Steelers 2011 Breakdown -- Part II

The Steelers will complete a run of AFC South teams before facing the Arizona Cardinals and the New England Patriots in the second quarter of the 2011 season.

The Steelers will head into the second quarter of the 2011 NFL season having already played through what might be their most difficult stretch of games. In weeks 4-8, Pittsburgh will complete its trip through the AFC South before engaging in a pair of late-afternoon battles between some familiar faces in Arizona and a fierce non-division rival in New England.

Interestingly, the NFL's schedule-maker placed all four of the Steelers' games against the AFC South in consecutive games. Pittsburgh squared off against Indianapolis and Houston to close out the first quarter of its schedule, leaving Tennessee and Jacksonville as the opening opponents for a somewhat-challenging second quarter.

For the fourth consecutive year, Pittsburgh and Tennessee will square off in a matchup that tends to be physical, low-scoring, and relatively nasty. The Steelers posted one of their best defensive performances of the decade against the Titans last season, forcing seven turnovers in a 19-11 win in the midst of Ben Roethlisberger's suspension.

This meeting could be a different affair, as both offensive units will boast different looks at the quarterback position. The Steelers, of course, expect to enjoy the services of Big Ben this time around. The Titans will be without the quarterback who started last season's game, as one-time No. 3 overall pick Vince Young has been released by the team this offseason.

To address that particular need, Tennessee drafted Washington's Jake Locker with the eighth-overall pick. Locker isn't likely to be ready so early in the season, leaving Kerry Collins and the unproven Rusty Smith as possible starters in week 5. While Collins would be the best choice for the team, given Smith's struggles last season, there is a chance that the veteran could retire instead of holding down the position until Locker is ready.

The Titans are also in the midst of another major change. For the first time in sixteen seasons, Jeff Fisher will not be on the sidelines. Mike Munchak, a former Penn State product who has been with the Oilers and Titans as a player and coach since entering the league in 1982, will take over as head coach, which could mean a somewhat smooth transition from old to new for Tennessee.

Regardless, that's a decent amount of offseason change for a team with a young core of talent. The Steelers might not need a defensive masterpiece this time around with Roethlisberger leading the offense, and the team should send the Titans back to Nashville after a solid win at Heinz Field.

One week later, the Steelers will wrap up their foray into the AFC South by hosting the Jacksonville Jaguars. Like the Titans, the Jaguars selected their quarterback of the future, Missouri's Blaine Gabbert, with a high pick in the first round. Unlike their rivals in the South division, Jacksonville still has its quarterback of the present in place in David Garrard.

By franchising tight end Marcedes Lewis, the Jaguars ensured that one of their key playmakers would remain in town for at least one more season. However, No. 1 wideout Mike Sims-Walker is also a free agent and should be a priority once the lockout ends.

On the defensive side of the ball, Jacksonville will boast a number of fresh faces in the secondary, having major needs for both depth and starters at corner and safety. As a whole, the defense is young, unproven, and low on talent thanks to poor drafting in recent years.

With its defense packing little punch and an offense still based around Maurice Jones-Drew's talents on the ground – something that plays into Pittsburgh's defensive hand – Jacksonville should be an easy target for a veteran team with enough weapons to exploit what should be a shaky secondary. Expect the Steelers to pick up their second win of the quarter and send the Jaguars packing.

The team will take its first of two lengthy road trips in week 7, squaring off against the Arizona Cardinals for the first time since the two met in the Super Bowl following the 2008 season. Arizona, which is often nicknamed "Pittsburgh-West" for its propensity of bringing in former Steelers, is very different from the NFC Championship squad of three years ago.

The once-potent passing attack of Kurt Warner's heyday is a shadow of its former self and lives on only in the hands of star wideout Larry Fitzgerald. Warner's retirement and the subsequent release of Matt Leinart, who never panned out as the team's franchise quarterback, left a gaping hole at the position.

The team has options under center, but none of the four players to play last season proved they are capable starting quarterbacks. Derek Anderson is nothing more than a backup at this stage of his career, and the trio of John Skelton, Max Hall, and Richard Bartel showed the world why they weren't selected in the early rounds of last year's draft (or, for Hall and Bartel, selected at all).

As far as rookies are concerned, Arizona picked a pair that could help fairly quickly, one on each side of the ball. LSU's Patrick Peterson, who arrived with the fifth overall pick, possesses skills that truly could have made him the first choice. Peterson could team up with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to give Arizona a top-tier tandem at cornerback.

On the offensive side of the ball, Virginia Tech's Ryan Williams could be the answer to Arizona's lackluster running game. Beanie Wells, the team's first-rounder in 2009, never showed enough physicality to pair with the speed-based game brought by Tim Hightower. Williams could be the bull that coach Ken Whisenhunt is looking for.

In both cases, the length of the lockout will determine how soon each player can make contributions, but both have enough talent to start for a team that's in the midst of a rebuilding phrase.

Unless this team undergoes radical changes at key positions – Arizona is the favorite to land Philadelphia's Kevin Kolb – it should be an easy win for the original blueprint back in Pittsburgh.

By the calculations laid out there, the Steelers would be riding a four-game winning streak into a home game against the Patriots in week eight. New England truly is Pittsburgh's kryptonite. The Steelers are just 1-4 against the Patriots and 0-4 against Tom Brady since a mid-season win back in Roethlisberger's rookie season.

Last season's 39-26 loss was particularly crushing as New England shredded Pittsburgh's defense in a game that wasn't as close as the score indicated. New England's multi-faceted spread offense proved too much for Pittsburgh's secondary to counter.

With few reinforcements arriving to aid Pittsburgh this time around – outside of the possibility of a healthy Troy Polamalu – and nearly all of New England's offense returning this fall, the team could be looking at another high-scoring shootout, something the Black and Gold simply aren't built for.

The Patriots should put a halt on the Steelers' winning streak to end the second quarter of the schedule. However, with a 6-2 record at the halfway mark, Pittsburgh will still be one of the AFC's best as it heads into a divisional rematch to open the season's second half.


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