Be happy, Steelers fans. Your team is 5-3, the defense has continued to play well and the offense looks to be on the up and up halfway through the 2023 season. The team's current situation is much different than it was a year ago, when Pittsburgh was sitting at 2-6.
Despite the Steelers' current position, it appears that a good portion of the fan base doesn't know what to think of their team at the midway point. Specifically, there seems to be confusion regarding quarterback Kenny Pickett, who has a habit of playing pedestrian-level ball for three quarters before turning it on in the fourth quarter.
Hopefully, our midseason grades can offer some clarity for any confused fans out there while also offering a preview of sorts for what will likely unfold during the season's second half. Here's how each position graded out ahead of Pittsburgh's upcoming home game against the Green Bay Packers. We'll tell you on the front end that most of the team fared better during this evaluation than it did during our .
Bye week grade: D
Still not great, but the offense is making strides. After a sluggish performance during a Week 8 loss to Jacksonville, the unit looked considerably better despite only having three full days to prepare for Thursday night's win over Tennessee.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin made several changes to his offense last Thursday night. He moved offensive coordinator Matt Canada from the press box to the sideline. The result was better communication between Canada, Pickett and the rest of the offense. Canada will again be on the sideline against the Packers.
More significantly, Tomlin moved rookie first-round pick Broderick Jones into the starting lineup at right tackle. Jones played well, but the Steelers aided his success by letting him do the things he does best. Pittsburgh showcased his speed and athleticism on several plays that led to solid gains.
The Steelers also made some schematic changes (that included more runs out of the shotgun) while getting more players involved in the offense. The result was a touchdown on their opening drive (a first this season), a season-high 166 rushing yards and a 50% success rate on third down. Having Diontae Johnson back in the fold certainly helped, too. The former Pro Bowler has caught 20 passes for 254 yards and a touchdown in his three games back from injury.
The night included yet another game-winning drive by Pickett, who for whatever reason is significantly better in the fourth quarter than he is during the game's first three quarters. Pickett may not have C.J. Stroud's numbers, but he does have an 8-3 record in his last 11 starts. He also has six fourth-quarter comebacks and seven game-winning drives during his brief time as the Steelers' QB1.
OK, I know what you might be thinking. If Pickett and Co. were better in the first three quarters, then they wouldn't have to rally so much in the fourth quarter. That's true, but that shouldn't take anything away from Pickett and his ability to lock in and play his best in the critical moments that decide who wins and who loses. A lot of quarterbacks fold in those moments. Pickett doesn't.
It's easy to forget that Pickett is a second-year player with just 20 starts under his belt. It's also easy to compare him to Ben Roethlisberger, who didn't lose a regular-season game as a rookie, then helped the Steelers win a Super Bowl in his second season. Saying Pickett isn't Big Ben is fair, but it's also fair to point out that Roethlisberger was in a better situation.
Comparisons aside, Pickett is a good player with a high ceiling. He isn't a finished product, and that's OK. He just needs to be good enough to help the Steelers win games.
So far, so good.
Bye week grade: B+
The defense has only reinforced how good it is over the past three weeks. Since a Week 5 win over the Ravens, the defense allowed 17 points in Los Angeles, 20 at home against the Jaguars and 16 in last Thursday night's win over the Titans. You're going to win a lot of games when you allow an average of 17.7 points per game, and the Steelers went 2-1 over that span.
Turnovers and pressure are two of the main reasons for the unit's success. The Steelers have forced eight turnovers over the past four games and are tied for sixth in the NFL in average sacks per game. It certainly helps when you have T.J. Watt, who is tied for second in the NFL with 9.5 sacks.
Pittsburgh's defense has been especially good in the red zone, currently eighth in the league, allowing opponents to score touchdowns on just 45.5% of their trips inside the 20.
The Steelers are also getting turnovers inside the 20, such as Kwon Alexander's game-sealing pick last week, Alexander's forced fumble and James Pierre's pick against the Jaguars the previous week and Joey Porter Jr.'s end zone pick of Lamar Jackson in Week 5.
Cole Holcomb's season-ending injury hurts, but the Steelers have good depth at ILB with Alexander, Elandon Roberts and backup Mark Robinson. Specifically, the acquisition of Alexander during the first week of training camp is paying major dividends now with Holcomb's injury.
The secondary has been an evolving group since Week 1. That was to be expected as Pittsburgh entered the season with several new cornerbacks and the addition of former Pro Bowl strong safety Keanu Neal, who has shared the starting workload with Damontae Kazee. The unit still allows its share of plays, but it continues to show signs of progress with each passing week. A big reason for that continued growth is the play of Porter, who helped hold DeAndre Hopkins to just four catches on 11 targets last week.
Like Johnson has for the offense, Cam Heyward's return has provided a boost for Pittsburgh's defense line. The unit has received good contributions this season from second-year DT DeMarvin Leal, rookie Keeanu Benton, nose tackle Montravius Adams and veteran defensive end Larry Ogunjobi.
This isn't a dominant unit like the Steelers defenses of the 2000s, but it's effective in its own right. It's a unit that is still on the rise and is capable of taking the next step this season.
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Special teams: B+
Bye week grade: A-
Chris Boswell would still be perfect on field goal attempts this season if not for a questionable penalty against Pittsburgh late in the first half against Jacksonville that forced him to reattempt a long field goal after he had gotten the ball through the uprights on his first try. He may no longer be perfect, but Boswell has still made 14 of 15 field goal tries and each of his 11 PATs.
Pressley Harvin III rebounded last Thursday night following a shaky outing against Jacksonville. Overall, the three-year veteran is averaging a solid 46.2 yards per punt (with a long of 63 yards), 13 punts inside the 20 and just two touchbacks.
Bye week grade: C+
There's a reason why Tomlin has never had a losing season. Among his strengths as a head coach is his ability to make necessary adjustments quickly while preparing a game plan that usually puts the Steelers in advantageous situations.
Last week's win over the Titans was a high point for the coaching staff. Teryl Austin's defense neutralized Hopkins, put pressure on quarterback Will Levis and minimized the impact Derrick Henry had on the game. Offensively, it was Canada's best game of the season. The third-year OC did a much better job of putting his players in better positions to succeed while showcasing more of what each individual player does well.
We'll see if Canada and Co. can keep the momentum going this Sunday against the Packers. If they do, there's a good chance the Steelers will be 6-3 after nine games while further strengthening their position in the AFC.