It’s hard not to feel excited about the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers. There appears to be cautious optimism from talking heads to fans alike. And while some prefer when the Steelers are underdogs, it’s refreshing to feel excited for games to start.
Not to be a wet blanket, but as I watched the Steelers starters absolutely humiliate the Buffalo Bills last week, and started thinking about this team winning 13 or 14 games this year, a nasty little voice in my head said, “...Until someone gets hurt, and it all goes down.”
This didn’t come out of nowhere; we’ve seen that story around here. We saw a version of it last year, when T.J. Watt went down, and the team went 1-6 without him. But we’d seen it before, too.
We saw it in 2020 when Bud Dupree’s torn ACL seemed to break the Steelers’ spectacular defense (which was leading the NFL in a dozen categories through 11 weeks, only to give up 29 points/game during their closing skid). We saw it in 2019, when a powerful Steelers offense became a high school JV squad when Ben Roethlisberger had his elbow surgery. We saw it in 2017 with Ryan Shazier, in the 2014 postseason with LeVeon Bell, and in 2009, with Troy Polamalu…
Maybe I’ve got a slight case of sports PTSD, but this is a lot of examples for a single team. An injury at the wrong position can wreck a really promising season.
So the question I want to ask in this piece is how the Steelers depth looks, on the off-chance that a catastrophic injury took out one of our stars. The final 53-man roster hasn’t been set in stone, but we’ve got a sense of the top of the roster at this point.
Let’s take a look at the starters and backups, position group by position group, and ask a simple question: do you think the Steelers can win if this guy has to play a lot of the season?
Starter: Kenny Pickett
Backups: Mitch Trubisky, Mason Rudolph
This one is easy, and I feel pretty good about it. Pickett is establishing himself as far-and-away the top man in town. But Trubisky has started over 50 games, has a winning career record (including a Pro Bowl and a playoff berth); plus he won a couple of games last year against playoff teams. Rudolph, meanwhile, has several years of experience in the system, a beautiful deep ball, and a winning career record as a starter.
Neither of the Steelers backup quarterbacks are going to carry the team on their backs — and as this preseason is establishing loud and clear, Pickett is the franchise. However, all other things being equal, it’s winning nine or ten games with Trubisky or Rudolph. They might not be as dynamic as they would be with Pickett, but this isn’t 2019.
Starters: Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren
Backup: Anthony McFarland, Connor Heyward (FB)
The Steelers prefer a one-back backfield, and while I expect we’ll see more of a rotation between Harris and Warren this year, I don’t expect to see them on the field together. This means that if Harris misses some time, Warren becomes the de facto starter, and that looks just fine to me.
If McFarland has to log some reps in that circumstance, that’s also not a nightmare, but I wouldn’t want to lean on this model for long. (McFarland has looked good this preseason, so maybe he’s turned a corner, but I admit, I’ve never been an Ant-Mac believer.) If both Harris and Warren had to miss a game, I think this team could scheme around it. If it lasted for a month, we might be in trouble.
Starters: Diontae Johnson & George Pickens
Backups: Calvin Austin III, Allen Robinson, Gunner Olszewski
This is another easy one. Austin and Robinson figure to get plenty of snaps in regular game time. If Diontae Johnson or George Pickens had to miss a game, and Calvin Austin III or Robinson had to up their targets, this team would be fine. Gunner has a mixed reputation in these parts, but if he’s pressed into the 4th WR for a week or several, that won’t ruin anything.
Starter: Pat Freiermuth
Backups: Darnell Washington, Zach Gentry
I’m starting to repeat myself a little (and not in a bad way at all). In this realm, Washington figures to get plenty of action in normal games as well. If he had to start, okay. Gentry is also fine. I wouldn’t want him to start a whole season, but he’s third in the rotation. This position group is good and deep.
Starters: Dan Moore Jr., Chuks Okorafor
Backup: Broderick Jones
Jones might find his way into the starting lineup at some point anyway. These are three NFL players. Jones needs a little work (which is why he’s on the bench) but starting him isn’t going to sandbag the season. OT gets a checkmark.
Interior offensive line
Starters: Mason Cole, James Daniels, Isaac Samealu
Backups: Nate Herbig, Spencer Anderson
This actually looks quite good to me too. Herbig is a starter-quality guard, who may be able to play center as well. And Anderson, who was the one draft pick I didn’t care about four months ago, has the look of a genuine steal in the 7th round. I’d feel better if he didn’t have to play much (and I love that Herbig can step right in if something dreadful happens to the starters), but I don’t feel bad about this.
Starters: Cameron Heyward, Larry Ogunjobi, Keeanu Benton
Backups: Demarvin Leal, Isaiahh Loudermilk, Brandon Feheko
This is the shakiest area I’ve seen so far (put DL high on the draft list for next year), but I’m not sure the depth here is even that bad. Lose Cam Heyward, and the defense is going to hurt. In fact, Cam might leave the biggest hole on the team if he went down, given his linemates. However, my question is how the Steelers defensive line would survive.
If Cam went down for an extended period, they’d likely move rookie Keeanu Benton to DE and slide Brandon Feheko into NT (which doesn’t see the field that much anyway), and they’d still look decent. Now, that’s not exactly as like sliding Javon Hargrave to DE to replace Stephon Tuitt, but I’m cautiously optimistic about Benton. It’s a trickier question how they’d work in Demarvin Leal and Isaiahh Loudermilk in that situation, but that’s a tricky question even without losing Cam or Larry-O.
One important thought: lose a starter on the DL and you’re probably going to have to commit more bodies to the box, which will put more pressure on the secondary. That ripple effect can hurt you (as it did the year that Tyson Alualu broke his leg and the year that Tuitt never reported). However, this defensive backfield is one of the few in recent years that seems like they could absorb that hit. Bottom line: if the nightmare happened with Cam, the Steelers would feel it, but I also think they could survive.
Depth: Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts, Kwon Alexander, Mark Robinson
I’m not going to attempt to project who the starters are vs. the backups at this position, and that’s a reassuring thing, given that my big question is about losing a first-teamer. If Holcomb and Alexander were to get the start, then both blew out their knees, and Roberts and Robinson had to start for a month, this team would not be sunk. There would have to be some scheme adjustment, as Robinson still needs to hone his coverage skills, for example, but this rotation is close to injury-proof.
Starters: T.J. Watt, Alex Highsmith
Backups: Markus Golden, Nick Herbig
This is a position where injuries have sunk the Steelers more than once. If T.J. Watt tears another pec, there’s no replacing him one-to-one. However, Markus Golden looks like a veteran who can get to the quarterback (he’s no Malik Reed or Anthony Chickillo).
Nick Herbig, meanwhile, probably isn’t as dominant as he’s looked this off-season, but he’s got several preseason games where he looks ready for the big stage. It’d be preferable if he wasn’t forced into action, but if he was (especially if it was at third OLB in rotation), I’m not that scared.
Let’s say Highsmith or Watt misses time this year. That creates a Steelers edge combo of the remaining starter (Watt or Highsmith) plus Golden, getting spelled by Herbig. Like with the defensive line above, their absence would be felt, but it might not be crippling as it was in 2022. The Steelers defense doesn’t dominate if it loses a rock-star edge rusher, but I think it survives.
Outside corners: Levi Wallace and Patrick Peterson
Slot corner: Elijah Riley, Chandon Sullivan
Backups: Joey Porter Jr., James Pierre
By the end of the year, most expect Joey Porter Jr. to push for starting time anyway, so this is another spot where the bench and the field are close together. Behind Porter, there are some question marks, but I’m writing an essay about whether one injury could cripple the team — not at cornerback, I think.
While we’re here, it’s also worth highlighting how weirdly cool it is to have two (!) slot corners that both look very good. The last time the Steelers had this deep of a corner room was probably 2020, when Joe Haden and Steven Nelson started, and Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton split the slot. I like it. (And this is all after losing Cory Trice as a rotational piece. Lots of depth in the secondary...)
Minkah Fitzpatrick, Damontae Kazee, Keanu Neal
Another position that kind of works without backups (even though slot man Elijah Riley and special teams ace Miles Killebrew will be around just in case). But the top three are good ones. Minkah will start, obviously, but otherwise, I expect Kazee and Neal to split time much of the year — which means you’re not falling off a cliff if someone goes down. Like with Watt and Cam, losing Minkah for an extended period would be terrible. However, a starting safety tandem of Kazee (2018 NFL interceptions leader) and Neal (former Pro Bowler) could still win a lot of games.
No NFL team is injury-proof, and I’m also not on the practice field every week (to see if these guys are as good as I think they can be). Ultimately, this looks like a team with a capital T.
Some of the best Steelers squads of the last 25 years have been fairly top-heavy — they played like tsunamis when everyone was healthy, but they could be broken by the wrong missing piece. The 2023 squad has a different look — exciting at the top of the roster, but deeper than we’ve seen in a while. The champs aren’t always the teams with the most superstars; sometimes they’re the team that can weather losing a couple of those guys. And the 2023 Steelers have the look of a club that can do just that.
Buckle up. This is going to be a fascinating year. Go Steelers.