With four division games already in the books, Pittsburgh has only Cleveland to worry about in the AFC North. The Browns bookend the final quarter of the Steelers' regular season schedule.
The first meeting between the Steelers and Browns takes place on a Thursday night in early December, so the Steelers must prepare on a short week for the first time in 2011.
Cleveland finished with a 5-11 record last season, the same record as in 2009, but the Browns may have found the quarterback to lead them into the future. Colt McCoy's stats last season don't scream franchise quarterback, but he was an improvement over Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace in his rookie season. McCoy's heady play meshed with the discovery of running back Peyton Hillis and allowed the Browns to compete in nearly every contest.
Defensively, rookies Joe Haden and T.J. Ward were the first two steps of solidifying the Browns' secondary. However, the team still has major needs in the front seven and a pass rush that amassed just 29 sacks last season, seventh-worst in the league.
To address the issue, Cleveland traded its way down April's draft before selecting Baylor nose tackle Phil Taylor in the first round and Pitt defensive end Jabaal Sheard in the second. While Taylor has the size to eat up blockers at the next level, both players figure to be more project-type players than immediate fixes -- not good news for a team that doesn't have an outside linebacker signed beyond this season.
Complicating matters, the Browns will be under a new head coach in 2011. Eric Mangini has been replaced by Pat Shurmur, who'll install a new offensive system and switch to a 4-3 defense.
Cleveland's young core will be hard-pressed to adjust to Shurmur's plans with a shortened offseason. While the Browns will likely have made progress by December, it might not be enough to overtake a Steelers team that has had their number. Expect Pittsburgh to pick up another division victory to kick off the quarter.
The Steelers will receive a 10-day break before traveling to San Francisco for a Monday night game against the 49ers.
Like Cleveland, San Francisco is a hard-luck team in the midst of a coaching change. Jim Harbaugh, brother of Baltimore coach John Harbaugh, takes over for the departed Mike Singletary. Harbaugh brings a West Coast look to the offense, but will need to institute it on a shortened offseason with no clear quarterback.
Former first-overall pick Alex Smith in unsigned, but has been organizing team workouts and plans to return to the team. He's likely to be the team's starting quarterback on opening weekend, although second-round rookie Colin Kaepernick may be the team's future.
Even if the 49ers become the surprise team that pundits annually project them to be, they have a habit of coming up short, especially when the spotlight is burning bright. Harbaugh could change that culture, but it's just as likely that the team struggles to live up against the AFC Champions on Monday Night Football. Pittsburgh should leave the Bay Area with another victory.
There'll be little time to rest for the Steelers. They'll hop on a cross-country flight after Monday's game and jump right into preparation for a Saturday matchup at home against the St. Louis Rams.
The Rams will be led by offensive rookie of the year Sam Bradford, who performed well at the quarterback position despite throwing to an injury-ravaged receiving corps. Rookie wideouts Austin Pettis of Boise State and Greg Salas of Hawaii join Donnie Avery, who missed all of 2010 with an injury, to bolster what could be a promising group of pass-catchers. Rookie tight end Lance Kendricks out of Wisconsin will also be in the mix for targets. Add that with power back Steven Jackson and the Rams' offense could be potent.
First-round pick Robert Quinn, a defensive end out of North Carolina, joins a front-seven that already has two studs in linemate Chris Long and middle linebacker James Laurinaitis. St. Louis' pass rush was the hallmark of last year's defense and, barring injury, will remain so this season.
Pittsburgh's offensive line could struggle with the tandem if Quinn excels in his rookie season, while Bradford's offense under new coordinator Josh McDaniels should put up points. The Steelers could fall victim to the short week after a long trip back from San Francisco and lose a close one at home.
The consolation prize for Pittsburgh is a short trip to Cleveland to end the season. The Steelers might be in the same situation as last season, needing a win to wrap up the division and a first-round bye in the playoffs. Expect them to get the job done in Cleveland and finish with their second straight 12-4 record.