Pittsburgh Steelers 2012: Predicting Every Game of Their Upcoming Schedule
Pittsburgh Steelers fans are all looking forward to an exciting schedule, enthused with the rife hope that the Black and Gold will be "Back n' Bold" as ever in 2012.
Returning a solid nucleus of proven franchise players, the "Men of Steel" will also feature some new faces, hopeful that the infusion of much-needed talent will be the difference between next year's Super Sunday game and last season's wild Wild Card shame.
New offensive coordinator Todd Haley looks to extract greater efficiency from Big Ben and crew, Dick LeBeau and heir-apparent Keith Butler hope to maintain a top-rank billing among elite NFL defenses and an apparent dynamic draft class seeks to improve the team by converting deficiencies (e.g., offensive line) into strengths.
The upside of the team's potential is enough to give any subjective fan an invincibility complex. It's the elements of bias and optimism that make such personal predictions so difficult. Like most fans, I have this everlasting wish that the Steelers will never lose a football game again.
However, the course of a season presents its natural obstacles, and being undefeated rarely lasts through September, let alone December.
Indeed, objectivity is a challenge, but it is a demand that "Nostra-josh-us" hopes to satisfy for the second consecutive season. Last year, I correctly predicted a 12-4 season, including an unforeseen loss to the 49ers and a close-shave against Jacksonville.
I also predict a win on opening day in Baltimore. What can I say? A few of the foul-fingered neighbor kids left some smudge marks on my crystal ball!
On paper, this team will be favored over its opponents for most weeks of the season. Objectively, a Pittsburgh victory could be statistically argued going into any of these games, with fans acting as databases, crunching the attributes almost as though the game were played on a Scantron scorecard.
Yet, we all know an undefeated season isn't going to happen because all games have the human factor, and most importantly, the margin between winning and losing is so often slim. This list is a challenge in that way, tempering an elitist subjectivity with the reality of some unforeseen losses.
So, how will the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers fare from week-to-week during the upcoming regular season? Here is my best effort at predicting each game of the upcoming schedule.
Week 1: @ Denver Broncos
The Steelers will look to avenge their "Mile Low" finish in the 2011-12 NFL playoffs with a mile-high victory to kick off the 2012 schedule on Sunday Night Football.
Once again, the secondary will be drawn to battle without safety Ryan Clark, whose presence was greatly missed in the season-ending defeat. Clark, known as the hard hitter of the defensive backs, should not be discounted as a superb stopgap in the league's top rated regular season pass defense. His chemistry with Troy Polamalu allows the Steelers to field one of the most proficient safety duos in the NFL.
1) Providing the potential for immediate and supreme improvement in the complex and increasingly important NFL passing circus.
2) Providing an allowance for the franchise to part ways with Tim Tebow, whose warm, feel good story was simply not going to correlate with the consistent quarterbacking skills needed for a warm, feel good ending...in February.
Manning's ability to play at a high level will determine whether Denver is the dunce of the NFL or sees the proverbial "dance of the NFL" that is the playoffs. After four neck surgeries, there are no guarantees, and the opening weeks of the season should see a Broncos offense still developing chemistry.
Against Tim Tebow, the Steelers made the mistake of not exploiting the quarterback's prime weakness: making expert throws into narrow passing lanes and accounting for safety coverage in the secondary. The Steelers constantly brought safeties into the box, which many argued was an attempt to confuse Tebow regarding potential blitzers while assisting against the run.
Unfortunately, no pressure meant no positive effect for Pittsburgh. In fact, the result was decidedly negative.
At least against Manning, the Black and Gold will not be able to afford "making No. 18 throw," nor will they ascertain repeated congestion in the box as a wise game-plan. A more solid game-plan is dictated by Peyton's presence alone, which should oddly create a marked improvement.
Then again, how could 15 yards per attempt or 30 yards per completion NOT be markedly improved upon?
Ironically, another new face in Denver is corner Tracy Porter, famous for his key interceptions of Brett Favre and teammate Peyton Manning in the 2009-10 playoffs and Super Bowl.
Historically, Willis McGahee has had difficult running against the Steelers. With moderate good fortune health-wise, the Pittsburgh defensive front should see a slight return to form from last season, when they surrendered 4.0 yards per carry.
Minus an aggressive running attack, the focus on Manning as the ultimate x-factor will become a key battle. Lacking midseason chemistry, Manning will not be as effective as usual. Additionally, a healthy Steelers front, particularly with Lamarr Woodley and James Harrison, will not require any aid to get some pressure.
That pressure should throw off Manning's timing—already a work in progress—while also serving to test his health and durability. Pittsburgh will be wise to get a few good licks on Peyton early. While they had no sacks in last season's playoff affair, Manning cannot be confused with the niftily nimble Tebow.
When Manning is not on the field, Pittsburgh's offense will also have its own early season struggles. The first full game for Todd Haley's new offense won't be without a few missed reads and poorly timed passes.
Likewise, it will be a huge first test for a renovated offensive line to battle Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller. Nevertheless, it certainly won't get much worse than last season, when Big Ben was sacked five times at Invesco Field, once each by the aforementioned duo.
In that game, the Steelers still rallied for 23 points, despite not nearly playing their A-game. If they can match that scoreboard production again, they should be able to avenge last season's final game.
SCORE: STEELERS 23, BRONCOS 17
Week 2: vs. New York Jets
The NFL certainly knows how to develop a schedule that best promotes its product.
Conversely, controversies sell leagues; and nobody knows that better than the "Notoriety is Fun League" or NFL.
After all, what's a few million fewer revenue dollars WITHOUT the mass presence of Tim Tebow?
Answer: To the NFL, it is everything!
Santonio Holmes became a divisive force; Brian Schottenheimer lost his job for effectively putting too much responsibility on the maligned Sanchez and the defense ranked 20th in points allowed despite low yardage numbers and the presence of Darrelle Revis.
Whether for confidence in a team not that far removed from playoff road win records and conference title tilts or a simple inability to seize players not desirous of their locker room, the Jets—beyond the circus of the Tebow acquisition—have done little else roster-wise.
Safety play, a struggle last season, will only improve if LaRon Landry stays healthy. And the quarterbacks will need the run game with Shonn Greene (who only eclipsed 100 yards twice last season) to return to earlier form to take away the pressure of a brutal early schedule.
In other words, the Big Apple could see another sour green apple (and Big Bust) among its New Jersey ranks again.
In the home opener, the Steelers will have little issue containing Mark Sanchez, still under center and running back Shonn Greene.
The occasional presence of Tim Tebow will usher the salivation of a defense licking its chops to showcase its true form to the Tebowmania. Lessons from January will be taken to heart, rendering T.T.'s intermittent showings obsolete.
With a smart showing by Big Ben (translation: avoiding Revis island), the receivers not being covered by Darrelle will flourish.
A key to the game will be duplicating the running efforts that the Black and Gold showcased against the Jets front last January. Can the revamped line have success against the trenches of Gang Green?
SCORE: STEELERS 20, JETS 10
Week 3: @ Oakland Raiders
Many of those players would not wear the legendary team colors for much longer.
Mark Davis, Al's son, hired GM Reggie McKenzie, and the no nonsense approach to management became apparent.
Kevin Boss and corner Chris Johnson were among the player casualties of the cap-considerate McKenzie, who also fired Hue Jackson and replaced him with the equally demanding Dennis Allen.
With a hope to return to the playoffs by winning their division, Oakland is a mysterious team headed into 2012. They could be great, good, average or awful.
In the NFL, it all comes back to quarterbacking.
If Allen hopes to compete in the AFC West, a division that is as much of a crap-shoot as any in the NFL, he will need to hope that a full offseason of work and chemistry pays huge dividends for Carson Palmer, who went from couch to quarterbacking last season.
Assisting Palmer in this feat is the huge upside of the running game and Darren McFadden. If the back can stay healthy, Oakland will rank among the league's top rushing attacks in 2012.
Certainly, the offensive line by the bay is capable of opening holes, and it is equally adept at protecting passers. Raiders quarterbacks were only sacked 25 times last season.
If other pieces of the puzzle do their part, then the potential for young playmaking receivers such as Darrius Heyward-Bey, Denarius Moore and even Jacoby Ford to synchronize productively with Palmer will be high.
On defense, the Raiders front is a strength with Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly, along with the return of defensive end Matt Shaughnessy.
Steelers fans last saw Seymour decking Big Ben after No. 7 connected with Emmanuel Sanders on a backbreaking touchdown before halftime in a 2010 Oakland loss, 35-3 at Heinz Field.
However, the entire defensive front, including linebackers, needs to work together much more harmoniously. Opposing rushers averaged over five yards per carry last season, and the defense only brought down opposition passers on 39 sacks.
The Raiders secondary is a huge liability. Last season, they allowed 31 touchdown passes and surrendered over 4,000 passing yards, ranking among the lowest among NFL teams in both pass and run defense.
That will be the story of the 2012 Raiders: huge potential, but where will the improvement come from?
Winning on the road in the NFL is a difficult feat, and there is always that road game that forces fans to ask "where were they today?"
While each of the first three games is winnable, it seems unlikely for the Steelers to go into their bye week with a 3-0 record.
Recent trips to the "Black Hole" have not proven lucrative for Pittsburgh, falling to far inferior Raiders squads in matchups they should have easily won.
Like clockwork, each season sees at least one game where the offense is able to move the ball, but mistakes and bad timing don't resonate success on the scoreboard. It is the same game where the opposing offense seems contained...but a handful of big plays from talented weapons pay huge dividends for the opposition.
Call this my "gut instinct" prediction.
One of Oakland's young, fast receivers will make a couple of clutch plays against the corner opposite Ike Taylor, likely Keenan Lewis.
Likewise, after being utterly shut down during a 2010 visit to Pittsburgh, McFadden will rip off a couple of huge gains against a defense that did show some signs of fading against the run last season.
Lastly, Carson Palmer's familiarity with the Pittsburgh defense will limit offensive mistakes by a cautious Oakland unit. Unless, of course, Troy Polamalu can arrange another personal on-field meeting between he and his former college roommate.
Somehow, I think Palmer will be quite conscientious of avoiding the Flyin' Hawaiian in this contest.
Pittsburgh's rockets at receiver will match up well against the Oakland secondary, and the offense will score enough points to win.
Yet, it can never be "too good." You always lose on that you should win.
This will be the game where overreaction runs rampant in the Steel City, causing fans to ask, "Here we go again?"
Why, oh why, does it have to be the Raiders always nipping us in the buttocks? Anybody who is not a Raiders fan hates Oakland, and that is ten-fold for Steelers Country.
SCORE: STEELERS 23, RAIDERS 24
Week 5: vs. Philadelphia Eagles
The fourth game of the schedule is one of the most understated and exciting games of the NFL season: the Keystone clash.
The sports media may not understand the depth of hatred present in this rare matchup, but fans in both Eastern and Western Pennsylvania will be fully ready for their personal version of civil war.
The Steelers have struggled against Michael Vick in their previous regular season meetings with the electrifying entertainer.
In 2002, Pittsburgh led 34-17 against the Falcons and Vick at Heinz Field before the "other" No. 7 rallied his team to a tie. Tommy Maddox described the final outcome, which ended on a Hail Mary pass to Plaxico Burress just inches short of the goal line in overtime, as "kissing your sister" (via ESPN).
Next, in 2006, the Black and Gold looked less "big and bold" and more "lax and old" when Vick torched them in the Georgia Dome. Ben Roethlisberger and Charlie Batch combined for five touchdowns without an interception, but Vick's four scoring strikes were paramount in a 41-38 Falcons win in overtime.
In 2012, provided he is healthy, the Steelers are hoping to finally expose Vick's flaws opposed to making the super athlete look like the Superman.
After missing the playoffs last season, Pittsburgh's intrastate rivals will look to meet last year's expectations a season late. The Eagles have their most electrifying player, DeSean Jackson, comfortably signed, and they still boast a who's who gallery of huge NFL names.
Does anyone still remember Nnamdi Asomugha? The man who surrendered no passing touchdowns as a member of the 2010 Raiders was victimized for a few scores during a "down" year in Philly. Hopefully Big Ben and the Steelers' young, fast receivers can assist in maintaining this new trend.
When the Eagles come to town, you can count on a dynamic live experience, so anyone who can get tickets to Heinz Field on October 7th should do it.
Just be ready for a few obnoxious fans clad in green. Green with envy, of course!
Throwing many great ingredients into a blender does not ensure a great end result.
Last year, the Eagles defense was like a mix of mustard and molasses, blue cheese and blueberries, and legumes and licorice.
Things simply didn't mix. An offensive line coach served as defensive coordinator; players failed to live up to their hyped expectations, and running backs ran rampant over the defensive front.
While the Eagles defense can provide pressure, particularly Jason Babin and Trent Cole (29 combined sacks), Big Ben's "tweaking" and the revamped line should hopefully begin to gel by October, translating to a nice balance of effective passing and running. Against teams like the Eagles, the outlet provided by Baron Batch or Chris Rainey should prove invaluable.
Likewise, the odds simply indicate that it is time for the Steelers to bring Vick's passing game against them back down to Earth. The Steelers will hope to confuse Vick in a manner similar to last year's preseason, in which they intercepted the athletic passer three times in less than a half of play.
Like their last trip to Heinz Field, the talented Eagles will be overwhelmed by the speed, execution and determination of a rising championship contender.
SCORE: STEELERS 30, EAGLES 17
Week 6: @ Tennessee Titans
Chris Johnson is the straw that stirs the drink in Nashville, and he will be running behind an improved offensive line that features all-pro Steve Hutchinson.
If CJ2K can return to form, circa 2009, the Titans will feature a dynamic young offense. Lately, he's merely been CJ.
At receiver, Nate Washington and Kenny Britt are a terrific duo, tall and deceptively quick, able to make big plays at the opportune moment.
The big question regards the deliverer of the football. With Blaine Gabbert given the helm in Jacksonville and Andrew Luck a shoe-in starter for the Colts, now seems the perfect time to inundate future All-Star Jake Locker into the full-time NFL mix.
While Matt Hasselbeck is an experienced veteran who can keep any game close, Locker played well in rare relief during his rookie season, particularly in scoring five touchdowns (four passing) with no interceptions.
While the defense ranked highly early on and received initial praise in 2011, they struggled mightily against the Steelers.
Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman ran roughshod over the Titans, allowing Big Ben—now equipped with a superb play-action passing ability—to finish 24-for-34 with five touchdown passes.
While that is unlikely to repeat itself, the truth about how the Steelers offense will perform against the better-than-showcased Titans defense from last season will depend on the ability of Pittsburgh to run the football.
For evidence, see last season.
Having already lost Cortland Finnegan, an undermanned Titans secondary will have to contend with a passer that has gone 33-of-43 and 24-of-34 against them in his last two outings.
In a close, gut-check affair, the Steelers offense will have success against the Titans defense in a sort of "2011 Lite" performance.
Meanwhile, the Steelers defense has fared well recently against Chris Johnson, denying the runner the home run burst needed to get over the top yardage-wise against them. However, with an improved line and the every down home run threat in the backfield, it will be difficult for the Steelers to completely contain Johnson without one breakdown.
Here's hoping that the big runs don't happen or don't hold up, such as an 80+ yard touchdown scamper that was taken off the board for Johnson against the Steelers in 2010 via penalty. All that burst proved is that one missed hold can be the difference between containing the running back and giving him daylight.
After two games without a long yardage stroll, I believe that Chris Johnson will be largely contained, but a few bursts into the secondary will keep the game in doubt for Pittsburgh until the last second ticks off the clock.
Ike Taylor and his counter-corner will need to test their vertical jumping prior to the contest, as Washington and Britt will certainly test them with their ability to move the chains and make big plays.
Altogether, this promises to be a Thursday Night nail-biter. The Steelers are 2-6 all-time in Tennessee, including 1998's loss to the then-dubbed Tennessee Oilers.
Can they defeat the playoff hopefuls on the road in prime time?
SCORE: STEELERS 21, TITANS 18
Week 7: @ Cincinnati Bengals
Will it be the Cincinnati Bengals continuing to rise in the ranks and contending in the AFC North?
Or, will fans see the a slight return of the "Bungles," as Andy Dalton and the Bengals suffer through a sophomore slump following his superb rookie campaign?
Last season, Ben Roethlisberger voiced his confidence in Dalton (per Neal Coolong of behindthesteelcurtain.com:
"Right now I think, and I don't know how the talk is, but he's rookie of the year. I think he's that good of a quarterback."
If Dalton was rising above the NFL scene his rookie season, it certainly wasn't quite high enough to see over the Steelers.
In all, Dalton did throw three touchdowns against the Steelers, largely due to the supreme athleticism and ri-dic-u-lous touchdown catches of A.J. Green.
However, he did fail to complete 50 percent of his passes against the Black and Gold in Pittsburgh, and he was the victim of two crucial interceptions in a narrow Cincy home loss.
His progress will be the key if he plans on beating one of the AFC North's elite teams. This marks his second such opportunity after facing Baltimore in Week 1.
Defensively, the Bengals failed to stop both the Pittsburgh pass and run attack last season. Isaac Redman averaged over six yards per carry against Cincy, while Rashard Mendenhall scored four touchdowns.
While his yardage was not gaudy against this Ohio rival, Big Ben tossed three touchdowns and only forced one interception in last year's season series.
Big Ben has been money in his collegiate state since turning professional. In fact, the recent series between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati has generally favored the road team.
However, it hasn't come easily. Another very disturbing trend has worked against the Steelers many of those games, dating back as far as 2001.
So many times in the last few decades, the Steelers have blown huge leads against the Bengals. In 2010, they led 20-9 in the fourth quarter only to be victimized by Carson Palmer and Terrell Owens in the second half. Last season, they led 14-0, only to surrender the lead in a fourth quarter tied game.
If Pittsburgh wants to keep a leg up on their stiff division competition, it will be important for the Men of Steel to have a killer instinct.
History tends to repeat itself. Likewise, it will be difficult for the Steelers to win both of back-to-back primetime contests against the Titans and Bengals.
A blown fourth quarter lead will give Dalton his first win over the Black and Gold. Who will be responsible for the winning points?
See the caption above.
SCORE: STEELERS 21, BENGALS 24
Week 8: Washington Redskins
Get ready for a week in which the media forces two letters and numeral down the collective throats of all in Steelers Country.
R. G. 3.
With a dazzling and electrifying quarterback at his disposal, Mike Shanahan, a man who has worked very well with talented signal-callers in the past, hopes his first-round acquisition helps turn the Redskins into the season's surprise team.
Last year, they swept the eventual champion Giants, lost six games by less than a touchdown and tended to play to the level of their competition.
Considering the Steelers' pedigree, they should not expect anything less than Washington's best effort. Just ask Eli Manning about how wise it is to put a red circle around the Redskins as a "win" on the regular season calendar.
If Shanahan hopes to contend for the playoffs with his new quarterback, he needs to hope for improved performance from the offensive line. Also, last season, the depth at receiver did not allow Washington's quarterbacks to have much aerial success. Fred Davis, the team's most frequent pass-catcher, returns at tight end, but the key acquisitions of Josh Morgan and Pierre Garcon (a fantasy sleeper) should provide some dividends.
Defensively, the 'Skins are passable upfront. They resigned London Fletcher, a necessary move if Washington had any hope of playing beyond late December.
With a dearth of talent, the Redskins have struggled in the secondary, and Big Ben could have a huge game with so many weapons at his disposal.
Above, I mention the following:
"Considering the Steelers' pedigree, they should not expect anything less than Washington's best effort."
Sure, they should expect the 'Skins' best effort. However, what they expect and what they get can be two very different things.
While the Redskins played to the level of their competition last season, they are not the only team with their hand in the fate of this game. The Pittsburgh Steelers are returning home in Week 8 after an emotionally taxing two-game prime time exclusive road trip.
The home confines of Heinz Field will provide a nice boost, further amplifying the advantage of the team's defensive front against Washington's lackluster modern day "Hogs" and rookie quarterback Robert Griffin, who WILL get the start over Rex Grossman.
Rookie passers have been treated poorly by Pittsburgh's top-ranked defense, and little should change in this game. Conversely, playing against a mediocre defense (at best) and lackluster secondary, Big Ben should be engineering a balanced offense. Possibly armed with play action, Roethlisberger will find open targets either way against an outmatched secondary.
Brown. Wallace. Miller. Cotchery. Sanders.
Sure, the 'Skins lost six games last year by one possession. That translates to losing five games by more than a touchdown.
This game will fall into that latter category in 2012.
SCORE: STEELERS 31, REDSKINS 9
Week 9: @ New York Giants
To be the best, you have to beat the best. And, let's face it: This is the litmus test that teams will be using to gauge themselves.
Capping the Steelers' first-half schedule is a trip to MetLife Stadium to square off against the defending champion New York Giants, a team whose persistence and perseverance allowed a historically unexpected run toward Super Bowl stardom.
Having won twice in five seasons, any other team would be branded as a potential dynasty, and certainly they would be regarded as an all-time great collection of talent.
The Giants have won Super Bowls with the two poorest records ever for a title-winning team, some of the most pedestrian statistics for a champion, and barely making the playoffs on either occasion. Does this make them unwaveringly tough or just flat lucky?
Just like the first Lombardi season for Eli and crew, the championship defense seasons begs a question:
Was it a fluke?
Was the win the result of a punt bouncing off of knees, dropped passes and other timely advantages? Or, are those elements of the game that simply define any Super Sunday winner.
The Steelers will look to do their part to help history remember the Giants as lucky opposed to legendary.
Defensively, both teams sport excellent units capable of pressuring the quarterback, stopping the run and limiting big passing plays.
While the Steelers dominated the regular season last season, they fell apart in the playoffs. Conversely, the Giants' maligned regular season defense (ranked 27th) became a postseason strength, limiting the production of the Falcons, Packers, 49ers (well, those not named Vernon Davis) and Patriots.
While both teams had questionable line play last season (at best), the Steelers are very experienced with shuffling starters up front when necessary. Also, they used the offseason to focus on improving this weakness, hoping to transform it into the tradition strength that the 'Burgh is known for.
Both teams have questions at running back. The Giants lost Brandon Jacobs, and Ahmad Bradshaw—the oft-injured back with a 3.9 yards per carry average last season—will shoulder much of the load. For the Steelers, Isaac Redman is a capable replacement to Rashard Mendenhall, who may well be back in the lineup by this point in the season.
The presence of Chris Rainey and/or Baron Batch gives the Steelers one more option out of the backfield that the Giants lack.
Altogether, most of the information above results in a wash for both sides.
Surprisingly, the edge in favor of Pittsburgh should be on offense: They have more weapons.
The major discrepancy is at wideout, unless by some stretch of the imagination Mike Wallace opts not to play. Mario Manningham departed NYC. While Victor Cruz may be the best receiver in this particular contest, he and Hakeem Nicks can't compare to the depth and breadth of receivers in Pittsburgh.
Yeah, I said it!
Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning are often compared to each other as members of the same draft class. Having gone 1-1 against the other, this will be the series rubber match for both starters.
I believe the edge goes to the Steelers if they can do two things:
1) With more weapons at his disposal, Big Ben will win this game for the Steelers, provided he is able to stay reasonably upright. Will the hopefully improved offensive line have gelled enough to protect Ben from a trio of mean pass-rushers?
2) Lamarr Woodley, James Harrison and the defensive front need to elevate their game to match the presence of Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul on the other side. This will help to cool down the deadliest third-down quarterback in the game, Eli Manning.
It's certainly no easy task, but the Steelers will be up for it. These are the types of wins that propel teams to bigger accomplishments down the road.
Besides, the Giants are certainly not world beaters at home. Last season, for example, they finished .500 at their friendly confines during the regular season (1-0 in the playoffs). Big Blue made its living on the road, going 8-3. Far inferior teams have met the challenge of a "giant" away game.
It will require patience and it will not be easy, particularly in the congested red zone, where the Steelers' team speed is slightly negated.
SCORE: STEELERS 17, GIANTS 16
Week 10: vs. Kansas City Chiefs
Can we call this the "Todd Haley Bowl"?
Okay, so that is probably overstating things a bit. Nevertheless, the new offensive coordinator gets to face off against his former team under the night lights on Monday Night Football.
For Kansas City, a return to health by key starters could be the catalyst for an AFC West title. Or, conversely, a lack of accomplishment by players who are mere shells of their former selves could be the bad omen to send K.C. spiraling back into the bad play that haunted their 2011 season.
The Chiefs view Matt Cassel as a capable quarterback. While not the finest passer in the game, he does have aplomb, particularly in the red zone where he flourished two seasons ago, and tends to make good decisions. The team added tight end Kevin Boss, running back Peyton Hillis and tackle Eric Winston in an effort to equip Cassel with pieces for success.
The return of Jamaal Charles will uplift the spirits of Chiefs faithful, and the team and fans will anxiously await to see what form he returns to the lineup with.
Defensively, the K.C. secondary features one of the game's premiere corners in Brandon Flowers, as well as the return of safety Eric Berry. The sky is the limit for a crew that gave Big Ben and the Steelers fits in 2011's 13-9 Pittsburgh win at Arrowhead.
One of the big questions surrounding the Chiefs is the defensive front. Dontari Poe, a favorite nose tackle prospect for fans of many teams, was selected by Kansas City to a mixed crowd reaction. Will he reach that coveted upside, or are skeptics rightful in their critical assessments of his college play?
Likewise, to each side of Poe are questionable talents who must play their best football if the Chiefs are to contend beyond December.
Let me ask this gently: Have you seen the Steelers' home record on Monday Night Football in the last two decades?
SCORE: STEELERS 22, CHIEFS 11
(There has to be an odd score sometime, right?) Envision this: The Steelers struggle in the red zone but are able to move the football, leading 19-3. The Chiefs finally break through for a late touchdown, going for two points to pull within one score. Trailing 19-11, K.C. looks on as the Steelers put the game away with their finest drive of the night, winning by the listed score!
Week 11: vs. Baltimore Ravens
They're the modern day "Purple People Eaters," though in marquee games against the Steelers they had become the "Purple People Eaten."
Until last year.
It's hard to figure which loss was worse. The opening day shellacking or the last minute letdown at Heinz Field. The latter was certainly the ultimate deciding factor in the AFC North race.
One good news statistic for the Steelers this season relative to their second-place finish last year is that their schedule equates to Baltimore's, except for swapping out the Jets and Titans and replacing those two squads with the Patriots and Texans. The Ravens face the fourth most difficult schedule as it stands right now in the NFL.
Likewise, they face 11 Pro Bowl quarterbacks barring health and benchings, and Ben Roethlisberger represents part of that group.
On offense, the Ravens loss of Ben Grubbs does leave the offensive line in a mild flux, but the team is confident they have the piece(s) to replace him at guard.
For Joe Flacco and a unit largely returning the same bodies, the season comes down to one more catch, one more play, one less drop (cough...cough—You listening, Lee?).
The Ravens go as Ray Rice goes, and Pittsburgh hopes its pair of fast backs includes a candidate to help frustrate the Ravens defense in the same way the pesky Rice has frustrated their own. The small, squirmy, speedy back has been the bane of the 'Burgh on more than one fourth down.
Last year, Anquan Boldin made big play against the Black and Gold, but it was Torrey Smith who produced the dagger with his last-second deep catch on Sunday Night Football.
In 2012, the teams return to that site for this critical prime time matchup.
Defensively, the loss of Terrell Suggs, a true Steelers killer and a man always in the face of the mobile Big Ben, certainly takes some of the swag away from an elite group.
However, the defense still returns heart and soul, Ray Lewis. Likewise, Haloti Ngata is the anchor at nose tackle, a position on their team the Steelers hope is solidified, but around which some questions do exist. Safety Ed Reed and corner Lardarius Webb, a hard-hitter and great cover man respectively, help keep things in lockdown in the defensive backfield.
The key to beating the Ravens?
Don't make mistakes. Force Joe Flacco into a couple of missteps. And, be physical by taking the game to them and not allowing them to bring it to you!
Ben's mobility, particularly against his division foe, along with his uncanny knack for accuracy on the run has been a true source of frustration for Baltimore, who nearly lost last year's prime time affair when Roethlisberger showcased that skill set late.
However, everyone remembers the Smith catch in the final seconds. While William Gay made opportune plays last year, many accurately describe him as a corner in the mold of a "zone guy," fast and athletic, able to adjust to the ball but hugely reliant on safety support and not very adept in man coverage.
His potential replacements, a race Keenan Lewis is favored to win, are heralded as more physical corners, better equipped for man coverage, less prone to giving up yardage allowances over the shoulder and ready to start due to offseason training and last year's experiences.
As such, let's call this game a slightly more defensive repeat of last season minus the late catch that broke the heart of Steeler Nation.
SCORE: STEELERS 17, RAVENS 13
Week 12: @ Cleveland Browns
This is "Trap Game 101."
Playing Baltimore twice in three weeks, players and fans are not naive. Everyone realizes the season's gambling money mostly rests in late November and early December.
Sandwiched in between two high-stakes games against Baltimore is a road contest against the Browns, a "Dawg Pound" which will be charged and ready whether it remains a playoff hopeful or not.
Last season, the Steelers were the superior team on paper in all phases; yet, they narrowly escaped the Browns twice, 14-3 and 13-9.
Much of the blame for the underachievement against Cleveland was the health of Ben Roethlisberger, who suffered a grave ankle injury along the sideline against the Browns late last season.
Cleveland's defense is underrated, largely due to playing on a losing team with a paltry offense. They're not great, but not awful. They're truly a pH of 7 on the acid/base scale translated to good and bad.
They surrendered over 140 yards rushing per game last season, but they were 10th in total yards allowed, bending but not breaking and playing well in the secondary.
In all, 10 of their 16 games last year saw the defense surrender 20 or fewer points, which is a respectable number, particularly considering the offense's complete inability to maintain time of possession.
The Browns didn't make a huge free-agency splash, but they're hopeful that the draft acquisition of Trent Richardson gives them the boost at running back they wanted to continue getting from the newest man on the Madden cover curse gallery, Peyton Hillis.
Likewise, they snagged quarterback Brandon Weeden, a selection with a lot to prove; but, hell—can he really be any worse than the gauntlet of QB calamities that have scorched Browns fans' hopes for the past decade plus?
If Weeden starts for the Browns, he'll be their fifth opening day starter in five years.
So, the Steelers are likely to see either Colt McCoy, to whom the Steelers (and James Harrison) have delivered night tremors.
Or, they get a fresh signal-caller, something the Steelers defense has licked its chops over.
Long-term, the two draft selections could be the answer for a team that averaged just over 13 points per game last season, ranking among the worst offenses ever.
However, more than just those two pieces, astonishingly, are needed to get Cleveland from afterthought to legit contender.
The streak speaks for itself, and the Steelers will hopefully be healthy enough to truly deliver against the Browns.
SCORE: STEELERS 27, BROWNS 6
Week 13: @ Baltimore Ravens
While the Steelers have had a wonderful habit of winning the division title in the land of crab cakes, this seems a bit early in the season for the AFC North race to end.
Up until last season, Pittsburgh played games in Baltimore like maestros, doing exactly what needed to be done to win.
They rose above physical assaults (i.e., Ben's broken nose), answered Baltimore's physicality, stayed patient and understood the length of 60 minutes and made the key play at the end of the game.
In 2001, Bobby Shaw's 90-yard touchdown reception from Kordell Stewart won the AFC Central.
In 2008, Santonio Holmes's controversial touchdown grab at the conclusion of a gutsy 92-yard drive won the division-decider for the 'Burgh, 13-9.
Lastly, in 2010, the AFC North was effectively decided with only a couple of weeks left to play when Troy Polamalu forced a Joe Flacco midfield fumble, which the defense returned to set up 1st-and-goal. Isaac Redman rumbled to the end zone for the winning points, 13-10.
Last season, the Steelers opened the campaign and appeared completely out of sorts. Unlike their Baltimore finales of the past, their premiere showing was an embarrassment, helping the Ravens to purge some home game demons from the series out of their collective psyches.
However, Baltimore didn't get its chance for a home playoff game against the Steelers, leaving the Black and Gold with those undefeated bragging rights.
In a game that is known for being a bloodbath, can the Steelers get the win and take a huge edge in the battle for division supremacy?
Certainly, the Steelers have the mettle to win in Baltimore, as showcased in the past.
However, projecting two wins over the Ravens is simply irresponsible. A logical assessment for anyone analyzing the upcoming season series leaves only one credible conclusion.
SCORE: STEELERS 14, RAVENS 19
Week 14: vs. San Diego Chargers
For years, self-proclaimed experts like myself have selected the Chargers as the projected winners of the AFC West.
They've been correct on occasions, but more often than not, Norv Turner and the Bolts remind us of what it's like to get struck down by lightning.
Thankfully, the Steelers have returned the favor, striking down the Chargers and Philip Rivers at Heinz field in all three meetings at the venue.
In fact, "San Dog" has been beaten like a pooch in Pittsburgh since Heinz Field opened, going 0-4 against the Steelers away from home since 2002.
Norv Turner and the Chargers will likely still be in playoff contention (*rolling my eyes*) at the start of December, meaning that the team had better be fired up with enthusiasm at the end of the season...
...or Turner himself will be fired with enthusiasm, following two straight .500 playoff-less campaigns.
For the Chargers to have success, Rivers will need to cut down on mistakes; he committed 25 turnovers last year.
Rivers will still have his primary target in tight end Antonio Gates, a nice luxury in a league where defenses are still trying to catch up to the hyper-dominant role of tight ends in the vertical passing game.
However, the loss of Vincent Jackson creates a big production deficit. Malcom Floyd returns, but will Robert Meachem or Eddie Royal be able to fill the statistical void felt by Jackson's loss? Not likely, at least not entirely.
Ryan Mathews should have another fine season, particularly given that he will now run behind the blocking of Le'Ron McClain.
The Chargers return a questionable defense. Though they added Baltimore linebacker Jarret Johnson (gasp!) and safety Atari Bigby, the San Diego defense that returns will need to improve on an individual level across the board for the team to make any serious run at the division, let alone the AFC.
San Diego needs to hope that their attention to the defense in the draft a) pays early dividends and b) showcases their ability to choose the best players. Otherwise, it could be another long 8-8 season in SoCal.
The Chargers offense will see its share of points, but it's also susceptible to its share of turnovers.
Containing Rivers, Mathews, Gates and crew by controlling the line of scrimmage, stopping the run and getting hands on a ball or two is all that can be expected. While San Diego will find the end zone more than once, it can't be allowed to dictate play to a defense that prides itself on pressure (or, at least, should).
The real challenge for San Diego is stopping a Steelers offense that has manhandled their defense. The Chargers have made few significant defensive upgrades, though their top trio of draft picks may be ready to contribute with some consistency as the season wears along.
In their last two meetings, Ben has outplayed Rivers and company thoroughly, particularly doing so in the Steel City; and the Pittsburgh offense has controlled the tempo in all phases (running, passing and gadgetry).
I expect the Chargers' streak of results at Heinz Field to continue in a fireworks display.
SCORE: STEELERS 34, CHARGERS 22
Week 15: @ Dallas Cowboys
For the second time in two weeks, the Steelers will take on a superbly talented team that has underachieved.
One week earlier, the Chargers came to Pittsburgh, whereas the Black and Gold will travel to "Jerry's Palace," Dallas Cowboys Stadium, to take on the team of the same name.
Something about that annoying star on the side of the helmet really riles Steelers Country up for these games. In a rare interconference rivalry, Pittsburgh and Dallas have a serious high stakes history, making for a great backdrop to any of their rare meetings.
Much of the Cowboys' malaise centers around giveaways, effectively snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, which just happens to be the same style in which they've lost to Pittsburgh in the last two meetings.
In 2004, Dallas led 20-10, before Pittsburgh rallied in the fourth quarter thanks to a Vinny Testaverde fumble.
In 2008, "Big D" led in "Big P" by 10 points again in the final frame, only to see overconfidence and a Tony Romo interception get in the way of victory.
Will this outing see Tony Romo, Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and rising star DeMarco Murray showcase their highest potential?
Or, will the mistakes and untimely letdowns against key opponents cost them a win at home?
The Super Bowl highlight film of Dallas's Super Bowl win in '77-78 against the Broncos is dubbed "Doomsday in the Dome." Based on their recent winter performances, some in Texas may want to call post-Thanksgiving's Cowboys as "Doomsday in December."
The Cowboys have had trouble sealing the deal late in the season, going 1-4 last season and losing to seemingly outmatched competition.
They can look like gangbusters one contest and complete "ball busters" the next. "Football busters" is naturally what I meant when I said....err, I digress!
On defense, the Cowboys also sport a slew of talent, including DeMarcus Ware, who recent ranked in the top 10 of NFL Network's players countdown of the Top 100 athletes in the game today.
The rest of the defense is stout upfront against the run, but they are not great pass-rushers like Ware, who had 13 more sacks than the entire front four combined.
Along with Ware at linebacker, Keith Brooking and Bradie James will not return. However, the team has high hopes for budding All-Star Sean Lee (last year's leading tackler).
Dallas's secondary struggled last season. They addressed the need emphatically, signing Brandon Carr right out of the free-agency gates, and they also drafted Morris Claiborne in the first round of the NFL draft. Those moves, coupled with physical safety Brodney Pool, should escalate Dallas from subpar to all-star in the defensive backfield.
The NFC East is anybody's division (well, maybe not the Redskins') in 2012. Who wants to step up and take it?
Like Pittsburgh, Dallas invested in guards to improve the offensive line. This may be the biggest x-factor in a close game at the end of the season. Will Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings beef up the interior of the O-line?
Or, will Pittsburgh's (hopefully healthy) group of linebackers force Romo into the erratic decisions that have cost their team football games?
With an improved line hopefully gelling, the Steelers will be far better equipped to produce against a talented defense in December than in September.
Another key matchup will be an improved Dallas secondary against the rockets and retrievers that the Steelers have at receiver.
Call me a biased sentimentalist, but the Black and Gold would be charged up for their game against "America's Team," a vibe that still doesn't sit well in blue collar country.
However, it seems a bit slanted to have the Steelers finishing 4-0 against the NFC East. My gut feeling tells me to expect a bitter ending and a bit of Romo redemption. At least this time, Tony won't be huddling up next to the space heaters on the sidelines during every timeout, his snow leopard arms turning beat red from the arctic blast he chose to so bravely stand up to.
Their last meeting took place in a freezer called Heinz Field, and Romo's attempt at machismo, opting out of long sleeves, proved pathetic.
SCORE: STEELERS 21, COWBOYS 24
Weeks 16 & 17: vs. Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns
The Steelers will return home with the AFC North race still entirely on the line.
The theme will be "home for Ohio," a scheduling quirk that I find ideal for a team that will be seeking momentum heading toward the NFL playoffs.
Having already played the Bengals on the road, the Steelers will be seeking redemption for a tough loss to their division rival.
And, well, the Cleveland Browns have played the Steelers in the season finale a few other times, and the outcomes have been particularly grim for the frowny Brownies:
January 6, 2002 (Heinz Field): 28-7 Steelers win in a game rescheduled due to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
December 24, 2005 (Cleveland Browns Stadium): This is cheating as the game was played during the next to last NFL week. But, I would be remiss not to mention this 41-0 beatdown over the Browns, a game that featured James Harrison pummeling a drunkard and Browns fan who decided to play a dangerous form of freeze tag on the field (see video).
December 28, 2008 (Heinz Field): Steelers win 31-0.
And, lastly, the 2011 season ended with a 13-9 Pittsburgh win along the shore of Lake Erie, where the results of Steelers-Browns games are always "eerily" familiar, just as they are at the confluence of the three rivers.
With two key home wins to wrap up 2012, the Steelers will finish as the AFC North champions. Will it be enough to earn a coveted bye week?
Well, everybody will just have to wait for my 2012-13 NFL predictions to find out. Stay tuned!
STEELERS 24, BENGALS 15
STEELERS 28, BROWNS 3
FINAL RECORD: 12-4
2012 AFC NORTH DIVISION CHAMPIONS