Through 10 games last season, the Steelers were living up to their low preseason expectations. Pittsburgh, whose win/loss total was placed at 7.5 before the 2022 season, was 3-7 at that point and was a team that appeared destined to endure the franchise's first losing season in 19 years.
Instead, the Steelers flipped the script and rallied to finish with a 9-8 record and in the process extended Mike Tomlin's record of non-losing seasons to begin a coaching career to 16. The Steelers' strong finish last season is surely one of the reasons why the oddsmakers have placed higher expectations on Tomlin's team in 2023.
Pittsburgh's win/loss total for 2023 has been set at 8.5 games, according to Caesars Sportsbook. Given the fact that they won more games than that last year, that number is still somewhat low, especially when the Browns -- who last season finished behind Pittsburgh in the division standings for a 33rd straight year -- also have an Over/Under projection of 8.5 wins.
There are several reasons why the Steelers should again be above the 8.5-win mark. Here are the three main reasons why, along with our 2023 win-loss prediction for the black and gold.
Stable QB position
There were more questions than answers surrounding the Steelers' quarterback position this time last year. Would Mitch Trubisky be the starting quarterback? If so, how long would it take for Kenny Pickett to get his shot? And where does Mason Rudolph fall into all of this? The Steelers let the process play out, and while it contributed to them missing the playoffs, Pittsburgh did ultimately turn the offense over to Pickett, who went 7-5 as the starter.
It was easy to see Pickett's growth during his rookie season. He was much better at taking care of the ball as the season progressed, throwing just one interception during his last eight games after tossing eight interceptions during his first five appearances. Along with avoiding making mistakes, Pickett showed his ability to produce in the clutch. He led four game-winning drives that included in consecutive weeks against the Raiders and Ravens.
Another strength of Pickett is that wins is the only stat he cares about. An ACC champion during his final season at Pitt, Pickett said numerous times last season that winning games is the only thing that matters to him. That's an important trait for an NFL quarterback to have, especially in this era where a quarterback's value is far too often only measured by numbers.
Along with Pickett, the Steelers still have Trubisky under contract for the 2023 season. While he lost his starting job, Trubisky is a quality backup who won multiple games for the Steelers last season and played considerably better late in the season. A team captain, Trubisky is also a valued member inside the locker room.
Improved offensive line
In his first start, Pickett threw 52 passes in a blowout loss to the Bills. While Pickett threw for 327 yards while completing 65 percent his passes in that game, he also threw three interceptions in what was a 35-point defeat.
Eventually, the Steelers found their offensive identity last season and have spent this offseason adding pieces to strengthen it. The offense, thanks to the emergence of Jaylen Warren, became a run-first offense whose first goal was to win the battle in the trenches. Pickett was asked to run more rollout, high-percentage passes but was also given the chance to test his mettle downfield when the situation called for it.
The Steelers' rushing attack wasn't dominant, but it did go from 29th in the league in 2021 to 16th last season. Pittsburgh has put itself in position to have a top-five rushing attack in 2023 after adding even more pieces to its offensive line this offseason.
In free agency, the Steelers were able to sign veterans Isaac Seumalo, Nate Herbig and Le'Raven Clark. Seumalo is expected to compete with Kevin Dotson for the starting left guard, spot while Herbig and Clark will add much-needed depth to the guard and tackle positions.
All three players are known for their run-blocking prowess, which is good news for Najee Harris and Warren. Pittsburgh probably isn't done acquiring linemen, either, as it will likely acquire at least one tackle during next month's draft.
Given its moves on the offensive line, along with what should be better play from the quarterback position, the 2023 season could be a big one for Harris, who last season became the first back in team history to start his career with consecutive 1,000-yard rushing campaigns. Harris, who dealt with an injury that sidelined him for a portion of last summer's training camp, played with a noticeable edge during the final games of the 2022 season. Expect Harris to continue to play with that edge next season while taking full advantage of the Steelers' rebuilt line.
Additions to an already solid defense
The highest-paid defense in the NFL at times didn't look like it last season. A lot of that can be attributed to T.J. Watt missing significant time with an injury. Talent deficiencies at inside linebacker certainly didn't help, either. The secondary and defensive line also needed upgrades after both units fell short at times last season.
Pittsburgh has emphatically addressed inside linebacker with the free agents signings of Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts. Roberts is an accomplished run-stuffer and pass rusher. Holcomb is also a sure tackler whose pass coverage is underrated.
The Steelers managed to re-sign defensive end Larry Ogunjobi, who played well last season under a one-year "prove-it" deal. More work needs to be done on the line, however, and that work will likely take place during the draft. Backup outside linebacker also needs shored up, but that could happen if the Steelers decide to bring back former first-round pick Bud Dupree.
Pittsburgh made a splash by signing eight-time Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson, who last season picked off five passes while breaking up 15 more for the Vikings. Peterson, however, may move to safety, which means that the Steelers will surely use one of their top draft picks on a cornerback.
Steelers' 2023 win prediction: 10
A 10-7 season seems like a very realistic possibility for the black and gold. Whether or not the Steelers reach that number comes down to if they can handle their business in the division and in games against opponents with less than or equal talent.
The Steelers did handle their business inside the AFC North last season, as each team in the North went 3-3 in division play. Where Pittsburgh came up short was in games against similar competition, with losses to the Jets, Patriots and Dolphins during the season's first half.
On paper, Pittsburgh has a slew of winnable games on its schedule. The 49ers (who will have to travel to Pittsburgh) is the only game where the Steelers will likely be a clear-cut underdog. It will come down to whether or not the Steelers can take advantage of their third-place schedule that includes nine games against teams that had losing records in 2022.
The Steelers will inevitably lose a game or two that they're "expected" to win. But they will also win one or two games that they are projected to lose. So it comes down to how well the Steelers fare in games that are considered to be "50-50" matchups. Games that fall under that category include home matchups against Jacksonville and New England and road games at Baltimore and Seattle.
Unlike last season, expect the Steelers to come out on top more often than not in these games, with a more experienced Pickett under center, a vastly improved offensive line and a stronger defense. That should result in at least 10 wins and a spot in the AFC playoffs.