Steelers 2011 Breakdown -- Part I

SCI's Ken Torgent breaks down the Steelers' 2011 schedule by quarters. In Part I today, the Steelers contend with the most difficult portion of the season.

At first glance, the Pittsburgh Steelers will be charged with one of the easier schedules in the NFL for the upcoming season. The defending AFC Champions will play just six out of 16 games against playoff teams, and a mere five against teams with winning records. In terms of opposing win-loss record, only three teams – San Francisco, Baltimore, and Arizona – have an easier 16-game run.

Of course, the Steelers were gifted a pair of easy schedules in 2006 and 2009 and came up short in the playoff chase both years, so a great year is never guaranteed no matter how meager the competition is.

All the same, it never hurts to look forward and find out what's in store.

While Pittsburgh's schedule, on paper, should be easy, the team will be tested early. The Steelers drew a front-loaded schedule and will be finished with their share of playoff opponents by Week 12, leaving five very-manageable games at the end of the season should the team find itself behind the eight-ball.

Pittsburgh will need to fire out of the gate, as the first quarter of the season could grade out to be the team's most difficult four-game stretch, with three out of four games against playoff teams and the fourth against a very potent passing attack in Houston.

The Steelers will kick off their 2011 season by slogging out the first leg of one of the NFL's best rivalries, heading to Baltimore on the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

Anytime these two teams meet, it's a bloodbath and both squads tend to come out with collateral damage to their rosters. This year will be a nice test to find out whether playing Baltimore early is a good thing (gets it out of the way) or a major negative (tough-fought game that leaves the team with key and/or lengthy injuries).

Baltimore made a few passing-game additions in the draft, adding a pair of receivers to bolster the team's own offense and a pair of corners to shut down its opponent's attack. Both units figure to endure a fair bit of tweaking once the lockout ends and free agency begins.

The selection of cornerback Jimmy Smith in the first round was necessary, as the Ravens have a number of question marks at the position thanks to injuries and contract situations. The arrival of wide receiver Torrey Smith (no relation) out of the second round could be a shot at the Steelers, who revealed a weakness against a spread attack throughout last season.

No matter what changes are made to either side of the ball on either team, Steelers-Ravens is almost always a low-scoring slugfest. Considering Pittsburgh tends to come out strong to open the season – the team has won their last eight such games – 2011 should kick off with a key division victory for the Black and Gold.

After the game in Baltimore, Pittsburgh will return home to host the Seattle Seahawks, a team that made the playoffs at 7-9 last season thanks to a horrendous division.

The Seahawks spent much of the offseason addressing an under-performing offensive line, bringing in former Oakland head-coach Tom Cable as a line coach and using their first two draft selections on a tackle and guard. Six of the team's ten incumbent linemen are free agents, leaving the Seahawks with much more work to do once the work stoppage ends.

Offensive line isn't the team's only concern, however, as the overall defense has ranged from awful to average in recent years. Add in the fact that Seattle has no clear quarterback and the painted picture becomes that of a team that would be grinding out .500 in its best-case scenario.

Seattle is rather middle of the pack when it comes to team-age, but it's clear that the team's old core is on its way out, with the last primary member being free agent quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. Many of the key players are young and inexperienced and will receive no help from the labor situation as the $9 billion battle gobbles up valuable camp and practice time.

With the Steelers centered by a veteran core of proven Super-Bowl winners, they'll have a major advantage over a younger, inexperienced team jumping three time zones to play in Pittsburgh and should notch their second win in as many games.

In week three, the Steelers draw one of their tougher opponents, taking on Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in their first of five prime-time games in 2011. The Steelers have a spectacular record against Indy in the history of the matchup, picking up eighteen wins and just six losses. However, Pittsburgh is just 2-2 against Manning in the regular season and playoffs.

Like the Steelers, the Colts build well from within and are a veteran-laden team that shouldn't miss a beat no matter how long the lockout endures -- except in one area. The Colts desperately need a starting left tackle as no such player currently exists on the roster. Indianapolis selected two tackles with their first two selections but an extended lockout could stunt their development and put the rookies on a path to start in 2012, not 2011. If the Colts can't plug that hole by September, or end up starting one of the raw rookies, they'll need to commit extra resources to the offense's left side, the same side over which James Harrison hovers.

All the same, Manning changes the complexion of the whole contest. His cerebral approach to avoiding the rush and moving the chains is the reason why he's a four-time MVP and why he's had moderate success against the Steelers.

Pittsburgh could indeed find its way to a few sacks and disrupt Manning's rhythm, but it's just as likely that Peyton keeps the rush at bay long enough to hit his cadre of receivers and exploit Pittsburgh's questionable secondary. As such, the Colts could very well hand the Steelers their first loss of the 2011 season.

The Steelers will wrap up the first quarter of their season with a relative wild-card in Houston. On one hand, the Texans are perennial underachievers – a team that is unable to maintain consistent success on the football field, especially on the defensive side of the ball. The team went hard on defense in the first five rounds of the draft and may need to force some of those bodies into the lineup this season, experience or not, which bodes well for the Steelers.

On the other hand, Houston's offense is a proven commodity and can be potent enough to take advantage of Pittsburgh's iffy secondary. If Ike Taylor departs for greener pastures, that would leave Bryant McFadden or William Gay to cover all 6'5" of All-Pro wideout Andre Johnson – no easy task.

Regardless, Houston has only one winning season in its history because of a propensity to cough away games they should win. With that in mind, expect the Steelers to grab a win and head into the less-trying second quarter of their season with a 3-1 record and at least a share of the division lead.

(Part II early next week.)

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