PITTSBURGH STEELERS (9-8)
EXPECTATIONS: QB Kenny Pickett's solid if not always spectacular finish to his rookie season reinforced to the Steelers that they made the right call when they took him in the first round of the 2022 draft. Coach Mike Tomlin speaks frequently about the jump from a player's first season to his second is an important one. Pickett certainly looked ready to take a step forward during the preseason, when he led the starting offense to touchdowns in each of the five drives he played. If Pickett and the offense can take care of the ball and occasionally throw in some of the “splash” plays the group has been missing for the past couple of years, the Steelers believe they will be a threat to return to the playoffs despite playing in perhaps the most competitive division in the NFL. LB T.J. Watt, DL Cam Heyward and S Minkah Fitzpatrick give Pittsburgh difference-makers at all three levels of a defense that could be among the best in the league. While Pickett may be improved, the recipe remains the same: control the ball, don't turn it over and let the defense win it late.
NEW FACES: CB Patrick Peterson, LB Cole Holcomb, LB Elandon Roberts, G Isaac Seumalo, LT Broderick Jones, CB Joey Porter Jr., TE Darnell Washington, LB Nick Herbig.
KEY LOSSES: CB Cam Sutton, S Terrell Edmunds, LB Myles Jack, LB Devin Bush, CB Ahkello Witherspoon.
STRENGTHS: The Steelers may have the top edge rush combination in the league in Watt and Alex Highsmith, who had a career-high 14 sacks with Watt missing half the year with a pectoral injury. Pittsburgh rewarded Highsmith with a new contract. If they can stay healthy, quarterbacks should have less time to test a secondary that is hoping Patrick Peterson still has some tread left on the tires.
WEAKNESSES: The secondary will be a bit of a question mark. Peterson and Levi Wallace will likely start at cornerback, though the hope is that Porter will develop quickly, allowing them to use Peterson more as a nickelback as the eight-time Pro Bowler enters likely the final stages of his potentially Hall of Fame career. The Steelers gave up 29 touchdown passes in 2022. Only four teams allowed more. They'd like that number to tick down significantly in 2023.
CAMP DEVELOPMENT: Herbig, a fourth-round pick, showed flashes of being T.J. Watt-lite. Herbig led the Big Ten in sacks last season, but his size (6-foot-2, 228-pounds) may have scared off a few potential landing spots. Herbig raised eyebrows during camp with his quickness and surprised offensive tackles with his strength.
FANTASY PLAYER TO WATCH: WR George Pickens. The 6-foot-3 Pickens tantalized at times as a rookie in 2022, when his combination of size and athleticism created matchup problems for defensive backs. Pickens should benefit greatly from Pittsburgh's increased commitment to pushing the ball downfield, something that happened rarely last season thanks to a game plan designed to minimize risk. Offensive coordinator Matt Canada insists the playbook will be more diverse in 2023 and based on the preseason, he's not kidding. If that momentum carries over to the regular season, Pickens could have a breakout year.
FANDUEL SPORTSBOOK SAYS: Win Super Bowl: 45-1. Over/under wins: 8 1/2.