The 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers are in a tough spot.
It’s not because of the roster. The Steelers boast a tremendous blend of elite veteran talent and explosive young playmakers. Not to mention good depth overall, especially along the Offensive and Defensive Lines and at the skill positions. They have the players to be a dark-horse contender.
It’s also not the fault of the coaching staff or front office. The Steelers, as per usual, enjoy a level of stability and prowess as an organization that should make most of the NFL world envious.
No, the Pittsburgh Steelers are in a tough spot because the AFC is absolutely loaded with elite Super Bowl contenders and up-and-coming Playoff-caliber squads that could potentially undermine the team’s high aspirations in 2023. It’s very possible that this year’s Steelers are the most complete iteration of the team since the 2016 unit that earned an AFC Championship bid. Despite this, it’s also very possible that they could miss the playoffs altogether because the rest of the conference is so strong.
So how do the Steelers stack up in the loaded AFC? For this exercise, I’m taking off my Black and Gold glasses for a moment in an attempt to objectively rank the Steelers by listing the teams I would take over them right now in the AFC hierarchy. Let’s dive in!
1. Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs are the “Kings of the AFC” until proven otherwise. Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes are the most lethal Coach/QB duo in the league today and it’s not even close. Even if you had to peg the Chiefs defense as the weak link in the championship chain, that unit seems to always up its game in the playoffs under the guidance of Defensive Coordinator (DC) Steve Spagnuolo. As it stands right now, if Mahomes is under center, this team is the one to beat in the AFC. Right now, the Steelers even at their best can’t hang with the Chiefs if they play to their potential.
2. Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals are once again loaded on offense and primed to put up more huge passing numbers with the league’s best WR room and one of it’s premier QBs. The defense lost some pieces, but DC Lou Anaroumo is one of the best defensive minds in the game, and the unit boasts a plethora of versatile players on every level. They will be right there in the mix again. The Steelers can beat this team, mostly due to their familiarity with the divisional foe. Much like the Chiefs, though, the Bengals at their best are likely too much for the Steelers to compete with for 60 minutes.
3. Buffalo Bills
I’ll admit, the 2023 Bills could be a disaster waiting to happen. Rumored inner turmoil and immense pressure from an absolutely desperate fanbase might be too much for QB Josh Allen and company to overcome this season. That said, I’m still taking that group over the 2023 Steelers for two reasons. First, Allen is one of the 3 best signal callers in the League today, and he can absolutely take over a game at any moment. Second, Sean McDermott’s defense is littered with playmakers and coming off an injury-riddled season that saw almost all of the best players on that side miss significant amount of time. That’s unlikely to happen again, and a healthy Bills team should still scare every team on this list.
4. Miami Dolphins
The recent news of Tyreek Hill’s potential legal troubles makes this projection a little bit sketchy, but I’m extremely high on the Dolphins potential in 2023 if the team can play at or close to full strength all season. The QB situation is iffy, with the oft-concussed Tua Tagovailoa still a question mark. However, Mike McDaniel’s team is absolutely loaded with elite skill position talent on offense, and their offseason defensive additions invoke a lot of excitement about that unit as well. If the Dolphins put it all together in 2023, they might have the deepest and most talented roster in the entire AFC. The question marks are big, but the reward could be bigger.
5. New York Jets
The Jets were a ready-made championship roster without a QB in 2022. Now, they bring in one of the all-time greats in Aaron Rodgers to, hopefully, take them over the top. I understand that Aaron Rodgers is in the final stage of his career, and I also understand the comparison to the Broncos ill-fated addition of Russell Wilson last year to put the final touches on what was also considered a championship roster sans a difference-making QB. The difference is that the Jets actually acquired an all-time great QB, while the Broncos did not. Russell Wilson has been a good QB, but he has always been overrated. I’m far more concerned with Rodgers internal motivation and how much gas he has left in the tank at this stage of his career. This Jets’ roster though is as impressive as they come. Stars abound on both sides of the ball. 80% of the Aaron Rodgers we’re accustomed to is enough to make them a true Championship contender. The Steelers just aren’t as talented across the board as the Jets.
6. Jacksonville Jaguars
This placement is about the QB. I see the Steelers and Jaguars as fairly even teams, with Pittsburgh having the edge on defense, but Jacksonville owning a true Superstar QB while the Steelers, as of now, do not. Trevor Lawrence is absolutely coming into his own as one of the NFL’s elite passers. At his current trajectory, the generational college prospect has a chance to have a Mahomes-like impact on his offense, elevating the play of everyone around him because he’s just that good. Until the Steelers’ young QB Kenny Pickett shows he deserves to be labeled in the upper tier of NFL QBs, the majority of these other teams will have the upper hand.
7. Pittsburgh Steelers
This is where the Steelers fall in my objective opinion. Just look at the rosters of the other
2 or 3 teams you could put here, and they all have major question marks. I almost put the Ravens ahead of the Steelers, but the fact is, Pittsburgh’s roster is just better from top to bottom. Where the Ravens often get their pop nationally is at QB, with many believing Lamar Jackson to be an upper-echelon player at that position. I disagree with that stance. He’s an incredible playmaker as a runner, but we just haven’t seen it from him as a passer, and many teams have figured out how to make things difficult for him. The Steelers are one of those teams.
The Chargers have major questions on Defense, especially in the secondary where health is a huge concern, and in coaching, where Head Coach and deFacto DC Brandon Staley is lucky to still have a job after last year’s epic playoff collapse. LAC fans are tired of this team underperforming, but they have for a decade and a half now. What’s changed?
Much of the same could be said for the Steelers other division rival and sexy contender pick, the Cleveland Browns. Until this organization actually breaks the endless cycle of underperformance and poor decision-making, I just can’t put them above a Rooney-owned, Mike Tomlin-led squad with as much talent as Pittsburgh possesses. We haven’t even discussed the all-time gamble at QB from last year, where Deshaun Watson looked plain bad in his 7 starts in 2022 after what amounted to a 2-year hiatus from professional football.
Beyond the 10 teams mentioned above, the AFC still has several interesting squads that could sneak into the playoff picture. It just goes to show that the AFC is stacked, more so than I can recollect in my 20+ years of avid football fandom. The Patriots, Broncos, and even Raiders will be tough outs for any of the above squads, making this year’s AFC race must-watch television from start to finish.
The Steelers have it tough in 2023, but I still believe they have the makeup of a playoff team and contender despite the overloaded conference they play in. The Steelers have a fairly favorable schedule, drawing the AFC South and NFC West teams to go along with their 3rd-place AFC schedule. In the end, the record might be a little inflated for a team that is still likely a step or two away from true greatness. Time will tell.
How do you feel about my rankings? Should the Steelers be higher or lower? Let me know in the comments below.