The Pittsburgh Steelers' first-stringers look like sneaky contenders

2RJ7WK0 Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. 19th Aug, 2023. August 19th, 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) entrance during Pittsburgh Steelers vs Buffalo Bills in Pittsburgh, PA. Jake Mysliwczyk/AMG Media (Credit Image: © AMG/AMG via ZUMA Press Wire) EDITORIAL USAGE ONLY! Not for Commercial USAGE!

Kenny Pickett and the Pittsburgh Steelers could be contenders in 2023, judging by the glimpses of their first team in action so far this preseason.

The AFC North is one of the toughest divisions in football, but the focus has been largely on the favorites — the Cincinnati Bengals — or how close the Baltimore Ravens can run them with a new offense and a revamped wide receiver corps. Even the Cleveland Browns have been touted as potential challengers if Deshaun Watson can bounce back after an ugly debut season with the team.

Little attention has been paid to whether the Steelers can mount a challenge. But current evidence suggests the possibility is worth keeping an eye on.

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Kenny Pickett was the first quarterback taken in what looked like a dismal class for the position a season ago. Much of the analysis was along the lines of, “I don’t like any of these quarterbacks, but if I had to pick one, Pickett would be the only one with a chance.” With the overall flavor of the draft class so unappealing, Pickett perhaps started with lower expectations than a typical first-round rookie.

His stats didn’t do much to change those expectations. Pickett finished the 2022 season with more interceptions (nine) than passing touchdowns (seven) and averaged just 6.2 yards per attempt.

Those numbers belied a level of play that was significantly better than that, however. Pickett’s PFF grade ended up at 75.5, putting him just a point behind Brock Purdy as the best-performing rookie quarterback. Purdy’s stats were vastly superior to Pickett’s, but on a play-by-play basis their level of play wasn’t wildly different — rather, the results as impacted by the scheme and playcalling were.

Pickett had 18 big-time throws as a rookie for a 4.3% rate, the same as Dak Prescott and Tua Tagovailoa. He deserved a better return for the good plays he was making but never really received it.

Kenny Pickett | 2022 Regular Season
Stat Rank
Overall Grade 75.5 18th
Passing Grade 73.0 16th
Big-Time Throw % 4.3% T-18th
Turnover-Worthy Play % 2.5% T-8th
Adjusted Comp. % 73.3% 28th

Click here to view Kenny Pickett's Premium Stats page

The Steelers' first-teamers were expected to play a reasonable amount of snaps against the Buffalo Bills in preseason Week 2 but exited the game before the first half of the first quarter was over because they had scored two touchdowns on two drives against the Bills' starters.

Pickett completed three of his four attempts for 43 yards, including the second score — a perfect pass up the seam to tight end Pat Freiermuth.

Second-year receiver George Pickens has been making spectacular plays every day of training camp, and the expectations for him in his second season are going through the roof. Diontae Johnson remains one of the best route-runners and separators in the game, and the addition of Allen Robinson was a great buy-low gamble, given his previous accomplishments.

Calvin Austin — another second-year receiver — has now made a huge play in each preseason game after missing his entire rookie season with injury and brings blazing speed to the offense.

Add in the likes of Freiermuth, Connor Heyward and rookie Darnell Washington, not to mention the talent in the backfield, and the Steelers have a formidable collection of weaponry for Pickett to deploy. And he seems to be comfortable with getting the ball to any of them.

Notable Steelers Rookies | 2023 Preseason
Player PFF Preseason Grade
EDGE Nick Herbig 90.6
CB Joey Porter Jr. 71.1
DI Keeanu Benton 69.3
TE Darnell Washington 61.6
OT Broderick Jones 59.9

Click here to view Pittsburgh Steelers preseason grades

The offensive line has held the team back in recent years, but they have been making incremental improvements, and that continued this offseason. Isaac Seumalo came over in free agency to start at guard after a good career in Philadelphia. Seumalo has consistently been a good pass protector in the NFL at either guard spot and has yet to allow a pressure this preseason.

Rookie tackle Broderick Jones will also look to force his way into the starting lineup, even if he is currently behind Dan Moore Jr. at left tackle. Jones has played at least 45 snaps in each preseason game as the Steelers look to give him the experience he needs before the regular season. He has allowed three pressures on 52 pass-blocking snaps.

Mike Tomlin famously avoided a losing season yet again last year, despite every indication that he would experience his first as a head coach, and Pittsburgh finished 9-8 despite opening the campaign 1-4. They are invariably a well-coached team, and this season they actually have significantly better talent to work with, including a young quarterback who seems materially better than he was as a rookie.

It’s just preseason, which can make fools of us all, but right now the Steelers look like they may force their way into the conversation as contenders in a loaded AFC.


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