It started in a moment of triumph. Mike Tomlin’s “Kenny f___ing Pickett” after Pickett’s last-minute comeback against the Ravens on January 2nd started 2023 giving Steelers Nation permission to “Believe.”
- And Steelers Nation believed.
Before the ’22 campaign even ended, Steel City Study’s Jeremy Hertz declared, “I can’t wait for training camp next summer!”
Then Omar Khan led the most aggressive free agency effort in franchise history. Next came the draft, where the Steelers 2023 draft class won universal praise, even from hardened skeptics.
- Belief morphed into expectation.
Expectations skyrocketed after a sterling Steelers preseason. All of it remains understandable, even in 20/20 hindsight, but the story of the Steelers 2023 season is simple: Expect the unexpected.
Mason Rudolph and Kenny Pickett in 2022 at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review
Ominous Opening Day Omen
In 2023, for the first time since 2014, the Steelers opened the season in Pittsburgh. Their opponent was the San Francisco 49ers, an NFC heavyweight and a Super Bowl favorite.
- What a perfect opportunity for the Pittsburgh Steelers to prove themselves.
49ers fans invade Acrisure Stadium. Photo Credit: 49ers.com
Yet even before the opening kickoff, something was amiss: 49ers fans were taking over Acrisure Stadium. Steelers fans gloat when Steelers Nation invades stadiums on the road. It’s not so funny when the tables are turned. As Jack Lambert said, the Steelers should be the intimidators.
- This phenomenon in the stands foreshadowed events on the field.
The Steelers were terrible. The offensive line got dominated like rag dolls by the 49ers. Kenny Pickett was tentative, inaccurate and ineffective. The Steelers defense appeared to play a speed slower than the 49ers offense.
The 49ers exposed Pittsburgh as pretenders not contenders. Worse yet, the Steelers saw Diontae Johnson, Pat Freiermuth and Cam Heyward fall to injuries.
But it fell to Anthony McFarland that set the tone for what was to come. McFarland was the only player who stood out that disappointing day. His arrow was pointing up. Or so it seemed. McFarland went on IR after the game and got cut before season’s end.
Yes, expectations were dangerous things for the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers and their fans.
2023 Pittsburgh Steelers Validate Ken Beatrice’s Wisdom
When future generations browse the 2023 Steelers season on Pro Football Reference and glance at weeks 2-12 they’re think, “OK, the opener was bad and the Houston loss was ugly, but they won several close games against some decent teams. They must have improved.”
That’s the logical conclusion. It’s also the wrong one.
From week 2 to week 12 the Steelers validated legendary Washington DC radio journalist Ken Beatrice’s argument that “…Every Sunday in the NFL, very few teams win games. It is most often the case that the other team loses.” The Steelers didn’t win those games, they avoided losing them.
- The Steelers offense was atrocious.
It quickly became apparent Mike Tomlin erred badly in retaining Matt Canada. He tried moving Canada to the sidelines. That didn’t work. But more than Canada ailed the offense.
The offensive line struggled. The progress and promise they showed in the second half of 2022 was a mirage. Najee Harris, when he wasn’t getting tackled behind the line of scrimmage, struggled to manage a couple-of-three yards in what Jim Wexell decried as “Sludge ball.” Jaylen Warren looked better, but he got fewer carries.
Kenny Pickett struggled, except during the 4th quarter, when his “clutch gene” kicked in. To be fair to Pickett, with Pat Friermuth and Dionte Johnson out, he had few weapons to target. George Pickens flashed, but struggled in double coverage. Allen Robinson was nice to have and Calvin Austin was little more than a place holder.
The Steelers defense struggled against the run without Cam Heyward, and at cornerback Patrick Peterson and Levi Wallace left fans screaming for Joey Porter Jr. to start.
Joey Porter Jr. gets his first interception. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review
Yet the offense avoided turning over the ball, and the defense showed an uncanny knack for making big plays at the right time:
- Week two vs Cleveland saw Minkah Fitzpatrick open with a tipped pass that Alex Highsmith turned into a pick six.
Alex Highsmith closed with a strip sack by Highsmith that T.J. Watt returned for a TD
- Next week, Levi Wallace closed a 23-18 game with an interception vs. Oakla.. er Las Vegas
- Against Baltimore, Joey Porter, Jr. picked off a pass in the end zone with 4 minutes remaining
Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt followed with another strip-sack, fumble-recovery combo
T.J. Watt closed the game with a sack
- Against Los Angeles, T.J. Watt opened the second half with an 24 yard interception return, setting up a touchdown, in a 24-17 win
- Against the Titans, Kwon Alexander closed 20-16 game with an end zone interception.
- Against Green Bay, Damontae Kazee closed a 23-19 game with an interception at the Packers’ 2.
- In a 20-26 win over Cincinnati, Trenton Thompson ended the Bengals opening drive of the 2nd half with a Red Zone interception.
And this list of plays that saw the Steelers defense either score, set up scores and/or take certain points off the board for the opponent doesn’t include numerous other turnovers, key third down stops and/or sacks.
What’s makes this stretch of defensive fireworks all the more impressive starting in November, the Steelers practically lost a starting inside linebacker and/or a starting safety to injury each and every week.
No, they weren’t pretty, but the Black and Gold kept winning. Until they didn’t.
December Arrives. And Unpretty Winning Turns to Losing Ugly. Fast.
Firing coordinators during the season is something the Steelers never do. It just isn’t in their DNA.
Yet, Mike Tomlin opened Thanksgiving week by firing Matt Canada after an awful outing in Cleveland. Kenny Pickett and the offense perked up a bit that week against Cincinnati, but were struggling against the 2-10 Arizona Cardinals at home the following week.
Zack Moss gets Indy on the board. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review
Shortly before halftime, on 3rd and 3 at the goal line, disaster struck as Kenny Pickett tried to run it in himself. Pickett didn’t score, but he did get injured. Najee Harris tried again on fourth down and failed.
- The bottom fell out on the Steelers.
What followed was perhaps the worst 10 quarter stretch of football in the Mike Tomlin era. The Steelers lost the following week at home, against the 2-10 New England Patriots as Mitch Trubisky struggled.
A week later, the Steelers managed to play even worse against the Indianapolis Colts. Not only did Trubisky’s struggles continue, Damontae Kazee got ejected and ultimately suspended. Worse yet, the Colts closed the game by ramming the ball down the middle against a Steelers defense that was powerless to stop it. It looked like they had quit.
When the NFL announced Damontae Kazee’s suspension, it was for the rest of 2023, including the playoffs. Kazee appealed. The NFL acquiesced, agreeing to allow Kazee’s return for the playoffs.
That seemed like a cruel joke. The Steelers had just dropped 3 straight and were looking worse with each passing week. The only thing standing in between Steelers ending 2023 on a 6 game losing streak was the chance that John Harbaugh might rest his starters in the season finale against Baltimore.
Rudolph to the Rescue
Mason Rudolph, once Ben Roethlisberger’s heir apparent, toiled in obscurity for three years. Rudolph dove into free agency during the 2023 off season, but he returned to Pittsburgh because no one else wanted him. Rudolph mopped up at the ass-end of the Colts game and looked as bad as everyone else.
Mason Rudoph and Najee Harris during the Steelers 2023 win over the Seahawks. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come
So Mike Tomlin appeared to be desperate when he named Mason Rudolph as his starter for that Bengals game. Then a funny thing happened:
The Steelers not only won their next three games, they won convincingly. They even won in Seattle, and the Steelers NEVER win in Seattle. The offense came alive, and players like Eric Rowe and Myles Jack literally stepped off to couch to make game-changing plays on defense.
What was different?
- One thing. You had competent quarterback play.
Mason Rudolph forced defenses to respect the deep ball. They couldn’t crowd the box. Opposing special teams coordinator didn’t automatically tell his punt return unit to get their helmets on each time the Steelers were in 3rd and 5 or more.
George Pickens – a candidate to be benched for the rest of the season after Indianapolis – exploded for 326 and 2 touchdowns in two games, and a delivered a devastating block in the season finale. Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren romped. Defenders like Nick Herbig and Patrick Peterson made splash plays at critical moments.
And so it was that the Steelers went from being a 7-7 team looking at a near-certain 7-10 finish on December 16th in Indianapolis, to a 10-7 team that stood in Buffalo just 7 points away from tying the AFC’s number 2 seed with just 7:18 left in the game.
Word to the Wise, Put 2023 Lesson to Work
Kenny Pickett demonstrably failed to make the “2nd year leap” in 2023 as hopped. And the tempting take away would be that it is unreasonable for the Steelers to expect him to make that leap in 2024.
But perhaps Pickett will prove once again the lesson coming out of 2023 for the Pittsburgh Steelers is to expect the unexpected.