A famous Bill Parcells' quote comes to mind when assessing the current state of the Steelers. The Hall of Fame coach once said, "you are what your record says you are," and that quote certainly applies to the Steelers who, despite some obvious flaws, are 3-2 and atop the AFC North division standings.
The Steelers' first five games were a mixed bag of results. During that span, Pittsburgh was blown out twice but was also on the winning side of three close games. Most recently, the Steelers overcame a 10-0 deficit to post a 17-10 win over the rival Ravens that included big plays in all three phases. It wasn't pretty, but it was enough to get the job done, which may ultimately be the story of the 2023 Steelers.
Pittsburgh will have to shore things things up if it is to remain in first place in the AFC North, however. Specifically, it needs to improve on offense after being at or near the bottom of the league in several categories on that side of the ball.
As the Steelers enter their bye week, here are our grades for the black and gold through five games.
Where do we start? The Steelers' offense has woefully underperformed in just about every conceivable way through the first five games. The unit is last in the NFL in red zone efficiency, 24th on third downs and has scored just five touchdowns so far. The offense's performance has led to a mountain of criticism being placed on Matt Canada, who during his time in Pittsburgh has never seen his offense gain 400 or more yards in a game.
The offensive line has been the biggest disappointment. It has allowed 14 sacks of Kenny Pickett and has struggled to open up consistent running lanes for Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren. Specifically, the interior of Pittsburgh's line has struggled despite the offseason acquisition of former Eagles starter Isaac Seumalo. Fortunately, the continued growth of rookie Broderick Jones should help Pittsburgh's offensive line turn things around.
Pittsburgh's issues on the line has made it hard to evaluate the running backs. But one thing that is clear is that the Steelers' running game has largely been more efficient with Warren in the backfield. Warren's 79 all-purpose yards on Sunday, for example, played a key role in Pittsburgh's come-from-behind win. Warren has a quicker outside burst than Harris, and that makes him a better option as long as the line continue to have issues creating holes between the tackles.
The Steelers' passing game was faced with early adversity after Diontae Johnson injured his hamstring in Week 1. With Johnson out, the Steelers have struggled to find someone to fill his void. It didn't help matters when starting tight end Pat Freiermuth sustained an injury in Week 4.
Despite these losses, the Steelers' receivers made three big plays that had a direct result in two of the team's three wins: George Pickens' 71-yard score against Cleveland, Calvin Austin's 73-yard touchdown catch against Las Vegas and Pickens' 41-yard, game-winning touchdown catch against Baltimore. Making big plays was something the Steelers wanted do more of this season, and they've been able to do that (to a degree) so far.
Austin and Pickens have had their moments, but the Steelers need more production from Allen Robinson II and tight end Connor Heyward, who was included more in the game plan this past weekend with Freiermuth out. Johnson's expected return for Week 7 will surely help, too.
This brings us to Pickett who, like Canada, has also come under scrutiny with his play during the season's first five games. Pickett hasn't been helped by Pittsburgh's offensive line and injuries to Johnson and Freiermuth, but he hasn't helped matters by holding onto the ball too long at times and missing some makable throws.
Pickett has, however, shown signs of growth since Pittsburgh's Week 1 loss to San Francisco. He's deep ball accuracy has been solid, and he appears to be gaining back his confidence. A better running game and an improved game plan would go a long way in helping him moving forward. It would also benefit Pickett to continue to work on his chemistry with Johnson, who has yet to catch a touchdown pass from the second-year quarterback.
So far, the Steelers' defense is largely performing as expected. While it might not be an elite unit (yet), Pittsburgh's defense has been the strength of the team so far and is the main reason why the Steelers currently lead the North.
In short, the Steelers' strength of defense is their ability to rush the passer. When they can get to the quarterback, good things usually happen. If they don't, which was the case in Houston and for the majority of the 49ers' game, the results typically aren't good.
Pittsburgh's defense was forced to overcome the loss of six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Cam Heyward in Week 1. While Heyward is missed, the Steelers have somewhat overcome his loss with the emergence of rookie Keeanu Benton, second-year player DeMarvin Leal and third-year veteran Isaiahh Loudermilk. Pittsburgh's defensive line was at least partly responsible for several big runs allowed during the season's first few weeks but have been better in recent weeks. The D-line got a big play this past Sunday when Larry Ogunjobi's forced fumble of Justice Hill set up Pittsburgh's first points.
The Steelers' revamped inside linebacker corps has had a recent development. Kwon Alexander, a former Pro Bowler who joined the Steelers during the first week of training camp, is now grouped into both starting ILB spots alongside Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts. Alexander earned the promotion after tallying six tackles (three for loss) and a sack during Sunday's win over Baltimore.
Outside linebacker is the strength of the Steelers' roster. Pittsburgh possesses arguably the best OLB duo in the NFL in T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith. Both players scored touchdowns in Pittsburgh's Week 2 win over Cleveland and have a combined 10 sacks, four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and an interception so far. Markus Golden has proven to be a valuable backup with two sacks of his own.
Like ILB, Pittsburgh's secondary has also gone through some changes. Newcomer Patrick Peterson has had his ups and downs but has largely been a positive force in the secondary. The same can be said of fellow starting cornerback Levi Wallace, who leads the Steelers in interceptions. Look for Joey Porter Jr. to continue to get more reps on defense in the coming weeks, especially after his big interception off Lamar Jackson this past Sunday.
You can't talk about the Steelers' defense without talking about Minkah Fitzpatrick. Similarly to 2021, Fitzpatrick had to focus less on playmaking this season and more on run support. That should change as Fitzpatrick continues to develop a rapport with new starting strong safety Keanu Neal and backup Damontae Kazee. In general, the secondary will benefit by having more experience with one another as the season continues. That will likely lead to less splash plays given up and less big games from opposing star receivers, which has been an issue so far.
Special teams: A-
Pittsburgh has largely had success in this area. Chris Boswell has yet to miss a kick, and Pressley Harvin III was having the best year of his career before getting injured. Brad Wing, who hadn't played in a regular season game in nearly six years prior to Week 4, filled in admirably for Harvin the past two weeks.
The Steelers' special teams came up with a huge play Sunday when Miles Killebrew's blocked punt resulted in a safety. It was the first of four unanswered scores for the Steelers, who overcame Gunner Olszewski's fumbled punt return late in the game when Porter picked off Jackson in the end zone.
Give Mike Tomlin and his staff credit for the development of several young players who have stepped up in recent weeks (i.e. Jones, Porter, Benton, etc.). Danny Smith's special teams units have been largely solid. Teryl Austin's defense was very good in Pittsburgh's three weeks but struggled in losses to the 49ers and Texans. The defense didn't play well in those games, but the offense's lack of success in both outings didn't help matters.
The main reason for Pittsburgh's average coaching grade is due to the underperforming offense. Pittsburgh's receivers aren't getting much separation, the offensive linemen aren't executing their assignments on a consistent basis and the offense is still trying to find its identity. Are these fixable issues? Yes, but the Steelers need to fix them and fix them fast if they are going to remain in first place in the North.
For all the criticism he received following the two blowout losses, Tomlin deserves equal credit for his team's performances the following weeks. The Steelers are 3-2 because of their ability to respond to adversity while making big plays in key moments more than their opponents have. That is a tribute to the resiliency the Steelers have shown thus far, and that resiliency should continue to serve Pittsburgh well as the 2023 season moves on.