Are the Steelers slated to finish last in the AFC North?

It’s the age-old question: where will the Steelers end up at the end of the 2024 NFL season?

If you were to believe some of the media, that would mean believing the Steelers will be in last place in the AFC North: something that’s never happened during the existence of the division. Furthermore, the Steelers haven’t been last place in their division going back to 1989 when they played in the old AFC Central.

But what does that mean for the 2024 season? I don’t believe much will change and here are several reasons why.

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Mike Tomlin

The first reason is head coach Mike Tomlin. Say what you will about “mediocre” and “underachieving” (I’ve given enough rebuttals on that here) but to think that Tomlin will ever finish in last place is naivety at best. Yes, that’s because of his 17 straight winning seasons, several of which saw some superb coaching that would’ve crippled most other coaches in the league.

In 2019, Tomlin finished 8-8 with Devlin Hodges (aka “Duck”) starting six games. The doom and gloom should’ve occurred over the last two seasons as well, with Kenny Pickett and Mitchell Trubisky at the helm of the Steelers offense. Despite their quarterbacks only throwing 25 touchdown passes over 34 games, Tomlin found ways to finish with nine and ten wins.

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Against their division

The most impressive of Tomlin’s feats might be finishing 5-1 in the AFC North last season. Even if we were to believe the rest of the AFC North has improved, do we believe the Steelers haven’t?

With new quarterbacks, and improved offensive line, and adding several key components to their defense (including free agent Patrick Queen) the Steelers are poised for a repeat performance.

The Steelers also finished 10-7 overall last season. They have won at least nine games in each of their last four seasons as well. This has been a steady benchmark the likes of which the Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, and Cincinnati Bengals have struggled to perform at consistently.

Despite the Steelers three divisional rivals boasting passing threats with the likes of Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, and Joe Burrow, those quarterbacks are going to have to step it up to compete against a world class defense.

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Opposing quarterbacks

Other quarterbacks in the AFC North have struggled against the Steelers throughout the year.

According to Statemuse, Jackson has a passer rating of 66.8 with 870 yards, 4 touchdowns and 7 interceptions in 6 games against the Steelers in his career.

Deshaun Watson has a passer rating of 85.8 with 729 yards, 5 touchdowns and 4 interceptions in 3 games versus the Steelers in his career: all losses. He’s also been sacked 18 times by Pittsburgh, including 13 in two appearances with the Browns.

Joe Burrow has a 3-2 record against the Steelers, with a passer rating of 88.0, 1,268 yards, 11 touchdowns and 8 interceptions in 5 games. Burrow’s overall record with the Bengals sits at 29-22-1 for his career, despite his pedigree and early accomplishments. He has also missed significant time, notably seven games each in his rookie season and in 2023.

Needless to say, for playing in a division “arms race” the Steelers have kept pace without any issues and should continue to terrorize opposing QBs within the AFC North.

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Russell Wilson

Say what you will about Wilson’s decline over the years, but he still puts up numbers that put the Steelers previous two seasons of quarterbacking to shame.

As noted above, the Steelers had 25 passing touchdowns over the course of the last 34 games. Wilson threw for 42 touchdowns with a shaky Denver Broncos team that had three different head coaches during his two-year tenure with the team.

With 6,594 yards passing and 19 interceptions, his numbers easily dwarf those of Kenny Pickett (4,474 yards, 13 touchdowns, 13 interceptions) and Mitchell Trubisky (1,884 yards, 8 touchdowns, 10 interceptions) over the same period of time. Impressively, Wilson had 30 starts to a combined 31 from Pickett/Trubisky over the last two seasons, proving Pittsburgh should be in for an upgrade even if Wilson is on “the backside of his career”.)

Though Wilson takes a heavy amount of sacks (100 in those 30 starts with Denver) an improved Steelers offensive line should better protect their signal caller, who will be able to aide a defense that’s been carrying the franchise to victory as of late.

Simply put: Wilson is a wild card that could see the Steelers take the division back for the first time since 2020.

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The T.J. Watt factor

Steelers fans are well aware of how much of an impact player T.J. Watt is. When healthy, Watt has finished as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in three of the last four seasons. (Winning the award outright in 2021.)

With Watt on the field, the Steelers are 69-33-2. However, without Watt, the team struggles, with a 1-10 record.

Needless to say, Watt is the X factor to the Steelers success on defense and throughout the season. With him, they are heavily favored to be a playoff contender.

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Final Thoughts

A healthy Pittsburgh Steelers should not only finish out of the basement in the AFC North, but they could very well compete for the top spot. The AFC North is the first division in the modern NFL era (post-1970) to have all of their teams finish above .500.

That means the divisional games will be competitive, but also means no one team can run through the gauntlet – that will balance the power and should aide the Steelers to another successful run in 2024.

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