Steelers 2011 Breakdown -- Part III

The schedule begins to ease for the Steelers as they barrel through a third quarter that includes a pair of games against the Cincinnati Bengals.

At the halfway point of the 2011 NFL season, the oddities and intricacies of the Pittsburgh Steelers' schedule become readily apparent. Heading into week 9, Pittsburgh has a legitimate chance of leading the AFC North despite playing just one of its six division games on the year, a meeting against Baltimore way back in week 1.

Pittsburgh will play the remaining five division games in an eight-game second half that features just two games against teams with a winning record last season. Despite the fact that the more interesting section of the Steelers' schedule will have already been played, the franchise will play four of their five total primetime games after the halfway mark.

While the Steelers' overall schedule in 2011 does seem bizarre, its design could be a boon for the team. If they can push through their first eight games with a solid record (this series has them pegged for 6-2 thus far), they'll be able to coast to the finish line against a slew of lesser opponents. If the team struggles early, it will be able to gather itself for a late push thanks to the easier slate.

Despite the overall ease of the second half, the third quarter of the schedule is headlined by what could the team's biggest game of the season, a second matchup against the Baltimore Ravens – this time at Heinz Field.

Last season's second Steelers-Ravens contest didn't occur until week 13 and generated quite a bit of interest, considering the winner would take over the AFC North with the inside track to a division crown and first-round bye for the playoffs.

This season, however, the two teams most likely to battle for the division will be finished with their head-to-head work in week 9.

Regardless, a half-season will have passed between the two meetings meaning the contest could look very different from the one held on opening weekend.

By this time, injuries or ineffectiveness will have forced changes for both sides. For Baltimore, the two rookie Smiths, wide receiver Torrey and cornerback Jimmy, could have learned enough to make larger contributions this time around.

If last season is any indication, Pittsburgh could see its changes in the trenches. At this point in 2010, the defensive line was hit by the injury bug and the offensive line was being shuffled around like a deck of cards. As such, some of the team's younger line talent could be in the picture for the second Ravens game.

With the team coming off a loss to the Patriots, the Steelers should be fired up for a division rival in a Sunday night game. Expect the Ravens to bring just as much heat though as they battle for a shot at the division title. It will be physical; it will be close; and unfortunately, it may just be a loss for Pittsburgh, leaving them to split the series with Baltimore.

The Steelers will need to rebound and prepare themselves for the rest of their meetings against the AFC North. Oddly enough, the schedule is set up so that each separate rivalry is wrapped up before another begins. With Baltimore in the books, Pittsburgh will prepare for the Cincinnati series, beginning with a week-10 road trip to Paul Brown Stadium.

Cincinnati, once an up-and-comer built around franchise stars Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco, is in the midst of a major overhaul that will feature a new offensive core. Palmer is threatening retirement if he's not traded by the start of the season. Ochocinco has engaged in a very public feud with coach Marvin Lewis and both sides will likely separate rather than finish the receiver's final contract year.

To replace the two, the Bengals drafted 6'4" Georgia wideout A.J. Green with the fourth-overall selection and TCU quarterback Andy Dalton with the third pick of the second round. Green possesses elite ball skills and size and could become the centerpiece of the team's offense. Dalton was in charge of one of college football's best teams last season and could turn out to be better than the handful of quarterbacks selected ahead of him.

While the lockout could delay the development of what the Bengals hope is their new franchise passing duo, both men could be forced into starting roles by the time the team meets the Steelers. Green may get by with his elite athleticism as a rookie. Dalton, as a quarterback, won't have the same luxury and will probably struggle in his inaugural year, especially against a defense as complex as Dick LeBeau's.

Defensively, the Bengals biggest question mark is cornerback Johnathan Joseph, who has been one of the league's better cover men over the last few seasons. Signing Joseph, who is currently a free agent, will be a priority for the team. If he walks, Cincinnati will be left with the solid Leon Hall and the gamble that is Adam "Pacman" Jones.

Regardless, the battle will come down to Dalton (or the equally unproven Jordan Palmer) and his ability to dissect Pittsburgh's pressure defense. It's a unit that has dominated many more-experienced quarterbacks, so the odds will be stacked against the young rookie. Expect a turnover-loaded performance by the Pittsburgh defense, leading the Steelers to a relatively easy win.

After the Cincinnati game, Pittsburgh will enjoy a rare treat: a late-season bye week. The week 11 bye will be the latest such break for the Steelers since the bye week's implementation in the 1990 NFL season. In fact, Pittsburgh has had just two instances prior to this season where its bye week occurred after the season's midpoint – once in 1990 and a second time in 1993 when the league adopted two bye weeks (a plan that was scratched at the end of the season).

After the rest, the Steelers will head back into prime-time to take on the Chiefs in Kansas City. The two teams haven't met since a 2009 contest when Kansas City handed Pittsburgh its second loss of a five-game losing streak.

The Steelers could get a good look at a local talent in the contest, as Pitt wide receiver Jon Baldwin was selected by the Chiefs near the end of the first round. With little competition on the roster, Baldwin could be starting across from Dwayne Bowe when Pittsburgh comes to town.

Kansas City has its core talent locked up beyond this season with the exception of cornerback Brandon Carr. The team will likely extend the 24-year-old and keep the young duo of Carr and Brandon Flowers intact for the future.

The Chiefs have improved drastically from the 2009 season, but they should struggle against a Steelers team that won't surrender a touchdown on the opening kickoff this time around. Look for the Steelers to pick up their second-straight win.

Pittsburgh draws Cincinnati again for its final contest of the season's third quarter. Not much will have changed from the three-week-old battle, other than the venue – Pittsburgh will host the game this time.

The Steelers should finish the sweep of the Bengals en route to another 3-1 quarter and a 9-3 record overall. With four games to play, Pittsburgh could be neck-and-neck in the AFC North with its rivals in Baltimore and will prepare for a gift-wrapped home stretch featuring four teams with losing records last season.

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