The Steelers offense may have just finished cutting through the preseason like a razor blade through marmalade, but there’s plenty to be excited about on the defense too. Some of it may be familiar, but there are also enough new names and faces to talk about and to potentially create opportunities for our established stars to be even more productive. No one player succeeds or fails alone after all, it has an impact on everyone else on the field.
As I did a couple of weeks ago with the offense, in this article I’m going to look at the defense as a whole and how the individual players’ production could fit together. Here, though, rather than predict each player’s stat line, I’ll be looking specifically just at splash plays of sacks and interceptions.
Predicting the Steelers 2023 sack totals
It all starts up front, so let’s begin with the big boys. Last year, T.J. Watt’s injury ended the Steelers’ streak of leading the league in sacks for five consecutive years and the team ended up only 15th in the league in that department. This year, the team should get back to near the top of the league at least.
OLB T.J. Watt: 20 sacks
His brother had two 20+ sack seasons, so you know T.J. has to do it too. The Steelers have the bookend with Highsmith, the depth to keep Watt fresh, and I think playing less nickel and more base 3-4 with Benton will make it harder for quarterbacks to step up in the pocket. A healthy Ogunjobi creating chaos right beside him should help as well. I’d love to see Watt break his own single-season sack record, but there may just be too much competition.
OLB Alex Highsmith: 15 sacks
Not much to say here, Highsmith will benefit from the additions up front as well, and he’s just hitting his prime. He and Watt are going to be racing to the quarterback on a lot of plays.
DT Cam Heyward: 10 sacks
Someday, Cam Heyward will have to slow down, but today is not that day. Heyward, at 34, is projected to post his third consecutive 10-sack season in 2023, as no quarterback wants to roll out toward Watt or Highsmith, and more snaps with a quality nose tackle will make it harder for teams to double Heyward.
DT Larry Ogunjobi: 5 sacks
Ogunjobi played injured a lot of the year last season and only produced a sack and a half as a result but he’s generally been at least a 5 sack guy in his career and I see that continuing with a healthier year for him.
LB Markus Golden: 5 sacks
I’m not totally convinced Golden still has gas in the tank, but if his drop-off last year was due to a broken toe and that toe is now healed he could still make some noise at 32 as a rotational rusher. I also wanted to give five so I could point out the weird statistical trend it would break.
In his nine-year career, Golden has passed 10 sacks three different times, but has never had between five to 10 sacks. He’s been a real feast-or-famine player, but if he’s healthy enough to play at his peak, 2023 would be the year he hits that mark due to limited usage and/or his peak not being as high as it was a few years ago.
Others: 10 sacks
- Chandon Sullivan should pick up a sack at some point because the Steelers like to blitz out of the slot. Joey Porter Jr. is going to get one on a corner blitz and fans are going to lose their minds.
- The inside linebackers should combine for four or so sacks.
- Look for DeMarvin Leal to add a couple of sacks as he develops this year.
- You’re all wondering, though, about LB Nick Herbig. He’s had a great preseason, but he’s still a long way from being an immediate difference-maker in the regular season. Consider that Highsmith had just two sacks as a rookie; Watt had just seven as a full-time starter. Herbig will be lucky to play half the snaps Watt did and would extremely lucky to do as well with them as Watt did. Don’t expect more than two or three sacks from Herbig. Benton is a nose tackle; he’ll maybe have one.
Steelers total sacks: 65
Predicting the Steelers for a 65-sack season is a bold, but not impossible milestone, as the Eagles hit 70 just last year. However, it would rank the Steelers 11th all-time for single-season sacks. That would suggest these aren’t terribly realistic numbers, but these projections assume a healthy season for all involved. To get more realistic, accounting for that potential for various contributors to miss time, you’d have to shave about 10 sacks off of that initial projection.
Predicting the Steelers 2023 interception totals
Teryl Austin has emphasized interceptions, and the defense responded last year by leading the league in that category. Interceptions are a notoriously volatile stat that can fluctuate a ton based on luck, but with Austin’s emphasis and the new players brought in this year, I’d expect the Steelers to still get our fair share and then some.
S Minkah Fitzpatrick: 4 INTs
The Steelers’ star FS grabbed only 2 picks in 2021 when he was forced to cover for the lack of run defense, but every other year since his rookie season has had at least 4. I could easily see him going higher this year, but I’m going conservative because I think teams will work harder to avoid him after last year.
CB Joey Porter Jr.: 4 INTs
I know — this projection is four times as many interceptions as he had in his whole college career. Porter was typically the first guy on the field during training camp, coming out early to work on his hands. He’s focused on improving in that area, he already broke the ice with an interception in the preseason, and rookie cornerbacks get lots of chances.
Artie Burns Jr. had three interceptions in nine starts, and it wasn’t because he was just that awesome. It was because opposing quarterbacks tried to pick on him and underestimated his length and closing speed. Porter isn’t a gambler-type corner who guesses on routes to try to jump them for interceptions. He’ll always be more of a pass-breakup guy, but opposing quarterbacks have read all about his lack of interceptions in college, too, and will test him freely early on giving him lots of opportunities, which he should be able to take advantage of.
S Damontae Kazee: 4 INTs
Kazee is a legit ballhawk who led the league with seven interceptions in 2018. Now, he’s in a perfect situation where teams will be much more concerned with avoiding Fitzpatrick and not necessarily well-prepared for a guy who only started four games last year. He may not play 100% snaps this year, but he’ll make his presence felt when he’s on the field.
CB Patrick Peterson: 3 INTs
With his wily veteran tricks and awareness it’s a safe bet that Peterson will take advantage of an inexperienced quarterback or two during the season and bait him into a throw or simply anticipate his tendencies. The Steelers moving him around to confuse quarterbacks will also create opportunities for Peterson to continue to produce big plays despite the decline in physical skills. He could also be tested, like Joey Porter, but for the opposite reason, on account of his advanced age.
CB Levi Wallace: 2 INTs
Wallace had a career-high in interceptions last year, playing in his first season in a new system and battling injuries and Bell’s palsy for part of the season. His place on the depth chart is uncertain, but he’s a battler who will make his way onto the field and will continue to make plays when he does.
CB Chandon Sullivan, LBs Kwon Alexander & Cole Holcomb: 1 each
This is more or less the random interception list here, so not much to write about them individually. None of them are, by any means, ball hawks, but this is what happens when quarterbacks are looking out for Minkah Fitzpatrick (and by midseason, Kazee as well). They don’t see the lurking linebacker. They try to test coverage underneath.
Steelers total interceptions: 20
In this scenario, I completely by accident ended up with the exact same number as last year just guessing for each player. Whether that’s enough to lead the league or not in 2023, it’s certainly a good number that would put them in the top 3 most any year. Given the improvement to the pass rush, which should be much better this year even if they don’t surpass 60 sacks, more hurried throws should put the secondary in good position to continue to ballhawk effectively and remain a source of game-changing plays.
The performance of the offense has generated a lot of buzz this preseason and for good reason, but we shouldn’t forget about the defense, which still has the star power to make some real trouble for opposing quarterbacks in particular, and now the depth to help make the most of them as well. That should result in plenty of splash plays and counting stats, no matter how you slice it, but even more importantly plenty of low scoring opponents and plenty of wins for the Steelers.
With all the emphasis on the quality of quarterback play in the AFC, people talking about how Pickett couldn’t possibly compete with Burrow and Mahomes, etc., the reality is that Pickett doesn’t have to compete with those guys, our defense does. And the fact is, our defense looks potentially pretty well set up to put us in position to compete with elite QB play.