable Derrick Henry, complemented by mistake-free, efficient play from new QB Ryan Tannehill and a stifling defense to the conference title game.
The 2023 Steelers and the 2019 Titans are comparable in three specific ways that I believe could make this year’s Steelers a dark horse contender in the AFC. Let’s dive into it.
Big, Bad Bullies Up Front
If you go back and watch the highlights from the Titans’ epic 2019 run, one thing jumps out to you over and over: the offensive and defensive lines were dominant. Taylor Lewan, Rodger Saffold, Ben Jones, Nate Davis, and Jack Conklin formed a mauling front five that controlled the line-of-scrimmage in every facet. The Titans offense was a clock-chewing, steamrolling machine, ranking 6th in offensive DVOA and providing the perfect environment for new QB Ryan Tannehill to flourish as a high-efficiency passer.
On defense, look no further than Jeffrey Simmons, Jurrell Casey, and DaQuan Jones as the anchors of the defensive line, while a bruising linebacking corps, led by Harold Landry and Rashaan Evans, made life difficult for opponents in the running game. Having a top-tier secondary helped as well, allowing the Titans to stifle opposing offenses through the air or on the ground.
The Steelers are following suit, adding two mauling guards in Nate Herbig and Isaac Seumalo who will immediately step in and improve the OL. The Steelers also brought in two old-school hitters at Linebacker in Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts with the hopes that they’ll pair well with All-World DT Cam Heyward and returning stud Larry Ogunjobi. The upcoming NFL Draft offers the team a chance to upgrade even more in the trenches, but what they’ve already done points to a 2019 Titans-like approach to 2023.
A Bruising Run Game
Derrick Henry and Najee Harris have more in common than just their alma mater, the University of Alabama. Henry really burst onto the scene in 2019 and could not be stopped. He was the driving force of the Titans’ demolition unit on offense that finished as the league’s 3rd ranked rushing attack. The definition of power, Henry also possessed unearthly speed for a man his size. Najee Harris might not have the breakaway speed, but he is every bit as powerful and hard to bring down as Henry.
It will be on Harris to hit the ground running (literally) in 2023 after looking like one of the league’s best RBs over the second half of 2022. Add in the human bowling ball that is Jaylen Warren, and the Steelers boast a rushing attack capable of dominating game script week in and week out. As the Steelers rushing attack goes, so goes the team’s success, or lack thereof, this coming season.
New Face Under Center Primed for a Career Year
The Titans turned the reigns over to the newly acquired Tannehill in Week 6 of 2019, sending an underwhelming Marcus Mariota to the bench and resurrecting a dormant QB career in the process. In Tennessee, the former Miami Dolphin turned a corner, operating as a complimentary, cerebral passer who enabled the offense to run at peak efficiency. Tannehill’s underrated rushing ability also played a big part in the Titan’s offensive success.
For the Steelers, it’s not the first season Kenny Pickett will suit up in the Black and Gold, but it’s only Year 2 of his young career, and Pickett is ready to take that next step as a passer in 2023. With the expectation that the offense will run through the rushing attack, it falls on Pickett to take on a complimentary role to maintain balance and help the run game operate at it’s peak. We saw the situational awareness and big-moment steadiness from Pickett as a rookie, but in 2023, it’s about making the production match the eye-test. A 2019 Ryan Tannehill-like performance from Pickett would go a long way in taking the Steelers where they want to go this season.
While the majority of the NFL continues to “zig” along with a focus on high-flying passing attacks, there’s a small contingent willing to “zag” and build around an old-school rushing attack built on physicality. The Steelers appear to be a part of the latter group.
If the team’s moves up front improve the running game, the defense can bully opposing offenses, and the young QB can make the necessary strides as an NFL signal-caller, this team could surprise a lot of people in 2023.