15 Encouraging Signs Heading into the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers Season

Joshua Hayes@@JayPHayes1982Correspondent IIJune 21, 2012

15 Encouraging Signs Heading into the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers Season

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    Every summer, Pittsburgh Steelers fans are among the most involved, carefully scrutinizing and evaluating the state of the Black and Gold heading into the new NFL season. Terrible Towel-toting fans can be very excited with the return of many championship-caliber players, a top-ranked defense,and a franchise quarterback that is often taken for granted.

    However, fans in the 'Burgh have three things in common: passion, loyalty and smarts. 

    The first two parts of the fanatic's heart is ready for the next Super Bowl ring, while the latter understands that the difference between this year and last year will be one key word: improvement.

    In letters, P.S. stands for post script. It also can translate to Pittsburgh Steelers. And lastly, it means positive signs in this article.

    Positive signs have stamped the Steelers 2012 offseason with excitement, daring fans to dream of an ending that involves a "sticky Lombardi" opposed to an icky ending

    Among the many reasons for fans to be optimistic about the upcoming NFL campaign, here are 15 encouraging signs heading into 2012!

    P.S.- "The Terrible Towel is poised to strike..."

    P.P.S.- "Here we go, Steelers!  Here we go!"

    P.P.P.S.- I digress.  On with the show...!!

Mike Wallace Will Return... Either Happy or Determined!

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    Steelers fans love to debate about the best Steelers receiver. Lately, many have questioned the repertoire that speedster Mike Wallace brings to the table, including but not limited to:

    Will he dedicate himself to becoming an improved route runner?

    Can he win battles for the ball against solid coverage?

    Or... is he just the home run guy?

    While nobody questions that No. 17 has room for improvement (who doesn't?), the fact still remains that the Steelers offense sports a much deadlier set of weapons with Mike Wallace on the field.

    At worst, his game-breaking scores are a welcome cushion in any contest, and he opens the field up for other talent to perform at the highest level.

    And at best, he's the most dangerous weapon wearing Black and Gold, the depth of his game is entirely underestimated and the team cannot afford to be absent from his fireworks come August, if not late July.

    Do not fret, however. Here's the reality:

    Wallace will be in Pittsburgh for one key reason. He doesn't want to lose $159,000 (or more) per week, which would equate to his entire 2011 salary before September would end.

    Likewise, Wallace will be present with an attitude conducive to producing for one of two reasons:

    1) Satisfaction with a lucrative, long new contract despite the apparent odds facing team and receiver in negotiations.

    2) The need to prove himself as both a team player and productive NFL force as a publicity tool for free agency next season.

    According to teammate Antonio Brown, the stud receiver is already studying the new offensive playbook, hopeful to return and produce just as soon as he is able to return. 

    Fear not. He'll be back for the 2012 season. It's the "...and beyond" part that remains a mystery.

A Superb Draft

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    Without jumping too far ahead of ourselves, one could easily view the upside of this year's draft class and describe it with one brand new word: joy-gasmic!

    When David DeCastro fell to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the late first round of the 2012 NFL draft, it was a miniature miracle only relative to surviving a 10-story fall or becoming psychic after being struck by lightning.

    In football terms, it was an absolutely enormous miracle, no doubt about it.

    In the NFL, college busts can always happen, and there is no 100 percent certainty regarding any rookie player becoming a solid starter, sinner Hall of Fame material.

    Yet teams like the Cardinals, Chiefs and Browns (Cleveland took a 28-year old quarterback that it likely could have had in the very next round) passed on the selection, the guard whose blocking consistency grade in 2011 (96.88) was the highest by any lineman since the Pac-12 began keeping that stat in 1987. In fact, across 39 games started in Stanford, he directly allowed only one sack.

    No sure thing, granted, but he's the closest thing to sure that foresight could get you with the 24th selection.

    Then, the second round saw Pittsburgh continuing to anchor their offensive line with another first-round prospect in Mike Adams.

    His scouting indicated better overall ratings than Marcus Gilbert a year earlier. Off-field issues nearly cost him a selection from the 'Burgh, but he made the effort to approach the Rooneys and demonstrate a higher fiber of character.

    Just like that, the Steelers had great bang for their two-round buck. Then, great bang for their three-round buck... then Ta'amu!  It was like checking out at the grocery line only for the manager to come out and say, "Heh, for that price, let me just throw in a few more carts of all of the things you like!  Sound good?"

    Round by round, Pittsburgh seemed to be in a time warp, displaced by a full round or more with selections that were supposed to be long gone.

    Chris Rainey was snagged from Florida, and many people feel like his combination of speed and catching ability—as well as explosiveness on special teams—could make him the Steelers' answer to Ray Rice in Baltimore.

    Sean Spence is a promising, hard-hitting linebacker with great speed, which will only help Pittsburgh in coverage.

    Pick after pick, the Black and Gold put together a draft class that has the potential to be their best in years, if not decades.

Hope for an (Actually) Improved the Offensive Line

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    As mentioned, a superb draft focused primarily on the offensive line, an obvious non-strength area that needs serious revamping.

    For so many seasons, based on hard-knock health issues and, frankly, bad performance, the offensive front has been a mushy mash of available bodies who could almost do the job, but not quite.

    Now, there is the actual potential for a five-man line that features superb linemen executing supremely in their position of expertise.

    Instead of flexibility, a staple that the team used to "put together" various lines that allowed too much permeation, there's is the chance that specialty players could comprise the 2012 Steelers offensive line.

    Centers being center. Tackles being tackle. And, all the while, chemistry being built by a young, able-bodied unit...I'm going to actually stop right there.

    The potential is there for a vastly improved group of Steelers linemen, but health is always a key.

    How many of your fingers are crossed? One can hope, right?

The 'Other Corner'

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    In his recent article about the state of the Steelers defense, my fellow contributor, Cian Fahney, detailed a weakness of corner William Gay's game:

    (Deshea) Townsend, (Bryant) McFadden and Gay preferred to sit back in zones and rely on their agility to react to the ball and beat receivers to it. While they could not match up physically with their opponents, they could use their intelligence and quickness to get to the ball.

    While Gay certainly had a nose for the football and reasonable discipline in zone coverage schemes, particularly in the intermediate field, he often seemed either overmatched or lost in man coverage assignments, occasionally overcompensating the presence of safeties over the top and too often allowing top-notch receivers space up the field to make critical plays.

    Luckily, the Steelers have a pair of candidates with great upside to start across from solid man coverage extraordinaire, Ike Taylor.

    Keenan Lewis, the odds-on favorite to win the position, showed steady improvement last season. His most heralded moment came with a late game-sealing interception at Kansas City, one of a handful of pass defenses that Lewis made in nickel and dime coverages in 2011, formations that saw William Gay playing inside the coverage.

    Lewis and his combatant for the starting position, Cortez Allen, are fast corners, easily able to excel in the physical elements of NFL coverage, thus enabling them to play more readily and expertly in man coverage than their predecessors.

    Whoever is chosen as the heir-apparent to McFadden and Gay will have the added advantage of "the Lake Effect," a full NFL offseason to develop and hone their secondary skills under the tutelage of great NFL and former Steelers defensive back Carnell Lake.

    The seeds of an improved secondary are certainly planted in the Steel City.

Exorcising Demons Early

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    Dear NFL schedule-makers,

    Am I really supposed to be so naive as to believe that the first two games of the Steelers schedule are a complete coincidence? Well-played, friends. The hype machine is in full swing, with the emotion staying high at a time of year when every game matters.

    Also, don't think that I didn't notice the Colts' soft early season schedule (a.k.a., the Andrew Luck promotion)... or, for that matter, the difficulty for the Jets in facing some stellar defenses (a.k.a., the Tim Tebow promotion, a.k.a., the Mark Sanchez challenge).

    Sincerely,

    Joshua Hayes

    P.S: Thanks for the opportunity for this Steelers fan to witness the quick exorcism of some offseason demons.

    Last season ended with a devastating loss to the Denver Broncos that saw the maligned and passe passer Tim Tebow throw for 30 yards per completion against a secondary that was hung out to dry and a defense that appeared to be in a fugue state. 

    Sometimes, the best way for a team to know its own improvements is to see the hard, concrete results on the scoreboard. 

    No theories, no explanations, no analysis. Just cold, hard bottom-line results.

    The 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers regular season begins with the ultimate in potential exorcism; the team plays the Broncos and Jets to start the campaign.

    Burn the Broncos first. Trample the Tebow second.

    If the Steelers do not win either of these games, the season is certainly not a lost cause.  However, if the Black and Gold can give fans a 2-0 start to celebrate, there will be no clearer litmus test to separate point A (here and now) from point B (a 29-23 overtime loss in Denver).

    The first two weeks of the season will either be the ultimate springboard or a wobbly balance beam for the Men of Steel.

    The Steelers have the opportunity to emphatically show that the playoffs were exactly what loyal fans believe the game to have been: an aberration. 

A Veteran Core with Super Bowl Experience Remains Intact

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    Not every reason for optimism involves change. In fact, many of the faces that have stayed the same represent a key reason for enthusiasm.

    In truth, though, the Steelers had one hell of a nice head start to this offseason just in the knowledge of a great core of players, even despite the loss of Aaron Smith, James Farrior and company.

    The Steelers have a great nucleus of talented players that have won a Super Bowl and realize what it takes. After last year's bitter ending, falling so short of that goal, prideful champions will return to make good what they didn't a season ago.

    The most obvious players represented in that "nucleus" are Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu. Yet it doesn't end there.

    In an offseason that has seen the introduction of many new, young faces, the stable of returning veterans includes:

    *Ike Taylor, a great man-coverage corner who is vastly underrated and able to take on the team's toughest coverage assignments every week.

    *Ryan Clark, an aware, hard-hitting safety who is the perfect complementary piece to Troy Polamalu's hybrid, timely risk-taking style.

    *Heath Miller, a unheralded tight end whose soft hands, great blocking skills and humble nature make him the perfect man for the job in the 'Burgh.

    Additionally, many of those familiar faces have the potential to be even better this season than last:

    *Lamarr Woodley, the great pressure backer whose absences last season were very noticeable. Did you see Tom Brady flounder in the presence of the great Lamarr in 2011? I sure did!

    *James Harrison, the "manimal." 'Nuf said.

    *Lawrence Timmons, whose statistics suffered due to positional change and having to compensate for a slowing James Farrior. This year, better coverage and speed at linebacker will allow Timmons to return to more comfortable roles and open up further blitzing opportunities.

    *Jericho Cotchery, who hasn't won a championship, but has many of the attributes that have Steelers fans so endeared to Hines Ward. He's a tough player who can make key receptions. (See: Denver playoff loss).

    Without going through the rest of the roster, the team returns a number of talented, experienced players hungry for another championship. 

Todd Haley

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    BRUCE ARIANS: PROS AND CONS

    Written by the Standard Arians Hater, circa 2011

     

    CONS

    Excessive bubble screens.

    Poor red-zone touchdown percentage.

    A quarterback who takes "too long" to make decisions.

    Lack of a running game.

    Terrible playcalling/odd decision-making.

    Awful gameplans for an injured quarterback.

    Etc.

     

    PROS

    He left town.

    He covered his face when calling plays?

     

    For most, the list above reads like ideas for improvement. In the Steel City, the list reads like evidence for an angry lynch mob waiting outside a coach's front door.

    Thankfully, no burning torches, axes or picket signs need to be produced. Bruce Arians, whose offense ranked 12th in yardage and 21st in scoring last season, "retired" (well, from the Steelers, at least) to Indianapolis, and Todd Haley has come to save the day.

    Hopefully.

    Make no mistake that Haley's personality, if used correctly, will be just the infusion of expectation that the offense has sorely needed, having been average at best in scoring efficiency for a number of seasons. 

    In his time as an offensive coordinator, Haley has gotten production from and utilized the skill set of the talent at his disposal.

    Haley's offenses have seen success in many forms. With the Cardinals, he developed a system for Kurt Warner and a slew of great receivers that yielded one of the most productive offensive units ever! Together, they anchored Arizona to a stunning Super Bowl appearance and nearly defeated the Steelers with a miraculous fourth-quarter rally.

    In Kansas City, Haley's offense saw fine production in 2010, and it ranked among the league leaders in rushing,  in complete contrast to his roster, and subsequently, his style, in Arizona.

    Now, fans watch closely—perhaps too closely—to witness the chemistry developing on offense, the strategies that can be expected (a fullback?!), and the relationship between quarterback and coach.

    Here is hoping that Big Ben's "Rosetta Stone" turns into a tangerine-sized gem, or at least a red-zone ruby!!

Rising Receptions: Emmanuel Sanders, Jericho Cotchery, Heath Miller

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    Everyone fully expects Antonio Brown to benefit from a full offseason of development with the starting offense, a luxury correlative to production that the receiver did not have in 2011.

    Likewise, all of Steelers news lately seems geared directly toward the Mike Wallace contract negotiation or Big Ben's quotes about the new offense.

    There's another huge element of the offense that fans can get excited over.

    Emmanuel Sanders is a great, quick receiver in the same manner as Brown, and Jericho Cotchery is a tough-nosed, sure-handed veteran who will help to minimize the on-field loss felt with the departure of Hines Ward.

    The depth at receiver doesn't stop with the rocket and retriever listed above.

    For years, tight end Heath Miller has had the hands to compete with peers in pass-happy offenses with capable offensive lines. 

    Instead, Miller has found himself at the aid of the line, ready and willing to pass or run block effectively, or at the mercy of the offensive system.

    Now, with both of those elements improved, the Todd Haley gameplan may have just bought Miller a reprieve, quite possibly affording the humble tight end with no complaints a chance to meet his true "fantasy figures" potential in the pass game. 

Speedy and Special Teams

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    If Chris Rainey or another returner can indeed fill into the shoes of Antonio Brown, one of the league's most dynamic return specialists, then the Steelers could easily lead the league in return yardage for both kickoffs and punts.

    However, there is more to the punt return than blazing speed and potential. There is trajectory, judgment, courage amidst a wave of ruthless aggressors, split-second decision making, ball control, sure-handedness and vision amidst the hodge-podge of blocks and missed blocks that are "special teams."

    Being a burner is no sure thing. And after years of game-killing muffs, Steelers fans should know the rarity of a capable returner, sinner a phenom, if anyone should...

    Repeat: if someone can fill the role as well, so be it. If not, Brown should return punts based on his proven pedigree. Fear of injuries should not dictate team roles; ability should determine those roles.

    Whoever is doing the job will bring great speed to a phase of the game in which Pittsburgh has begun to excel. More than ever, returners are key, viable threats (even with the kickoff having been moved to the 35-yard line), and the Steelers seem equipped to join the "elite returners" circuit.

    Brown was averaging 12.2 yards per punt return last season (ranked second in the AFC).

    If Emmanuel Sanders, Rainey or any other viable option can match or exceed this production, they should be called upon to do so.

    Otherwise, compromising a clear team strength could prove costly.

    ************************************************************************************

    Is kicker Shaun Suisham underrated?

    Well, at one point, Forbes certainly thought so!

    In truth, for every unbelievable off-target, weak-legged shank that has come off of Suisham's foot, causing Steeler Nation to glance away from the screen in synchronized fashion during field goal attempts, there has been a timely, difficult conversion off of the maligned kicker's toes that makes me stop and think, "Is this guy better than I give him credit for?"

    When he put a pigskin through uprights that were more than 50 yards from his holder last season, I must admit that I was caught off guard. 

    Suisham has made 79 percent of his career kicks with a career long of 52 yards.  By comparison, Jeff Reed, the man whose foot he replaced, has hit on 82 percent of attempts. Likewise, one of the kickers averages 61.4 yards on kickoffs, resulting in an average starting point of the 20-yard line, while the other kicks 61.7 yards and allows drives to start at the 21-yard line.

    I expected Reed to lead the statistic, but I certainly didn't feel that the gap was so close. 

    Still, there was that shank with the pressure on in Super Bowl XLV. Still, this is a slideshow about enthusiasm. Maybe, despite my scathing criticisms in the past, Shaun Suisham is a suitable NFL kicker.

Ben Roethlisberger

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    If you don't understand by now why the presence of franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is a true blessing, I would invite you to revisit the years 1992 through 2003, featuring quarterbacks ranging from poor to above-average.

    For the most part, those seasons saw the franchise in the championship hunt, only to be upended by one humbling deficiency: a lack of a big-game quarterback. 

    In other words, regarding Ben, greatness is greatness.  Nothing else is, not even very good.

    Clutch plays, the ability to run and pass, accuracy within and outside of the pocket, adaptable style and a cannon arm are just a few of the facets that make Roethlisberger one of the game's elite men behind center.

    It's nothing that hasn't been presented in painstaking detail already, and any Steelers fan who doesn't realize the blessing of Big Ben being on the field belongs in one of two categories:

    1. Spoiled and unrealistic.

    2. Ignorant and not remotely credible.

    This, of course, isn't to say that he doesn't have room for improvement. If anything, the decisions made this offseason will make Ben a more productive, and perhaps even a slightly more polished gunslinger.

Troy Polamalu

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    Like Ben Roethlisberger on offense, a Hall of Fame talent on defense makes all the difference.

    Any Steelers fan with a hint of visual acuity realizes that Troy Polamalu is a linch pin on the Pittsburgh defense. It's obvious to all in Steel-town that with Troy comes glory—and without Troy enters heartache. 

    His direct impact on a defensive unit that is ranked among the top few with annual consistency speaks for itself. Among great athletes and playing with some of the league's greatest defenders, he is the most important man on the field, playing behind the modern Steel Curtain (would that be the Steel Stage?).

    If the Steelers secondary is a Steel Stage, during most plays it is Troy that steals the show!

    His hybrid ability—taking on the role of safety, corner or linebacker on any given play and doing so with a wonderful mix of aplomb and reckless abandon—opens up a whole world of options to defense.

    Despite his big-game impact and statistical prowess, there are still those analysts who downgrade his ability, namely by using the "what have you done for me lately" method of reducing a player's talents to his most recent game. Months back, Pete Prisco wrote an article that calls Troy Polamalu the most overrated player in football.

    Yes, his physical play does make him injury-prone. 

    Sure, he pays for his aggressiveness sometimes.

    Yet for every time fans can place blame on Polamalu for an undesirable outcome, they can point to ten other results made immaculate by the hard work and defensive prowess of the "Black n' Gold" safety who brings chaos to NFL offenses.

    Steelers fans can vividly recall the cutback run that secured Pittsburgh's place in Super Bowl XLIII. They remember Chris Johnson being cut down in the backfield by the speedy torpedo with the free-flying locks. 

    Hell, the man leaps over offensive lines like Superman to stuff ball carriers almost annually. Who else is doing that?

    Seriously. WHO?

    The "Head n' Shoulders Honcho" is head and shoulders above the vast majority of his peers, and he is one of the biggest reasons for the recent championship success of an illustrious franchise.

Defensive Continuity

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    The Steelers old, slow, "done" defense took the words of Warren Sapp and turned them into a new description: experienced, patient and No. 1 in the NFL.

    Certainly, last year left room for improvement. Casey Hampton, Steve McClendon or Alameda Ta'amu will need to improve at nose tackle from last season, the entire defensive front will subsequently need to cut down the average surrendered per rush and the entire defensive body—coaches and players alike—will need to reconsider and learn from one of the most questionable game plans in the Dick LeBeau era.

    Nevertheless, the maturity of rising stars, the return of solid veterans, and the introduction of increased youth and speed could provide the perfect recipe for rediscovering the dominance that few will deny the unit lost, despite the numerical indicators, last season.

    A healthy Woodley and Harrison will assist in the unit returning to the top of the league in sacks and pressures.

    The loss of Farrior hurts, but his best days were behind him. The introduction of Larry Foote as a full-time starter, and Sean Spence on select downs will equate to better pass coverage at the linebacker position, which will also translate to more flexibility in the formations and blitz packages the team is able to effectively utilize. Particularly, Spence is a great option for sub packages, which should result in less strain upfront, allowing the unit to achieve better pressure from more exotic playcalling.

    Lawrence Timmons will see a better balance of coverage and rush duties, and a return to 2010 form for the potential Pro Bowl linebacker is expected by the higher percentage of Steelers fans.

    Yada. Yada. Yada. The basic news is, expect the Steelers defense to do what it has always done.

    And, a big part of that consistent dominance comes from just that: consistency. 

    Stability is the name of the game that sees Dick LeBeau back with the headset about his head, and the Steelers managed a double bonus whenever linebackers coach Keith Butler chose not to leave to the Colts.

    Instead, on good faith, he remains with Pittsburgh, the heir apparent to LeBeau and his defensive philosophy. It is a system that Butler has excelled in utilizing, both as an NFL position and college coach.

    As such, the Steelers defensive philosophy, with its proven track record of success, is set to continue for years to come.

Dual-Threat Fast Backs...the Answer to Ray Rice?

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    When fast Willie Parker exploded onto the Pittsburgh football scene in late '04 and throughout the championship 2005 season, he added a dynamic new speed element to the Steelers offense. In the running game, an inch of daylight could turn into a field of dreams for Parker in an instant.

    Everyone remembers his explosive record-breaking run in Super Bowl XL, a 75-yard jaunt through superb blocking, outracing the Seahawks secondary to the end zone in a chase that ultimately wasn't remotely close. Likewise, we can all vividly recall Bettis' response, shown during the Super Bowl highlight film, in which the back succinctly states, "speed kills."

    Indeed, speed kills.

    And so do bad hands.

    Parker had one weakness that would have served as a supreme strength for the Steelers: bad hands. In the '09 AFC Championship Game against the Ravens, a perfectly placed pass hit off of his shoulder pads that would have certainly ended as a touchdown reception. Thankfully, nobody has had to look back on the play with regret.

    Now, the Steelers have two blisteringly fast backs on the roster, Baron Batch and Chris Rainey. The Florida alum comes with a great deal of anticipation, and Batch has been a fan favorite since before his unfortunate injury last season. 

    While the team has utilized Mewelde Moore out of the backfield in the passing game, he certainly does not possess the sheer speed of either of his peers.

    The Steelers need to utilize their weapon(s), pending the final roster decisions and retained running backs, much in the same way the Ravens have frustrated the 'Burgh with the playmaking of Ray Rice.

    Steelers Country nearly regurgitates when it hears the phrase "bubble screen," an element of the Bruce Arians offense that was used to tireless repetition. While hopes for an explosive play increase with fast receivers, the strategy grew moot due to predictability.  On the bubble screen, an anticipating corner can blow up the play for a loss.

    Tradition screens, while they run the same risk, can vary in their timing and setup, and the ability to properly establish and block these plays can become one of the most devastating elements of an offensive arsenal.

    For years, the Bay and the 'Burgh (Pittsburgh and Green Bay) were the two best teams in football at running timely screen plays. 

    The ability to set up the screen pass to either of the two fast backs exemplifies the phrase "giving an inch and taking a mile."

    Moreover, however, Rainey and Batch have demonstrated in their football years the ability to consistently catch passes with their hands (the correct method, opposed to the arms or chest) and make plays in the passing game.

    While this assists them with traditional screen plays, it also makes them viable receiving targets in any number of formations, including the spread offense. 

    This not only makes it easier for the Steelers to disguise their intentions and formations in the huddle and pre-snap (sending a back into motion), but it gives the team another viable playmaking threat that can be utilized on any number of passing plays and downs.

    The luxury of a dual threat fast back is a deadly threat that the team cannot afford not to utilize!

Suggs and a Second-Place Schedule

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    The road to the Super Bowl starts with making the playoffs, and there is no better way to achieve this goal than winning the AFC North.

    While the Steelers have taken steps forward, Baltimore has taken at least one of its steps backward-ways this offseason.

    The injury to Terrell Suggs is a huge detriment to the Baltimore Ravens. The trash-talker and equally capable "walk the walker" is out for a non-specific amount of time, but most expect he will not return until at least midseason, if not beyond.

    Who knows what impact this will have on the Ravens in the standings, but suffice to say, it is much better to start off plus-one than minus-one.

    The loss of Suggs, one of the key faces of the great Steelers-Ravens rivalry, is both detrimental to Baltimore and beneficial to Pittsburgh, who Suggs has harassed more than any other team.

    Likewise, while fans would have loved to witness Pittsburgh winning the AFC North last season, the current result from that disappointment is a schedule differential that seems to favor the Black and Gold in more ways that just the matchups.

    Instead of the Jets and Titans, Pittsburgh's two second-place foes, the Ravens play the defending AFC Champion Patriots and the conference favorite Texans. And to top it off, they play them early in the season!

    Key Pittsburgh improvements, a huge player loss for the modern Purple People Eaters, a tougher pair of opponents for Baltimore and the reality that being swept again in 2012 is simply not an option are all favorable factors for the Steelers...

    ...who just narrowly lost the AFC North last season in spite of falling twice to the Ravens!

    Granted, naysayers will rebut with "to be the best, you have to beat the best!" I have no doubt the Steelers could handle business against the Patriots or Texans, particularly New England (see: 2011).

    However, beating the best in January is the key. For this particular REGULAR season, Baltimore can have 'em!

The 'Disrespect Card'

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    With the hype and hysteria that is associated with greatness, the modern Steelers have fallen from great heights, underperforming badly.

    Twice, the team has failed to reach the playoffs following a championship season. After another Super Bowl campaign, the Black and Gold played so poorly in the Wild Card round that many fans likely almost wished they hadn't made the postseason at all.

    Almost.

    Apparent improvements and the return of an all-star, championship-caliber roster has many fans in the Steel City dreaming of "No. 7," and no, I'm not referring to Big Ben, gentlemen!

    Conversely, some experts are hesitant to figure the Steelers for much more than another close-call playoff berth, citing a youth movement and some veteran losses as their main areas of concern.

    Angrily, many loyal fans have certainly lashed out against the above-referenced "expert" analysis. However, fanatics should not fret...

    This is exactly the way the Steelers want things.

    The Black and Gold have always performed better when they feel disrespected or insulted, like their backs are against the wall, fighting to force those who denounced them to pay notice to the greatness they know they possess deep down.

    Under the radar, the Steelers, to put it bluntly, kick butt.

    The phenomenon goes back to the beginning of the new millennium. 

    Consider:

    In 2001, the Steelers came off of three consecutive non-playoff seasons to go 13-3.

    With all of the hype of a team fighting back from a "fluke" loss to the Patriots in the AFC Championship, the '02 squad reeked more potently than Brussels stink cheese to start the season. Kordell was benched, and Tommy Maddox infused a new energy in the suddenly pass-happy squad.

    With the hysteria surrounding Maddox, the passing game, offensive philosophy and team were horrific in 2003.

    Having lost the credit they'd earned earlier in the decade, the 2004 team, with the aid of a certain rookie phenom, went 15-1, narrowly missing the Super Bowl.

    In 2005, they accomplished "One for the Thumb."

    In 2006, the defending champs missed the playoffs.

    In '07, those discounting the Steelers were surprised to see them rebound for a playoff season under first year head coach Mike Tomlin. One year later, with nowhere near championship expectations and doomsday prognostications regarding the "most difficult schedule in decades," the team dominated opponents en route to a sixth Lombardi Trophy.

    2009 came and went, playoff-less.

    In 2010, with low expectations around NFL circles, they went back to the Super Bowl.

    Then, last year, they got Tebow'ed.

    Headed into the new year, most experts see Pittsburgh as a viable playoff team, but can anyone show me a major network analyst who predicts the Steelers—two mere years removed from Super Sunday—making it to or winning the AFC Championship, sinner the NFL title?

    FACT:

    If flying under the radar is conducive to winning in the Steelers locker room (and it is), all Steelers fans should then agree that the more negativity offered their way, the better!