By Jeremy Hritz
It is hard to believe that football fans still have a little over four months to agonize through before enjoying a regular season NFL game. And while Pittsburgh fans are finding some distraction in the Penguins (for better or worse), nothing can replace the void left behind by the end of the 2011 NFL season. Small indications that the season is getting near are starting to burgeon, like the release of the 2012 schedule and the draft being only a few days away.
With the schedule release, we can begin to draw some conclusions and make some assumptions about the Steelers chances in 2012 to win the AFC North and to make a deep run in the playoffs. While it may seem a bit premature, I have worked through the schedule with the Steelers pre-draft roster and made an early prediction about how they will finish the season. This prediction will assume the following starting lineups for offense and defense based on last year’s play and discussions during the offseason about those players who will take on starting roles. It also assumes that Mike Wallace signs a long-term deal.
WR1 Mike Wallace
LT Marcus Gilbert
LG Doug Legursky
C Maurkice Pouncey
RG Ramon Foster
RT Willie Colon
TE Heath Miller
RB Isaac Redman
FB David Johnson
QB Ben Roethlisberger
WR2 Antonio Brown
LDE Ziggy Hood
NT Casey Hampton
RDE Brett Keisel
LOLB LaMarr Woodley
LILB Stevenson Sylvester
RILB Lawrence Timmons
ROLB James Harrison
LCB Cortez Allen
FS Ryan Clark
SS Troy Polamalu
RCB Ike Taylor
I will update this multiple times before the actual start of the regular season at different points to reflect changes to the roster as a result of the draft, training camp cuts, training camp player emergence, and injuries.
Week 1 9/1: Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Denver Broncos 8:20 ET, NBC
The success of the Steelers in this game is going to hinge on the effectiveness of Peyton Manning and whether or not he will be able to play at a high level after sitting out last year. My belief is that he will, and the fact that the Steelers lost to Denver last year with Tim Tebow at quarterback does not make me very confident about this game. Manning immediately improves a dismal Bronco’s passing game from 2011 and when factoring in a strong running game, the Steelers will have trouble slowing down both. Take Ryan Clark out of the picture, and I have the Steelers beginning the season 0-1 in a close game. I may change my mind on this one as we move closer to the season, but there will be too many intangibles for the Steelers to overcome.
Broncos 23 Steelers 20 (0-1)
Week 2 9/16: New York Jets vs. Pittsburgh Steelers 4:15 ET, CBS
“The Sanchez” and the Tebow circus comes to town for the home opener, and while the Jets will have revenge on their mind for losing in the AFC Championship a few years ago, their anemic offense will not be able to overcome the Steelers defense. The true identity of the Jets offense revealed itself at the end of the season last year, and the defense is not as good as it once was. Both teams will rely heavily on the run, and the Steelers will win by a touchdown.
Steelers 21 Jets 14 (1-1)
Week 3 9/23: Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Oakland Raiders 4:15 ET, CBS
Not a fan of long trip to Oakland here, but the Steelers will have time to rest the following week with the bye, so it will not be as significant of an issue as it could be. The Raiders will be led by a lesser-version of Carson Palmer, who the Steelers have been solid against over the past few years. With a new head coach in Dennis Allen, there will be some growing pains in Oakland, and it will be too early in the season for those things to be overcome, especially against the Steelers.
Steelers 27 Raiders 16 (2-1)
Week 4 9/30: BYE WEEK
Week 5 10/7: Philadelphia Eagles vs. Pittsburgh Steelers 1 ET, FOX
The Eagles underperformed in 2011, and there will be much pressure on Andy Reid and his coaching staff to put together a winner this year. The addition of DeMeco Ryans and a full year under Juan Castillo should result in a better defense for the Eagles. Also, the productive running game of the Eagles led by LeSean McCoy could give the Steelers fits, especially if the running defense is not shored up from last year. This is one game I do not like this early in the season coming off of the bye.
Eagles 20 Steelers 13 (2-2)
Week 6 10/11: Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Tennessee Titans 8:20 ET, NFL Network
The Titans will be another improved team in 2012, and the short turn around from the Eagles game to this game will prove to be a challenge for the Steelers. While it looks like Matt Hasselbeck will start for the Titans, second year signal caller Jake Locker could challenge him. Running back Chris Johnson will look to rebound this season, but the Steelers shut him down last year. While this will be a tough game played in an energized environment, the Steelers are more talented than the Titans, enough to help them eek out a close win.
Steelers 17 Titans 14 (3-2)
Week 7 10/21: Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cincinnati Bengals 8:20 ET, NBC
Another prime time game for the Steelers. It will be interesting to see the growth that Bengals QB Andy Dalton will make in his sophomore year. While he demonstrated that he has the tools to be a great quarterback, defenses seemed to catch up with him at the end of the season. The Bengals will be a challenger for the division this year, and I see the Steelers splitting the series. This round goes to the Bengals because it is at home on a Sunday night.
Bengals 21 Steelers 17 (3-3)
Week 8 10/28: Washington Redskins vs. Pittsburgh Steelers 1 ET, FOX
Just what the doctor ordered after a loss to a divisional opponent. If in fact the Redskins do take Robert Griffin III and he is anointed the starter, then he will undoubtedly struggle against the Steelers defense. The Redskins were an offensively challenged team last year, and while Griffin may eventually be a threat, he will not be in this game. RG3, welcome to Heinz Field.
Steelers 30 Redskins 10 (4-3)
Week 9 11/4: Pittsburgh Steelers vs. New York Giants 4:15 ET, CBS
This is a game that many football fans will be looking forward to as draft classmates Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger will square off for only the third time in their career. This game will be billed as a showdown between two, two-time Super Bowl winning quarterbacks, with questions all week long building up to the game as to who the better QB is. This will be a game that will be all about the quarterback, and while Manning has shown that he is clutch, nobody has a bigger chip on his shoulder than Roethlisberger. Steelers win a huge game on the road in the final minutes.
Steelers 27 Giants 24 (5-3)
Week 10 11/12: Kansas City Chiefs vs. Pittsburgh Steelers 8:30 ET, ESPN
Romeo Crennel has a 26-41 head coaching record, and he replaces Todd Haley in Kansas City, the Steelers new offensive coordinator. There will be a subtext in this game of revenge, as Haley would love nothing more than to light up the scoreboard against his former team. On a Monday night in Pittsburgh, look for that to happen.
Steelers 35 Chiefs 7 (6-3)
Week 11 11/18: Baltimore Ravens vs. Pittsburgh Steelers 8:20 ET, NBC
Thankfully, the Steelers/Ravens matchups do not occur until later in the season. The unfortunate aspect is that they will play twice three weeks. The outcomes in these games will determine the AFC North winner, and the Steelers will have a sour taste in their mouth from last year’s dual losses to the Ratbirds. Several players have departed from the Ravens, and there are still contractual issues with Ray Rice and Joe Flacco. Also, the age of stars such as Ray Lewis and Ed Reed eventually will begin to impact their play, and this will be the year that it will happen. I see the Ravens taking a step back this year, and I like the Steelers in both contests.
Steelers 20 Ravens 16 (7-3)
Week 12 11/25: Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cleveland Browns 1 ET, CBS
The Browns will be improved this year, and they always play the Steelers tough. However, with poor quarterback play not looking to be resolved any time soon, the Browns will still not be able to compete just yet. However, with Mike Holmgren slowly building the roster, the Browns will eventually begin to challenge in the North. Steelers easy in both contests.
Steelers 28 Browns 10 (8-3)
Week 13 12/2: Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Baltimore Ravens 4:15 ET, CBS
See comments from first Ravens game.
Steelers 21 Ravens 19 (9-3)
Week 14 12/9: San Diego Chargers vs. Pittsburgh Steelers 1 ET, CBS
The Chargers had serious protection issues last year that resulted in shoddy production by Phillip Rivers. The Chargers were not anything special on defense either, and they missed the playoffs. The Steelers normally play well against the Chargers, but coming off of a big emotional win against the Ravens, I have them slipping up here and dropping this game.
Chargers 24 Steelers 13 (9-4)
Week 15 12/16: Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Dallas Cowboys 4:15 ET, CBS
This will be a fun match-up with much history and tradition. The Cowboys are talented offensively, yet they have underperformed the past few years. Rob Ryan leads an improved defense, yet their secondary is deplorable. DeMarcus Ware off the edge is scary, especially if the Steelers offensive line does not improve. Not a must win game. Cowboys win at home. Fans begin to panic.
Cowboys 24 Steelers 20 (9-5)
Week 16 12/23: Cincinnati Bengals vs. Pittsburgh Steelers 1 ET, CBS
See comments from first Bengals game.
Steelers 27 Bengals 21 (10-5)
Week 17 12/30: Cleveland Browns vs. Pittsburgh Steelers 1 ET, CBS
See comments from first Browns game.
Steelers 21 Browns 10 (11-5)
2012 Predicted Steelers Record: 11-5
- *Steelers, 11-5
- Ravens, 11-5
- Bengals, 10-6
- Browns, 6-10
At the conclusion of the season, the Steelers will earn the AFC North Crown and should be in position for at least the second seed in the AFC playoffs. Again, this is a very early forecast and without question, the win/loss total will change several times before my final prediction which will occur a few days before the Steelers open up against the Broncos. There are several questions that must be answered that will go a long way in determining the success of the Steelers in 2012, primarily: how will Haley’s philosophies help or hurt the effectiveness of the offense, will the Steelers find a quality starter on the offensive line in the draft to protect Roethlisberger and to improve the running game, and will the defense get back to stopping the run and creating turnovers and sacks? The next couple of months including the draft, OTAs, training camp, and pre-season games will begin to resolve this issues.