Last season, the Pittsburgh Steelers had a 4-2 record against the AFC North, but still ended the season in second place after both losses came to the division champion Baltimore Ravens. Winning the North this season should only prove to be more difficult, as the Steelers still have plenty of question marks here in the middle of the offseason.
The Ravens will still be a strong team in 2012, and the young Cincinnati Bengals are continuing to grow together and get better. While the Cleveland Browns are still a couple of years away from the team they are trying to be, anything can happen in a rivalry game.
Other than the teams they will face, the Steelers will face challenges in the front office as they try to transform the team back into a Super Bowl winner. Pittsburgh has yet to address any issues in the offseason and hasn't even re-signed Mike Wallace yet.
Pittsburgh has a lot to overcome if it wants to get their sixth AFC North title this upcoming season.
The Ravens swept the season series in 2011, winning both times they faced Pittsburgh. Not much will change for the Ravens since they will likely return 10 out of 11 starters on offense and are expected to have nine returning starters on defense.
Pro Bowl offensive guard Ben Grubbs has signed with the New Orleans Saints, and the Ravens will need to find a proper replacement either in the draft or via free agency. Grubbs played a significant role in helping Ray Rice compile 150 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns against the Steelers last season. However, Rice is a Pro Bowler in his own regard, and the Ravens rushing attack will still give the Steelers defense trouble next season.
Joe Flacco and the passing attack should also be noted. Flacco compiled 524 yards and four touchdowns without throwing an interception against the Steelers.
With Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata all playing on a Pro Bowl-caliber level, the Ravens defense is a tough bunch to play against twice a year. The returning AFC North champs will pose two hard-hitting matchups for the Steelers as they compete for the 2012 title.
The Steelers had the upper hand on the Cincinnati Bengals last season, winning both games the two teams played. Though they couldn't beat the Steelers, the Bengals still managed to get into the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
Cincinnati was led by two spectacular rookies in quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver A.J. Green. Along with Pro Bowl tight end Jermaine Gresham, the trio makes for a dangerous passing attack. Getting more experience and games played will only make the crew tighter and harder to defend.
Cincinnati has two picks in the first round of this year's draft, holding picks No. 17 and 21. If the front office can duplicate what they did last season and get two players ready to contribute from Day 1, this team will become that more dangerous.
The Steelers have tried to do their best to rid themselves of aging players, but right now it's clear that the Bengals have a much younger team who's on the brink of maturing into a serious contender.
Since Ray Lewis broke Rashard Mendenhall's collar bone and ended his rookie campaign after just four games, there have been fans who think Mendenhall is not tough enough to be the Steelers' leading rusher. The fact that Mendenhall will reportedly miss the 2012 season trying to rehab a torn ACL won't change the mind of those fans, either.
That means if the Steelers don't sign a running back or draft one in April, then Isaac Redman will be carrying the load for Pittsburgh. Redman has been able to put up decent numbers as a backup, and during his two years in Pittsburgh he's totaled 726 yards on 162 carries. It would still be a risky call to expect Redman to be ready to carry the load, though.
The Steelers were reportedly interested in signing ex-Chargers running back Mike Tolbert, but he recently signed with the Carolina Panthers. The Steelers' interest in Tolbert displays their need of a complementary back for Redman.
While some may gripe about Mendenhall, his numbers speak for themselves. Over the past three seasons, Mendenhall only missed one game and compiled 3,309 rushing yards, along with 29 touchdowns. So regardless of how tough the fans might believe he is, the team will definitely miss his production on the field.
Big Ben Roethlisberger is the man in Pittsburgh. He's won two Super Bowls and, in years' past, has had a large say in how the offense works with former offensive coordinator, Bruce Arians. Roethlisberger was upset to see Arians leave the team only to be hired by the Colts.
Todd Haley has been hired to be the new offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh, and both Haley and Roethlisberger have imposing personalities. Both have also had success in the NFL, so if the two men can get on the same page, it would create a great opportunity for both.
The problem is that Haley will want to keep the offense focused on running, while Roethlisberger will want to pass the ball. It's not that Roethlisberger is being selfish, but since he knows the team well, he knows that it will be hard running without Mendenhall or a decent offensive line.
The two grown men have had an odd relationship thus far, but someone will have to crack out of their stubborn ways in order for the offense to gel. There's plenty of time, and both want to win, so it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.
In order to make room for newer, younger players to put in the fold, the Steelers made a couple tough decisions and parted ways with both Hines Ward and James Farrior. In football years, both players are ancient, and on paper it looks like these were the right decisions to make.
As we all know, however, football is not a game played on paper.
Ward brought much more to the table than his abilities to catch balls on the field. He was a mentor and great example to the Steelers' young corps of receivers. Ward's toughness and leadership were parts of what made the Steelers such a good team for years. It will be more than replacing their slot receiver—Ward was the heart of the Steelers.
On the other side of the ball, Farrior was also a leader. By cutting him, the Steelers lose their defensive quarterback; Farrior was in charge of calling plays and making adjustments when necessary. And though the Steelers have a wealth of young linebackers, filling Farrior's role on the field will prove to be difficult.
There's no telling how the team will react to adversity without two of their esteemed leaders.