The Steelers 2011 season kicks off this Sunday and I have purposely waited until now to post a game by game quick look ahead at the Steelers 2011 schedule. The free agent moves and final roster cuts have taken place around the league and it provides a much clearer look at where teams are at that the Steelers will face this year. I will not go too much into depth with each game and will try to capsulize each. So many things can change the further you get into the season and you never can predict injuries that may occur along the way. With all of those disclaimers out of the way, here is a quick and dirty look at the Steelers schedule and opponents they will face by week.
Week 1 - @ Ravens - There is never really a great time to play the Ravens at their house, but if there was, it would be this year in week 1. The Ravens have really shaken things up on the offensive line with former Pro Bowl left tackle Bryant McKinnie now at left tackle and Michael Oher flipping over to the right side. Center Matt Birk has been hawked down by father time and their two guards are Ben Grubbs and Marshal Yanda. Newly acquired wide receiver Lee Evans is nursing an ankle injury and the depth at wide receiver features two rookie draft picks. The Ravens will also likely roll out cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Cary Williams as week 1 starters. Regardless, this will be a tough game like all games against the Ravens have been as of late, but you have to like the veteran Steelers in this game on paper if Ray Rice is kept quiet.
Week 2 - Seahawks - This is not the same Seahawks team that made the playoffs last year with an 7-9 record that went on to surprisingly upset the Saints. They are worse. They may have added wide receiver Sidney Rice and tight end Zach Miller, but they allowed Matt Hasselbeck to walk and chose to bring in Tarvaris Jackson at quarterback. Jackson only threw 1 touchdown pass during the preseason and posted a miserable 4.9 yards per attempt. Rice and Miller are useless if he can\'t get them the ball. The Seahawks line is a mess right now as well as they surrendered 7 sacks of Jackson during the preseason. There are no give me games in the NFL from week to week, but this game sure is close to being just that.
Week 3 - @ Colts - Peyton Manning has shut it down right now and looks doubtful to play against the Texans in week 1. How long Manning will remain sidelined is a mystery and it goes without saying that the Colts are in big trouble without him. The Steelers could very well get a gift as Kerry Collins could very well be the quarterback in this game. The Colts defense will be average at best and will rely heavily on the pass rush of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. If neither can get pressure on Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers could have a field day on the Lucas Oil stadium turf. The Colts would likely have to win this game via a shootout and without Manning; it is hard to see that happening.
Week 4 - @ Texans - The Texans are poised to finally kick down the door in the AFC South this year. This is a dangerous game for the Steelers as Andre Johnson, Kevin Walter and Jacoby Jones could really test the Steelers secondary much like the Patriots, Saints and Packers did last year. Matt Schaub is a very capable quarterback and the Texans are balanced if running back Arian Foster is not still slowed by his hamstring injury. Defensively the Texans switch now to a 3-4 defense under new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and they out to have their kinks worked out by week 4. Mario Williams will now assume an outside linebacker role and will be able to pin his ears back now more than ever when rushing the passer. It would not surprise me if he led the league in sacks this year. This will be no easy game for the Steelers and it could come down to whoever has the ball last.
Week 5 - Titans - Getting the Titans at home in week 5 is a gift to start the second quarter of the season. The Steelers have fared well at shutting down Chris Johnson in the past and they will make Hasselbeck beat them through the air. Kenny Britt is the only real receiving threat they have and this team looks worse than the one the Steelers beat last year in week 2. As long as Johnson is held in check on the ground and in the passing game, it is hard to see the Titans putting up many points in this game.
Week 6 - Jaguars - Week 6 brings another gift to Heinz Field in the form of the Jaguars. They have now released David Garrard and by the time week 6 rolls around, it could be rookie Blaine Gabbert under center. Maurice Jones-Drew can only do so much and the Jaguars receivers do not strike fear in anyone. The Jaguars only hope is to keep this a low scoring game and I just do not see their defense being able to make that happen.
Week 7 - @ Cardinals - The Steelers fly out to Pittsburgh West to take on the Cardinals and new quarterback Kevin Kolb. Former defensive backs coach Ray Horton now runs the Cardinals defense and former Steelers defensive back Deshea Townsend is coaching the secondary. Kolb is no Kurt Warner, but he can be dangerous if not pressured and receiver Larry Fitzgerald has no problems getting open regardless of who he is matched up against. The Cardinals match up well against the Steelers and this game could come down to how effective Kolb is at taking what is given him. Like the Texans game in week 4, this game could present some problems for the Steelers.
Week 8 - Patriots - The Patriots took it to the Steelers last year and once again seem to be poised to be one of the best in the AFC again this year. The Patriots will look to spread out the Steelers defense again with Wes Welker, Chad Ochocinco and Deion Branch. Throw in two excellent tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and you can see that the Steelers better hope that they have a better answer in coverage than they did last year. Tom Brady is very patient and effective at putting the ball into tight windows. If the Steelers can not match the Patriots score for score, this one could be over early like last year. The Steelers would be wise to look at how the Jets were able to knock the Pats off last year in the playoffs with multiple defensive backs on the field as this game will be the ultimate measuring stick of the season. Maybe Curtis Brown will be ready to contribute heavily by this game.
Week 9 - Ravens - The Steelers get no gifts in week 9 as it is once again Ravens week with this game being played in Pittsburgh. If the Ravens win week 1, the Steelers must earn a split here. If they end up sweeping them thanks to this game, they should be in great shape should the two teams end up tied record wise at the end of the season. This game could very well decide the AFC North with 7 weeks still to go. Ok, not really, but this game, like all Ravens games, is very important, but you already knew that. I can\'t color it any better than that.
Week 10 - @ Bengals - Week 10 and the Steelers finally get to take on the Bengals for the first time with rookie quarterback Andy Dalton likely to still be feeling his way in the NFL. Once again the Steelers will try to force a rookie quarterback to play a near perfect game and the only hope the Bengals have is to keep this one low scoring. I just do not see that happening this far out.
Week 11 - BYE - The Steelers could not ask for a better time for a bye week coming off of two division games and the game against the Patriots. Coming out of the bye they will play 3 games in 12 days.
Week 12 - @ Chiefs - The Steelers travel to Arrowhead out of the bye to take on the Chiefs. Jamaal Charles and Dwayne Bowe are very dangerous players, but only if Matt Cassel can get them the ball. The Chiefs defense is very underrated in my opinion as they looked poised to once again to not give up the explosive play. This game may not look like much on paper, but the same can be said the last time the Steelers faced them and lost after Roethlisberger left the game in overtime with a concussion. The Steelers let Cassel throw for 248 yards and 2 touchdowns in that game despite holding him to a 50% completion rate. This is one of those, "any given Sunday" type games.
Week 13 - Bengals - The Steelers hurry home to host the Bengals, who likely will be out of the playoff picture by this point. It is a division game and the Steelers need to make sure they take care of business. This game will be broadcast on the NFL Network and could put the Steelers in the driver seat as they close out the 3rd quarter of the season. This better be a win.
Week 14 - Browns - 4 days after the Bengals the Steelers finally get the Browns for the first time in 2011. Make no mistake though that this Browns team will be better than the one the Steelers swept last season. Colt McCoy surprised many in his rookie season and it is poised to grow more in 2011. The Browns defense is moving to a 4-3 and rookie Phil Taylor looks like the real deal on the defensive line. Also impressive are safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Joe Haden and they both could surprise this year with their play. The Browns offensive line will miss guard Eric Steinbach, but they still are anchored by left tackle Joe Thomas. The Browns will when a few games this year and pull an upset or two along the way, the Steelers need to make sure that they are not one of those teams. This one could be closer than most think it will be, but the Steelers should take care of business at home.
Week 15 - @ 49ers - The Steelers get more than a week off before they head all the way out to San Francisco to take on the 49ers. If the 49ers are out of the playoff race by then the Steelers could very well see yet another rookie quarterback in the form of Colin Kaepernick by that time as that would be the perfect scenario. The 49ers secondary is not one that looks like it will pose much of a problem to the Steelers this far out, but they do have a beast of an inside linebacker in Patrick Willis that can\'t be allowed to take over the game. If things have gone right up until this game, the Steelers very well could be looking at sewing up a playoff spot with a win out west here with two games left on the schedule.
Week 16 - Rams - The Rams will be a much improved team this year and look like they could be the team that comes out of the NFC West. Quarterback Sam Bradford looks like he is the real deal and the Rams defense should be much improved this year. Steven Jackson and Cadillac Williams make a good one-two punch in the running game and receiver Mike Sims-Walker can hurt teams in the slot. This might very well be a must-win game for the Rams and it is a good thing they have to do it on the road. This is one of those games on the Steelers schedule that scares me though.
Week 17 - @ Browns - The Steelers close the 2011 season out on the road in Cleveland once again and hopefully it winds up being a game that the Steelers can rest their starters in. There could still be home field for the playoffs at stake just the same and the Browns will likely be playing for pride. I smell another season sweep regardless of the situation.
Schedule Conclusion - Unfortunately games are not played on paper, but this schedule certainly plays in favor of the Steelers when you factor in that they will field mostly the same team as last year while several teams they face will have many new faces, systems and coaching staffs. The lockout will hurt those teams early on, but slowly that advantage will likely fade away. The Steelers look to possibly face a rookie quarterback in 4 games if you count the Bengals twice, so that plays in their favor. If they get the Colts without Manning, that too will be huge and it is very possible. The final five games set up nicely and at worst they should go 4-1 during that span. Weeks 7 though 9 will be a great measuring stick. If they come out of those 3 games 2-1 or even 3-0 they should be on their way to the AFC North crown. This schedule has the makings of a 14-2 season or at worst a 10-6 season. I will keep you in suspense on what I think the Steelers 2011 record will be until I release my complete 2011 NFL season prediction on Thursday.