Russell Wilson is everything the Steelers have been missing

The Steelers made waves before the start of free agency with Russell Wilson announcing his intent to sign with Pittsburgh when he’s officially released by the Broncos and enters free agency.

It’s a bombshell move that owns the mistake of drafting Kenny Pickett, accepts a new path is needed, and looks to move forward in a different direction. Meanwhile, Russ has already updated his profile pic on Twitter to him in a Steelers jersey, and has a hype video already.

Signing this 35-year-old, post-Broncos version of Russell Wilson might not seem that exciting on the surface, but scratch a little deeper and it’s clear to see why this is a very major deal. Pittsburgh were already a playoff team a year ago in spite of their horrific QB play, and even this aging, not-quite-brilliant iteration of Russ is such a profound upgrade that it’s impossible to ignore the Steelers now.

Let’s dive into why this is such a big deal, and how it could turn Pittsburgh into a sneaky Super Bowl team.

Russ vs. the putrid Steelers QBs

It can always be a little dangerous trying to draw comparisons across teams like this, but it’s fair to say that Wilson gets a substantial upgrade in weapons coming from Denver to Pittsburgh.

If we compare the top three receiving targets from both teams in 2023 it’s clear that the Steelers had a much better cast, just without anyone to take advantage of them.

  • Broncos: Cortland Sutton (772 yds), Jerry Jeudy (758 yds), Samaje Perine (455 yds)
  • Steelers: George Pickens (1,140 yds), Diontae Johnson (717 yds), Jaylen Warren (370 yds)

Beyond the Top 3 it’s a bit of a push. Marvin Mims had a very promising rookie season for Denver, while Pat Freiermuth is a potential top-10 tight end, so long as he gets some support.

The real difference comes in the execution, and efficiency of Russell Wilson vs. the Steelers QB room in 2023, which comprised of Kenny Pickett, Mason Rudolph, and Mitchell Trubisky.

Russell Wilson vs. Steelers QB room, 2023

Statistic Russell Wilson Steelers QBs
Statistic Russell Wilson Steelers QBs
Cmp 297 323
Att 447 506
Cmp% 66.4 63.8
Yds 3070 3421
TD 26 13
INT 8 9
Y/A 6.9 6.8
Rating 98 84.6

The eye-popping difference here comes from scoring efficiency. Pittsburgh was a team that simply couldn’t pass for touchdowns. The offense sputtered to finish the season at an abysmal 17.9 points per game, 28th in the NFL last season — their incredible defense, it allowed 19.1 points per game, 6th in the NFL.

Here’s where this gets interesting. The margin between the Steelers and the Super Bowl winning Chiefs wasn’t that far apart defensively. Kansas City allowed -1.6 points compared to the Steelers. However, Patrick Mahomes’ offense scored 21.8 points per game. The gulf between points scored and points allowed favored KC greatly.

Meanwhile in Denver, the Broncos averaged 21.0 points per game, just -0.8 less than the Chiefs. Their defense was atrocious though, allowing 24.3 points per game.

The perfect marriage?

So now we have a much better quarterback, who was able to lead an offense that scored more points, with a worse supporting cast — and you’re marrying him to a vastly better defense.

In addition to raw passing, Russ also handled pressure better than the Steelers QBs, he had less bad throws, and moved the ball to the sticks more often. This all speaks to the potential to have a much more potent Pittsburgh offense in 2024. There are some very major vibes emerging that make the Steelers look a lot like the Legion of Boom Seahawks which won a Super Bowl by pairing the arm of Russ with a solid defense on the other side. Yes, you can nit-pick each position and argue down the board, but there’s something extremely compelling about this package — and I think that’s why Russ picked Pittsburgh over anywhere else.

This is an offense that will allow Russ to work off play action thanks to the dual-threat of Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren. This will lessen the pressure he faced every down, and open up those big downfield plays the Steelers missed in 2023. Instead of needing the pass to set up the run, as Pittsburgh did a year ago — now they move back to the much better foundation of setting up the pass off the run. Opponents can’t ignore the quarterback anymore.

The Arthur Smith effect

It was easy to make jokes about Arthur Smith as head coach of the Falcons (hell, I did it plenty), but there’s no doubt the man is a very, very good offensive coordinator — and an ideal man to put this all together.

Smith’s time in Tennessee is the blueprint for how all this will work with the Steelers. In that system he made Ryan Tannehill shine by opening up the field off play action using Derrick Henry. Granted, the Steelers don’t have a prime-level Derrick Henry, but Harris is plenty good enough to make this work — and Russ is much better than Tannehill.

In Smith’s two years as OC for the Titans the team ranks show why he’s the perfect fit for this new Steelers offense.

  • 7th in total scoring
  • 3rd in rushing yards
  • 2nd in rushing touchdowns
  • 22nd in passing yards
  • 8th in passing touchdowns

Wilson won’t be asked to play hero ball in this offense. The Steelers will lean on the running backs to move the chains, and Russ to take his shots when they come available. Like Tannehill, at this point he can make deep plays and gash opposing teams.

The biggest difference here is that Sean Payton demanded that Wilson be the focal point of everything in Denver, and it’s both not a role he’s accustomed to or very good at. This structure in Pittsburgh is much closer to what he won with in Seattle, and that’s exciting.

What’s the potential of the Steelers in 2024?

I’m really, really bullish on this team. Naturally there will be an adjustment period to integrate Russ into the team and get everything to click, but there’s a really strong foundation here.

Mike Tomlin is an incredible head coach, the Steelers have a real offensive coordinator now, and the best quarterback this team has had since Ben Roethlisberger. This sets the stage for a really compelling package.

The biggest test comes from inside the AFC North, which is one of the league’s most brutal divisions — but if Pittsburgh can make it into the playoffs there’s plenty of good reasons they could go on a deep run and really surprise teams this season.

Watch out folks, because the Steelers are truly back — and it’s thanks to this signing.

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