NFL offseason power rankings: No. 15 Pittsburgh Steelers hope Russell Wilson or Justin Fields shine

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The Pittsburgh Steelers seemed like they were finished, and perhaps Mike Tomlin's tenure as Steelers coach finally would be too.

Pittsburgh lost consecutive home games in Weeks 13 and 14 to the New England Patriots and Arizona Cardinals, a pair of 4-13 teams. Then they had a listless 30-13 loss to the Indianapolis Colts. They were 7-7, their odds to make the playoffs were less than 10% in some models and less than 5% in others, and they were turning to Mason Rudolph at quarterback.

The lesson in what happened next is that Tomlin's streak of non-losing seasons simply won't die.

The Steelers rallied to win three in a row and made the playoffs. It's remarkable (and also repeated a million times) that Tomlin has been Steelers coach for 17 years and still hasn't had a losing season. He got a three-year contract extension this offseason.

While that was a fun rally, it's also worth wondering if there's another level for the Steelers or if barely making the playoffs just keeps them on the merry-go-round of being slightly above average every season. Tomlin has a surprising amount of critics, and they'll quickly point out that Pittsburgh hasn't won a playoff game since the end of the 2016 season. The Steelers lost 31-17 to the Buffalo Bills in a wild-card playoff game last season and it was obvious there is a sizable gap between the Steelers and the AFC's best teams. The Steelers didn't really seem like a playoff-worthy team, and a fortunate 9-2 record in one-score games did most of the heavy lifting to get them to the postseason.

Being in the middle means there are no easy solutions at quarterback. They tried Kenny Pickett, the 20th overall draft pick in a weak 2022 quarterback class, and he is gone two years later. Their solutions this offseason were creative — they signed Russell Wilson to a one-year, $1.2 million deal as the Denver Broncos pick up the other $37.8 million of his salary, and Pittsburgh also traded a sixth-round pick for Justin Fields — but it's hard to buy either quarterback as a permanent solution. Steelers fans want more than sneaking into the playoffs and then getting blown out, as they've done two of the past three seasons. It's hard to see a higher ceiling than that with the current roster.

The Steelers will look familiar this season, even with the change at quarterback. Tomlin will get the most out of his team. The defense, led by T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick, should be excellent again. The offense, suddenly short on receivers after trading Diontae Johnson, will run it a lot with hopefully average quarterback play from Wilson or perhaps Fields at some point. The Steelers will find ways to win close games and be in the playoff hunt into December. That's not bad, but it's not exciting anymore either.

Tomlin has some quirky catchphrases, and one that has endured is "The standard is the standard." After multiple seasons of being nowhere near Super Bowl contention and a lot of long-term questions at quarterback, Steelers fans have to be wondering what the standard is anymore.

Offseason grade

It's OK to praise the Steelers' moves at quarterback and still question if they've found a long-term answer. Russell Wilson cost practically nothing; you have special teams players across the NFL making more than $1.2 million a year. Wilson mostly struggled with the Broncos but wasn't terrible last season and does have nine Pro Bowls to his name. Justin Fields was a low-cost gamble. The Steelers traded a sixth-round pick in 2025 that could conditionally become a fourth for Fields, a former first-round pick that flashed tantalizing upside in three seasons as the Bears' starter. It's hard to be critical of either move, given the low cost involved.

The Steelers trading receiver Diontae Johnson to the Panthers for cornerback Donte Jackson leaves a hole on the offense that wasn't adequately filled. When Kenny Pickett reportedly had a tantrum over the Wilson addition, the Steelers traded him and a fourth-round pick to the Eagles for a third-round pick in 2024 and a pair of 2025 seventh-round picks. The big addition for the Steelers in free agency was linebacker Patrick Queen, who will help a defense that is coming off a good season. The Steelers' draft was universally praised. They drafted offensive tackle Troy Fautanu 20th overall, then followed that up with center Zach Frazier, receiver Roman Wilson and linebacker Payton Wilson. The latter is a third-round pick out of N.C. State who's especially interesting because he's a big-time talent who fell due to durability concerns. The Steelers got the highest consensus grade for their draft class, which is a bit silly considering the Bears drafted Caleb Williams and Rome Odunze, but the Steelers had a good draft in which they remade their offensive line and added other intriguing pieces.

Grade: A-

Quarterback report

When the Steelers signed Russell Wilson for a minimum contract, they couldn't have known the offseason would lead them to trading a late pick for Justin Fields. But the team sent off Kenny Pickett and made the move for Fields, making for an interesting quarterback situation.

Wilson will turn 36 years old in November and is on just a one-year deal. Fields, only 25 years old, presents a much better option for the future. But through the summer there wasn't much positive buzz for Fields from Steelers OTAs, and it appeared Wilson maintained his hold on the starting job.

Both quarterbacks are flawed. Wilson was horrible in 2022 and while better in 2023, there's a reason the Broncos took on an $85 million dead cap hit just to be rid of him. Fields is electric as a runner and had some great highlights as a passer but he lacks consistent accuracy and holds the ball too long. If there was more faith in him developing as a passer, the Bears would have gotten more when they traded him. It wouldn't be a surprise if Fields starts at some point this season, just because he offers the potential to be the Steelers' long-term quarterback solution. There should be no realistic hope that Wilson is the Steelers' quarterback three or four years down the road. But Fields would have to earn that opportunity, unless Wilson completely flops and forces a change. The Steelers would be pleased to get above-average quarterback play this season, regardless of who it comes from.

BetMGM odds breakdown

Hey, maybe you haven't heard but Mike Tomlin has never had a losing season. That's why the BetMGM win total of 7.5 is interesting. All Tomlin has to do is avoid his first losing season to hit the over. Even 8-9 would do it. Most bettors are on that side; the odds for the over are an inflated -175 (bet $175 to win $100). It doesn't help the Steelers that they have the projected toughest schedule in the NFL this season, via NFL analyst Warren Sharp. That's a reason the Steelers are +700 to win a tough AFC North. Those are the longest odds of any team in the division.

Yahoo's fantasy take

From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "It's easy to build a case against running back Najee Harris. His fantasy ranking has dropped in each of the last two seasons, and Jaylen Warren was the more explosive back last season. The Steelers declined to extend Harris, so he heads into a lame-duck season.

"But perhaps some of those circumstances will set up Harris to be a decent fantasy value. Keep in mind he had more carries than Warren in every game last season, and he also had twice as many touchdowns. The Steelers rebuilt their offensive line in the 2024 draft, and now they welcome offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, one of the most run-happy play callers in the NFL. Harris no longer is a buzzy fantasy choice, but there's something to be said for the boring veteran jam."

Stat to remember

T.J. Watt has led the NFL in sacks three of the past four seasons. He's the first player to win three sack titles since the stat became official in 1982 (Deacon Jones unofficially led the NFL in sacks five times). Watt's run includes a record-tying 22.5 sacks in 2021 and 19 sacks last season. Watt has been first-team All-Pro in four of the last five seasons and is on an obvious path to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The Steelers have a lot of talent around Watt on defense, like defensive lineman Cameron Heyward, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, new linebacker addition Patrick Queen and an emerging young star at cornerback in Joey Porter Jr. But Watt is the catalyst for everything the Steelers do. The Steelers finished No. 6 in defensive DVOA last season, and they should finish in the top 10 again as long as Watt is healthy.

Burning question 

What will the Steelers' offense look like? 

The Steelers finally fired maligned offensive coordinator Matt Canada in the middle of last season. That move probably should have been made much sooner. He is replaced by Arthur Smith, and there will be mixed feelings about that. While Smith's insistence on ignoring his best offensive players as Atlanta Falcons head coach was hard to fathom, he got the Falcons job because he did a fine job as the Tennessee Titans' offensive coordinator. His final Titans offense finished second in yards and fourth in points even though they didn't have top-five personnel. Smith screwed up the Falcons job, but he can still devise an offense. And his scheme, which usually produces a strong run game through a heavy dose of play action and very few three-receiver sets, seems to fit the Steelers' personnel.

The Steelers beefed up their offensive line and have two good backs in Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren. They have questions at quarterback and other than George Pickens, who had 1,140 yards last season but is still inconsistent, the Steelers are thin at receiver. Expect a lot of ground game from Pittsburgh, which matches what Smith coaches best.

Best-case scenario

Maybe, just maybe, Russell Wilson has something left and the Broncos were the problem. He did make nine Pro Bowls in 10 Seahawks seasons. What if Wilson plays near that level again? The Steelers are going to be good in the run game behind an improved offensive line and the defense could finish in the top five. The AFC North is really hard, but if Wilson is good again (or if Justin Fields takes off) then the Steelers could be in contention for the division title. Winning the toughest division in the NFL would be a heck of an accomplishment, and solidify the notion that the Steelers will always be competitive with Mike Tomlin.

Nightmare scenario

The Steelers better be really good early in the season because the back half of the schedule is one of the toughest you'll ever see. From Week 11 on, the Steelers schedule is vs. Baltimore, at Cleveland, at Cincinnati, vs. Cleveland, at Philadelphia, at Baltimore, vs. Kansas City and vs. Cincinnati. That's brutal. The Steelers might not end up being favored in any of those games. They're unlikely to lose all eight games, but even a 4-4 record in those games seems unlikely. The Steelers' questions go beyond an impossibly tough schedule to end the season. Russell Wilson and Justin Fields are no sure things, especially throwing to a thin receiving corps that is depending heavily on George Pickens. The defense should be good, but also relies on T.J. Watt staying healthy and that gets riskier in his age-30 season. Stalwart defensive lineman Cameron Heyward just turned 35, as well. If the Steelers don't overcome questions in the passing game and the toughest schedule in the NFL this season, this could be the end of Mike Tomlin's streak of non-losing seasons. Then the Steelers would have to take a hard look at what they need to do to raise their ceiling in the future, starting at quarterback.

The crystal ball says ... 

The Steelers deserve this spot in the rankings until they show otherwise. They have a track record that is hard to argue with. However, it seems like they could finally be in for a down season. Their quarterback situation could get messy in a hurry if Russell Wilson truly is finished as a viable starter. They're relying on running the ball and playing defense, but you need positive game scripts for that to work well. And even if the Steelers aren't a bad team, they have a brutal schedule in the NFL's toughest division. Whoever finishes in last place of the AFC North will likely be the best last-place team in the NFL. And it looks like that team will be the Steelers. It's hard to predict Mike Tomlin to have a losing season when that hasn't happened in any of his past 17 seasons, but it's probably time. Wilson will not be great, Fields won't save the offense and the Steelers will have their first losing season since 2003.

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