The Pittsburgh Steelers, looking to rebound from a disappointing 8-8 season and a tumultuous offseason, have a daunting path to travel in 2013. The schedule, just released by the league, includes four prime-time games and two long road trips.
Here’s a look at how the games rank from easiest to most difficult.
The New York Jets are a team in turmoil. They currently have not settled on a starting quarterback, they need to break in a new running back after the departure of Shonn Greene and they have many issues with their receivers and defense.
Pittsburgh should be able to defeat New York regardless of what happens in the NFL draft next week. The Steelers already have enough weapons for this game.
If the Jets trade Darrelle Revis, they will be without much secondary protection against Ben Roethlisberger’s air attack. Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown should be able to break through and catch a lot of passes.
The Jets project to be weaker up front as well, which makes the Pittsburgh rushing attack more likely to find success.
Defensively, the Steelers should have no problem shutting down Mark Sanchez (or whoever is starting at quarterback) and the Jets offense. The Jets simply don’t look like a team with any weapons.
Pittsburgh will be coming off its bye as well, which should also help.
Oakland Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie and coach Dennis Allen are working hard to undo more than a decade of poor choices and neglect that have turned a proud franchise into a punchline. The latest step was excising Carson Palmer from the roster.
Matt Flynn is a talented quarterback, but right now the Raiders don’t look like a team with any weapons for him beyond running back Darren McFadden. The rushing attack is the only thing to be concerned about at this point.
Pittsburgh’s offense should be able to move the ball as well. Oakland’s defense has been leaky in recent seasons and now will be without Michael Huff, who left for the Baltimore Ravens.
The Pittsburgh ground game should be able to get on track against this defense, and Ben Roethlisberger will once again find open passing lanes. The chief difficulty of this game is that it is a road game, where Pittsburgh sometimes has been prone to struggle.
Either way, this should be a victory for the Steelers, as long as they don’t make the mistake of taking a lesser opponent lightly.
The Buffalo Bills are once again in transition. Ryan Fitzpatrick is out, and Kevin Kolb (at least for now) is in as the starting quarterback. Doug Marrone is the new head coach. The roster will have a ton of fresh faces once the draft and offseason program are complete.
The sad truth, at least for this season, is that the Bills will still not be very good.
This will be a home game for Pittsburgh, and the Steelers should have no problem capitalizing on a weak Buffalo offense. The Bills defense could be much better than last season as Mario Williams should now be firmly entrenched in the system, but that will not be enough to overcome Pittsburgh’s ability to get the ball into the hands of their speedy receiving duo.
The rushing attack may not be as successful against this front, but the passing game has been able to carry the day before, as long as quarterback remains healthy.
Buffalo's only chance at victory lies in exploiting the weakness in the Pittsburgh secondary, as the Steelers will break in Cortez Allen as the new cornerback opposite Ike Taylor. Beyond that, the Bills don’t have much of a chance to win.
The success or failure of the Tennessee Titans will rest not on the ability of running backs Chris Johnson and Shonn Greene but on the right arm of quarterback Jake Locker. Allowing Matt Hasselbeck to leave shows that the Titans are committed to Locker, who hasn’t exactly inspired confidence so far.
This will be among the most favorable matchups for the Pittsburgh defense. Despite the age of players, the Steelers have remained successful against the run and should do so again in 2013. The Titans will try to establish their run early. Failing that, they’ll have to rely on Locker.
Locker is still prone to mistakes and struggles to read defenses. He could have a lot of difficulty if Pittsburgh can get pressure on him.
Offensively, Ben Roethlisberger will be the star against a weak Tennessee secondary. The running game should contribute, but the Titans are better up front than they are in the defensive backfield.
Anyone writing off the Cleveland Browns should think twice. The arrival of more competent ownership in Jimmy Haslam and coaching in Rob Chudzinski and offensive coordinator Norv Turner signals a change in Cleveland football.
The Browns have a talented quarterback right now in Brandon Weeden, who should thrive in Turner’s offensive system. He’ll need weapons, but Cleveland has plenty of ammunition in the draft to add some. Running back Trent Richardson is already in place.
Ray Horton will bring toughness and aggressiveness to the defense as well. These won’t be the Browns of the early 2000s or even of 2012. This is a new team and a threatening one—believe it or not.
Pittsburgh will have to be diligent in this game and not commit turnovers. The Steelers’ eight-turnover game last season in Week 12 was an aberration, but the lessons learned were not. The Browns have talent. Once they put it together, the AFC North will be a four-horse race.
It’s always more difficult to play on the road than at home. The Cleveland Browns aren’t going to make coming to their place any easier. Pittsburgh lost in Cleveland last season in an eight-turnover disaster. While that is unlikely to happen again, it does illustrate that road games are never easy.
Cleveland can't be taken lightly anymore. The division is going to be the most even talent-wise that it has ever been with Pittsburgh and Baltimore taking steps backward, Cincinnati standing pat and Cleveland finally taking steps in the right direction.
This game could be tricky. Pittsburgh notoriously struggles against the Browns even in wins.
The best advice for the Steelers in this game is to consider the Browns every bit as threatening as the Ravens or Bengals. That should set the proper tone.
His rushing performance masked the fact that the Vikings have a tenuous quarterback situation and receivers who aren’t household names. The arrival of Greg Jennings from Green Bay should help, but this season will be all about Christian Ponder finally stepping up or falling apart.
Minnesota’s defense will be different too as the Vikings try to get younger on that side of the ball. The draft will have a lot to say, but right now the secondary looks beatable against a team with a speedy receiver like Antonio Brown and a tall guy in Plaxico Burress.
Playing in London will be a wild-card factor for both teams, but Pittsburgh is dominant enough against the run to force Ponder to beat them. That’s going to be difficult for a guy who hasn’t had much big-game success.
The big story in this game is going to be the return of wide receiver Mike Wallace to Pittsburgh. Wallace, who was a disappointing and somewhat lazy player in 2012, now has the big contract he coveted.
The problem is he went to a team that hasn’t been very competitive for the last decade or so.
Ryan Tannehill was productive as a rookie in 2012, but he needs to take another step forward now that he has receiving targets of note. The running game will likely get a draft-day boost, but right now it seems rather weak.
Pittsburgh’s offense should be successful against a Miami defense that doesn’t inspire much fear from the secondary. The pass rush will be interesting to watch, however. If Pittsburgh can keep its quarterback upright, it will prevail.
The Detroit Lions are one of the big question marks of the 2013 NFL season. They will enter the season with their first true running back in many years (Reggie Bush) to compliment a dangerous passing attack with quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson.
The defense, however, is still messy.
This game has the potential to be a high-scoring affair given the prowess of Detroit offense and the weakness of its defense, but Pittsburgh can prevail by making key stops on defense and pressuring Stafford.
If the Steelers can take away Johnson with good coverage, they can force Bush to be the key factor. The Steelers are too good against the run to let Bush beat them.
The key here will be defense. If Pittsburgh’s defense shows up, the Steelers will win.
Of the four teams in the AFC North, Cincinnati is the most confusing. The Bengals have been relatively quiet in the offseason and have stayed internal for the most part. The players they’ve made a run at (James Harrison for one) are mostly veterans who are winding down their careers.
Even with the free-agency defections in Baltimore and Pittsburgh, the Bengals might be the team that takes the largest step backward in 2013. Quarterback Andy Dalton had a rough second season, and there are questions about whether he can make the big throws needed to win big games.
Defensively, the Bengals have a lot of talent, but the results are mixed. Pittsburgh could exploit the weakness at outside linebacker and get its rushing attack going. The front seven just isn’t strong right now.
Pittsburgh will have to get the ground game going against Cincinnati to have a good chance of winning, but the Bengals offense may hold them back more than anything against Pittsburgh’s secondary. If the Steelers take away A.J. Green, the Bengals are in trouble.
The Cincinnati Bengals will have trouble running the ball in 2013 unless they can find a way to get more out of their ground game than in 2012. Andre Smith’s return is a key issue here and in the pass-blocking schemes.
A major key to victory against Cincinnati will be pressure. Pittsburgh often struggled with pressure in 2012, but a rebound campaign from LaMarr Woodley and a coming-of-age performance by Jason Worilds could make a huge difference.
Pittsburgh figures to be much younger and more athletic up front in 2013. That doesn’t bode well for a team like Cincinnati, which doesn’t have a ton of ability to beat a team beyond getting the ball to A.J. Green.
While the Chicago Bears will be breaking in a new coach (Marc Trestman) in 2013, they aren’t typical of most teams in that situation. They are a talented team that could definitely contend for a title in 2013.
Pittsburgh will have its hands full with the Bears, but the key to victory is simple: Stopping Marshall will stop the Bears. The running game is mediocre at best and cannot defeat a team by itself.
Forcing mistakes will be a big part of this game. When Cutler makes a few mistakes, he unravels. Whether Trestman can fix that or not is uncertain. He was brought in specifically to get the most out of this offense.
The Baltimore Ravens just won the Super Bowl, but the team that suits up in 2013 will be very different. Joe Flacco will no longer be playing for a contract. The defense (and the whole team) will be without its leader, Ray Lewis. Free-agent departures have gutted the defense and hurt the offense.
But doubting Ozzie Smith is just as intelligent as doubting Kevin Colbert. Smith knows how to handle these rough patches. There is every reason to believe that Baltimore will continue to be a dangerous team in 2013 and beyond.
Flacco is still there and still has Torrey Smith to throw the ball to deep. Ray Rice is still one of the premier running backs in the NFL. The defense still has Terrell Suggs, who should be healthy in 2013, and young talent in the secondary.
For Pittsburgh, this rivalry will continue to be a slugfest. The two teams continue to be evenly matched roster-wise. The key to victory will be to keep Rice out of the equation and exploit the new holes in the pass rush.
Going to Green Bay is never an easy proposition for any team. For Pittsburgh, it will be one of its most difficult challenges of 2013.
The Packers don’t lose at home any more frequently than the Steelers. They have one of the most prolific passing offenses in the league. That won’t change in 2013. The loss of Greg Jennings will sting but won’t impact the offense too much.
The rushing attack has improved enough that it is able to complement Aaron Rodgers’ passing game.
For Pittsburgh, the key to victory lies in keeping Rodgers and his offense off the field. That means Todd Haley and Ben Roethlisberger must come up with ways to create extended drives that end with touchdowns. This was a problem in 2013. If it can be corrected, Pittsburgh will be fine.
Baltimore is always ready to face Pittsburgh in its own stadium. More than coming to Pittsburgh, the Ravens enjoy working over the Steelers in front of their home fans.
The Steelers traditionally perform better at home against the Ravens than they do on the road. This year, with the teams evenly matched once again, expect more of the same.
Neither team needs much motivation to be ready and excited for this matchup, but the placement in the schedule adds that to some degree. This is a marquee matchup for the NFL.
For Pittsburgh, stopping Ray Rice and the offense is key. Another way to do that is to use the defensive weakness (if it shakes out that way) against Baltimore by grinding out drives and forcing the Ravens to stop a balanced attack.
Nobody wants to play the New England Patriots in Gillette Stadium. Teams seldom win there. When the Patriots lose a home game, it makes news because it is such a rarity.
Pittsburgh has had particular trouble with that stadium. The Steelers have won only once in New England (2008). The Patriots are tough on them overall but particularly unbeatable when they’re at home.
But New England isn’t the juggernaut it was three or four years back. The Pats are now mortal thanks to age and some deficiencies in talent.
For the Patriots, victory starts with getting the ball deep. Danny Amendola replaces Wes Welker, but it is unclear how much deep speed he will give New England. The Patriots may be best served by adding a fast receiver in the draft.
If Pittsburgh can shut down Tom Brady and the passing game, it can stay with New England. As with other top teams, the best route to victory is winning the battle for time of possession and the battle for field position.
This will, without a doubt, be the toughest game for Pittsburgh in 2013, especially since the Steelers will be returning from the other side of the country after playing the Raiders the week before.