Breaking Down the Eight Toughest Games for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2011
In the always highly-contested AFC North, the perennial powerhouse Pittsburgh Steelers will look to repeat as conference champions in 2011 and earn their second Super Bowl under the direction of Head Coach Mike Tomlin. It won't be an easy road. It never is.
The Steelers' 12-4 record in 2010 was an an attribute once again to their superior play on the defensive side of the ball and their ability to navigate the heaviest-hitting division in the NFL (5-1 in 2010) makes for a competitive team year in, year out.
Though the Steelers aren't faced with an absurdly difficult schedule, they will still have to find a way to beat some of the toughest teams and some of the best quarterbacks in the league.
8. Week 15: @ San Francisco 49ers
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If new 49ers Head Coach Jim Harbaugh is anything like his brother John in Baltimore, he will be bring discipline to a team that had none in 2010 and hopefully, help restore the career of quarterback Alex Smith.
After failing to produce a winner in two-plus years on the job, the defensive-minded Mike Singletary was fired by Niners' management.
Harbaugh, whose powerhouse Standford Cardinal was coming off of an Orange Bowl victory, was signed to a five-year, $25 million contract by San Francisco in hopes of bringing some offense leadership to a team that has struggled to put up points the past few seasons.
Running back Frank Gore is coming off of a shortened season due to injury in 2010, so depending on his ability to stay healthy, the Steelers might not even see him come Week 15.
All things being equal, when Gore gets involved in a game, he is very tough runner to bring down. It will be Harbaugh's goal to find a good balance between pounding the rock with Gore, and play-action passes for Alex Smith down the field.
Harbaugh will have a good crop of talent to work with. Receiver Michael Crabtree has the skills to become a great over-the-middle pass-catcher, and Ted Ginn has the speed to stretch defenses vertically. Not to mention tight end Vernon Davis.
As freakish of an athlete as there is in the game today, Davis provides a great boost to an offense, roaming the middle of the ball field up the seams.
Hey, it could be worse. You could have to be Ron Rivera and have to watch and wait while Cam Newton goes through his inevitable growing pains.
At least Harbaugh is coming into a situation, where he has an already respectable defense, led by All-Pro middle linebacker Patrick Willis. I don't care who you line up in front of him or behind him, this guy is going to make a ton of tackles and provide leadership in the huddle.
I look for this to be a slug fest. It's going to take high offensive efficiency and an avoidance of the turnover for the Steelers to go into San Francisco, in December, for a Monday Night showdown with the 49ers, and come out with a victory. This one is going to be slippery, literally.
7. Week 2: Seattle Seahawks
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They don't have a quarterback per se right now, with veteran Matt Hasselbeck reportedly unwilling to return to Seattle, but I think this game is going to be one of the tougher games for the Steelers this year. It will be early in the season when teams are still full of energy and looking to make an early statement to fans.
Second-year head coach Pete Carroll will look to expand upon what he did last year with a rag-tag group who only averaged 19.4 points per game on offense. Hopefully, by adding more pieces to the puzzle in the draft and finding some key role players in the abbreviated offseason, Seattle can compete with the NFC's elite.
Before I get too far ahead of myself though, they'll have to play the Steelers the second week of the season. It will be a good test for both teams, or quite possibly just a tune up for the Steelers' Week 3 affair with the Indianapolis Colts.
One thing I know about Pete Carroll teams is that they will come well prepared to play the Steelers. Then it's just a matter of execution. I expect Seattle to bring their hardhats when they hook up with the Steelers this season. It's gonna be a knockdown battle.
6. Week 16: St. Louis Rams
Steven Jackson(39) & Sam Bradford (8)
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One game away from the NFC playoffs last year, the St. Louis Rams are the third and final team on the list from the less than competitive NFC West.
Lead by 2010 first overall pick Sam Bradford at quarterback, the Rams finished the season 7-9 and were a team I would have liked to see play longer. They're an exciting run-and-gun type offense with Bradford often rolling out of the pocket on a quick out to the sidelines or dropping back for a quick curl.
To take the next step, though, I think they need to develop their running game more so Bradford can use that big arm to go down the field. In 2010, the Rams ranked 30th in the NFL in passing plays over 20 yards. Luckily, they have a tailback who is no stranger to carrying the load for the team and could help open up the passing game.
Perennial Pro-Bowl running back Steven Jackson is coming off of his fifth consecutive 1,000+ yard rushing season and doesn't look to be slowing down anytime soon. My only wish is that the Rams would give Jackson more touches, one way or another, when they're in the red zone.
In 2010, St. Louis scored only 35 percent of the time in the red zone. (I drafted Jackson 9th overall in my draft. This is the bitter side of me talking). Pound the ball with Jackson right up the gut or throw him a swing pass in the flat! He's great at making guys miss and is deceivingly quick for a guy his size.
St. Louis could fare well against the Steelers if they can sustain their offensive drives. If the offense doesn't look to stretch the field, you could see this aging Steelers defense winded in the second half. This game definitely provides a challenge, and could have potential playoff implications for both teams.
5. Week 4: @ Houston Texans
Arian foster celebrates a touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles
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Another team with a sub-.500 record in 2010 (6-10), it seems like the Houston Texans have been knocking at the door of the playoffs forever. They are always a sexy pick to win the AFC South, but have never been able to overcome self-inflicted wounds.
Wide receiver Andre Johnson is by far the most spectacular physical specimen at the position, and running back Arian Foster burst onto the scene last year by leading the NFL with 1,616 rushing yards and averaged 5.6 yards per touch. Not too bad bad of an offensive combo, to say the least.
If Texans' Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Schaub wants to take his team to the next level and prove that he is one of the elite quarterbacks in the game, he's going to have to play better against the division-favorite Indianapolis Colts. In five career games, Schaub is 1-4 against the Colts.
Most importantly, though, Houston must bolster a defense that has time and time again proven to be soft. Linebackers Brian Cushing and DeMeco Ryans are both serious talents, and former first overall pick Mario Williams has been a solid contributor in five seasons with Houston (48 sacks).
With the addition of Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt in the draft and the prospect of adding a defensive back in free agency, the Texans move ever so closer to gaining legitimacy in the AFC South.
A team that can outscore the Steelers no doubt, it will be of the most importance that the Steelers' defense keep the potent Houston offense off the field. Their quick-strike ability is something that will catch the attention of the Steelers' secondary and guarantees to play a large role in the outcome of this game.
4. Week 12: @ Kansas City Chiefs
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The fourth toughest game for the Steelers this year comes in the form of the rejuvenated Kansas City Chiefs organization. Lead by second-year head coach Todd Haley, in 2010, the Chiefs won their first AFC West title in seven years.
After moderate success with former Tom Brady backup, Matt Cassel, Haley will no doubt continue to build his offense around Cassel, running back Jamaal Charles, and wide receiver Dwayne Bowe. Both Charles and Bowe had career-years in 2010.
Charles, a University of Texas product, is a dynamic tailback with electric speed and is a menace in the open field. In 2010, Charles had 1,935 yards from scrimmage and reached the end zone a total of eight times.
With players like this, the more touches they get, and the more they get involved in the game, the better they seem to play. I think Jamaal Charles is a guy who has the potential to win multiple rushing titles.
Dwayne Bowe is finally living up to his first round potential, too. Bowe led all receivers in the NFL in 2010 with 15 touchdowns and averaged 16.1 yards per catch.
A big frame and the ability to create separation from his defender, Bowe will only become a more consistent target for Cassel if 2011 first round selection, Pitt product, receiver James Baldwin learns the offense quickly. (If you remember their AFC playoff matchup against Baltimore last season, you remember Bowe being a ghost. He had zero catches in the lopsided loss.)
After being beaten by Kansas City in overtime in 2009, the Steelers can't afford to take this team for granted. Luckily, the game comes off the bye week for the Steelers, so they will have extra time to prepare for this exotic offense.
3. Week 9: Baltimore Ravens
Ravens' Ed Reed saying "Hello" to the Steelers' Hines Ward.
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There's no love lost here between the Ravens and the Steelers.
Being from Pittsburgh, even I am second-guessing myself as to why I have the Ravens ranked so low. As a fan observing, you know you're going to be getting the most physical game of the week when the Ravens and the Steelers mix it up.
Why I didn't pick the Week 1 matchup against Baltimore should be obvious. It's Week 1! By Week 9 we will have a better idea of what the playoff picture is looking like.
Expecting both of these teams to be in the playoff hunt, I envision nothing but a classic, hard-hitting clash of these two AFC Titans.
Middle linebacker Ray Lewis continues to lead one of the nastiest defenses in the NFL alongside outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, safety Ed Reed, and in my opinion, the best nose tackle in football, Haloti Ngata.
With the addition of talented rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith in the draft, this defense gets a little younger, a little quicker, and a little closer to becoming a more complete unit.
Baltimore's signal-caller Joe Flacco is still considered one of the most talented young quarterbacks in football, but if he doesn't win soon, he won't be so young anymore.
Standing in his way: the Pittsburgh Steelers. If Flacco wants to get over the proverbial hump, he will have to do so by going through the black and gold.
Another tough division road game for the Steelers in the middle of the season. What else do you really expect to win this game besides a healthy dose of defense and a time-expiring, game-winning field goal?
2. Week 3: @ Indianapolis Colts
Manning evading the reach of linebacker James Harrison
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Having to play the Colts and Peyton Manning is never a walk in the park. Playing them on the road is even tougher. This year, however, that notion may come into question as Manning is coming off of his second neck surgery and has already said he will not be ready in time for training camp.
Though it is only a two- to six-week injury, we're only two weeks away from the start of preseason games. With that time frame in mind, it's more likely Peyton makes his debut in the final preseason game or in the season opener.
That being said, who knows what the Steelers are going to get when they travel to Indy? Manning will most likely be healthy, but he could also still be shaking off the early-season cobwebs.
With additions to their offensive line via the draft, protecting Peyton has become more important as his career moves on. Those acquisitions also need to help improve their running game, or should I say lack thereof.
In 2010, the Colts averaged 92.7 rushing yards per game, bad enough for 29th in football. Indy is able to run the ball just enough to give Peyton windows to throw into for his plethora of targets (Wayne, Clark, Garcon, Collie, Tamme).
With the bookends of Pro-Bowl performers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis still intact, Indy's pass rush will continue to force opposing quarterbacks to get rid of the ball quickly, not exactly one of Big Ben's strong suits.
They will have to address their run defense or teams will have a field day running all over them again in 2011 (25th overall run defense in 2010).
Thankfully for the Steelers, this matchup comes early on in the season. It will give Steelers' fans a realistic idea of what the skill level of their new secondary is because they will all have to come play that day.
A tough game, yes, but if the Steelers defense can force the Colts to become one-dimensional, and forgo the run, which they're often successful in doing, it could be open season on Peyton Manning for Steelers' blitzers.
1. Week 8: New England Patriots
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For my money, Tom Brady is the best quarterback in football. It's not the entire reason why I have New England this high, but it's sure as hell plays a big part in it. How could it not?
In 2010, Brady had a 9:1 touchdowns to interception ratio and surpassed a QB Rating of over 100 (111.0) for the second time in his distinguished career. With Brady at the helm, I never doubt New England's ability to move the ball, regardless of who they have at their other skill positions. Brady finds a way.
Their defense has become deeper and younger, too. Veteran nose tackle Vince Wilfork anchors the defense and remains as large of a force in the middle as he's ever been (no pun intended).
Middle linebacker Jerod Mayo is among the new class of play makers on the defensive side of the ball, and cornerback Devin McCourty showed that he's a legitimate cover corner in his rookie season, intercepting seven passes and earning First Team All-Pro honors.
And how do you argue with the greatest mind in football today, Bill Belichick? He seems to always be ahead of the curve when it comes to new offensive formations or fresh defensive schemes.
He's not afraid to try new things (like taping Super Bowl walk-throughs). That aside, New England always provides a good matchup for the Steelers.
Anytime two of the NFL's most elite teams go head-to-head you have to stand up and take notice. For me, this is the most exciting matchup of the year.
It pits two teams who are both able to move the ball efficiently and able to play shutdown defense at times, as well. It's going to be the toughest test, but the sweetest accomplishment if the Steelers can come out of it with a win.