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Pittsburgh Steelers 2023 NFL Preview: Offensive Explosiveness Needed

As teams head to training camp and the NFL season approaches, The 33rd Team asks its experts to preview every team's outlook for the 2023 season. In this installment, Charles Davis takes a deep dive into the Pittsburgh Steelers.

>>READ: Steelers Fantasy Football Preview

Steelers Team Preview

What To Know: Offense

The biggest storyline for the Steelers is to become more explosive in every area of their offense. I'll start with the running game. For the previous few seasons before 2022, they were down at 29th or lower in the league in rushing.

That is stunning when you think about the Steelers being an organization that prides itself on running the football and toughness. Running back Najee Harris is a terrific player, but he has yet to average 4 yards per carry in his first two seasons. Let's get him to 4.2 yards per carry and press for 1,500 yards. That would be big progress.

The second thing about explosive plays is to get the ball out to the perimeter and let WRs Diontae Johnson and George Pickens make some plays. Throw to TE Pat Freiermuth down the middle. Can they make bigger plays, take some of the pressure off their offense and help young QB Kenny Pickett?

It's hard to believe Johnson had 86 catches and almost 900 receiving yards last season but zero touchdowns after scoring eight in 2021. That's got to change for Pittsburgh.

Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt lead Steelers at 2022 training camp
Cameron Heyward (97) and T.J. Watt (90)

What To Know: Defense

The veteran defensive line led by Cameron Heyward got a little help when the Steelers drafted Keanu Benton out of Wisconsin. He probably will start at defensive tackle or nose tackle for them and help make that line a little younger.

The other great unknown is the secondary. We know about Minkah Fitzpatrick, the perennial Pro Bowl, All-Pro safety, but almost everyone else is a question mark. Players such as CB Cam Sutton and safety Terrell Edmunds left in free agency. Patrick Peterson was signed, and he will play some corner and some safety. But can that back end of the defense become a group that's hard to throw the ball against to help that defensive front?

Biggest Off-Field Storyline

This gets trumpeted a lot, but I have a feeling that coach Mike Tomlin wants it to go away. That is his streak of every year as coach of never finishing below .500. Last season, they won six of their final seven games to get to 9-8 and almost make the playoffs. We know the Steelers are a tough out and will always be there.

But if I were to ask Tomlin straight up if he's ready for us to stop talking about that because that means they've gotten into the playoffs and gone deeper. I bet he'd say, "Yes." They're ready for that storyline to take a hike because they want to talk about being in the playoffs and being a factor, not just getting to .500 and keeping the Coach Tomlin Streak alive.

Last but not least, offensive coordinator Matt Canada would like that offense to start to purr a little bit, start to hum and take some pressure off him.

Pittsburgh Steelers Pat Freiermuth

Breakout Player Prediction

Freiermuth is someone a lot of people would say has had a breakout season already. He's been a good player for the Steelers (seasons of 60 and 63 catches), but he can increase his production. Pickett is going into his second year as the starting quarterback. I don't care if you're a veteran or a rookie, a tight end is often a quarterback's best friend.

Freiermuth has the ability to shred defenses down the middle of the field but also run routes to the outside of the field, catch the football, turn upfield and make bigger plays. His targets are going to go up, and his catches are going to go up. At the end of the year, we might be discussing whether Freiermuth is an All-Pro or Pro Bowl player.

Moves Steelers Should Make

There are two. I recommend looking at the running back situation. Harris will carry the ball a lot, but who will back him up and give him a little bit of a break? Kareem Hunt, the former Kansas City and Cleveland running back, is still out there. What a great changeup he would be in Pittsburgh.

The other thing is the secondary is unproven because most of it is new. How about a guy who takes the ball the other way a lot and makes big plays whenever he is on the field? Marcus Peters, formerly of the Baltimore Ravens, would have been a great fit, but he signed with Las Vegas Raiders in late July.

2023 Season Expectations

If you're the Steelers, you always expect to go to the playoffs. When you miss, it's a surprise. It's usually by one game or someone noses you out. So are they a playoff contender in maybe the best division (AFC North) in football? They are because they don't back down from anyone. You never have to worry about that. In the 2021 season opener at Buffalo, they were a decided underdog, and they snuck out with a win. Last season against Cincinnati, they were a decided underdog and snuck out with a win. The Steelers back down to no one and will compete with everyone, so they should be a playoff contender.

The biggest thing for them this season is to get to the playoffs and win a playoff game. Since they reached the Super Bowl in 2010, the Steelers have won three playoff games. The most recent one was after the 2016 season. Win a playoff game, and that would be a huge success for the Steelers. It's something we're used to seeing.

Other Previews

NFC East: DAL | NYG  | PHI | WAS

NFC North: GB | CHI | DET | MIN

AFC East: BUF | MIA | NE  | NYJ

AFC North: CLE | BAL | CIN

AFC West: KC | LAC | LV | DEN

NFC West: SF | SEA | LAR | ARI

NFC South: TB | CAR | NO | ATL 

AFC South: JAX | TEN | HOU | IND  

Charles Davis is an NFL analyst for CBS and NFL Network. He joined the sports media world after playing safety at the University of Tennessee.