Analyzing the Steelers Schedule: Weeks 1 - 8

We are now into the first full week of 2012 Camp Tomlin, and the biggest news story continues to be the saga of WR Mike Wallace.  While it may take Madame Zora to truly predict where Wallacegate is going to land the Steelers, we as journalists – and fans – need to move forward with the business of preparing for the 2012 season.  The Steelers, for their part, agree – granting WR Antonio Brown a contract extension that keeps him in the Steel City through 2017 and sending a message to Mr. Wallace that he is no longer the focal point of the passing game, a title he held for all of a season and a half.

We begin the “Latrobe Lowdown 2012″ series with an in-depth look at the 2012 Steelers Regular Season schedule, a tilt that includes games against the NFC East, AFC West, and of course the traditional divisional two-ups with the Browns, Bengals, and Ravens.  In addition, the Steelers will match-up with the Tennessee Titans and the New York Jets.  Let’s take a look through the games, week by week, and analyze the schedule for this years Steelers team.

The Steelers will forever be linked to the first game played by QB Peyton Manning in a Broncos jersey. The two teams face off in the opener of Sunday Night Football, September 9th.

Week 1 – September 9, 2012   STEELERS @ Denver Broncos, Sports Authority Field at Mile High     8:20 p.m.

The Steelers are once again featured prominently on opening weekend, this time being used as the guinea pigs for the NFL in the debut of QB Peyton Manning with the Denver Broncos.  The other story line here is the return of this Steelers team to the site of quite possibly their worst postseason defeat in a decade last January.  Then Broncos QB Tim Tebow shredded the Steelers secondary to the tune of 316 yards and 2 touchdowns, including an 80-yard TD pass to WR Demaryius Thomas in overtime that ended the Steelers season.  Tebow is gone, Peyton is in – but the Steelers still have a measure of revenge owed to the Denver faithful.

Stories to watch for:

–  The Peyton Manning factor.  The NFL will be looking to re-establish Manning as one of their poster buys in his new digs, and questions about whether Manning is 100% healthy will continue all the way up to his first snap from center.  For Broncos fans, this game represents the return of the Broncos to a level they have not reached since John Elway was winning Super Bowls, so Mile High will be rocking on what should be a very mild September evening.

–  The Steelers new offense makes its debut.  The Todd Haley outfit will be put to the test against a Denver defense that finished 13th in total yards against in 2011.  This should be a solid barometer for fans to judge the Haley factor, and it will be the first look at RB Issac Redman as the true #1 RB in a more run-oriented offense.

–  Will Mike Wallace be in uniform?  The wide receiver is causing heartburn for fans and coaches alike with his diva act over signing his tender offer.  The 25-year old Wallace wants to be paid like a top three wideout, and the Steelers have made it clear that they will not talk to Wallace unless he signs his one-year tender and gets to Latrobe.  The Steelers look to be moving forward from the former Pro Bowler, signing WR Antonio Brown to a long-term extension.

QB Tim Tebow finds himself in another unique situation in New York, this time as part of a two-headed monster with incumbent QB Mark Sanchez. Both heads will need to be on a swivel in Week 2 when the Jets come into crazed Heinz Field for the Steelers home opener.

Week 2 – September 16, 2012   New York Jets @ STEELERS, Heinz Field    4:25 p.m.

Another controversial franchise finds itself in the sights of the early season Steelers, as Rex Ryan brings his traveling three-ring circus known as the New York Jets to Pittsburgh.  The Jets gave their approval to incumbent QB Mark Sanchez by signing him to a three-year contract extension.  Just a few days later, it was Tim Tebow making his first appearance in the Big Apple after a trade brought him to the Jets.  Now the Jets face an odd situation with two quarterbacks that will be playing in their own packages each game, reminding fans of a 1970’s Division 1-AA college team more than an NFL team.  The Steelers last played the Jets in Heinz Field during the 2010 AFC Championship Game, a contest that the Steelers won 24-19.

Stories to watch for:

–  The Tebow/Sanchez situation will bear watching all season, but in Week 2 it will be the first true test for the 2012 Jets after they face Buffalo to open the season.  The Steelers defense will give the Jets all they can handle, and how Rex Ryan distributes snaps to his two quarterbacks in this game should give the NFL a template to follow all season.  Can the two young signal callers handle the scrutiny that will surely be dished out by the NYC media?  Is Rex Ryan capable of not turning this season into a disaster?

–  RB Shonn Greene becomes the unquestioned starter at RB for New York, after the retirement of LaDainian Tomlinson this offseason.  Can Greene finally become the feature back that he was expected to be after a magical playoff run in 2009?

–  Steelers faithful at Heinz Field will get their first look at the new Offensive Line that should be featuring two rookies.  G David DeCastro and T Mike Adams will be vying for starting jobs in camp, and when the regular season comes along, the Steelers offensive line could look very different than it did in 2011.  Fans have been clamoring for the Steelers to invest draft picks in lineman for years, did the team find the right answers in these two highly-regarded players?

QB Carson Palmer tries to get the Oakland Raiders back on track in 2012. He will face off against an old nemesis in Week 3 when the Steelers invade Oakland for a match-up of long time rivals.

Week 3 – September 23, 2012   STEELERS @ Oakland Raiders,  O.co Coliseum    4:25 p.m.

The Raiders-Steelers rivalry has lost much of its luster over the years, but whenever these two teams converge, the hatred flows.  The Raiders are coming off of a season that looked promising after a 7-4 start, only to slump and finish 8-8.  QB Carson Palmer will be the quarterback from day one this season, and he will look to advance an offense that includes RB Darren McFadden and many new pieces.  The Raiders also brought in controversial Ohio State product QB Terrelle Pryor, which should make for some interesting watching for Raiders fans.  Pryor will be the most popular sports star in Oakland since Jose Canseco if an injury befalls Palmer.  The Steelers look to be the better team on paper, but as we all know, you can throw the paper out the window when the Steelers visit Oakland.

Stories to watch for:

–  Oakland had one of the most overall horrific defenses in football in 2011, and they spent most of their draft trying to plug holes in that unit.  Without a pick in rounds one or two, the Raiders used four of their six picks on defensive players.  Will the influx of rookie defenders help the Oakland defense turn the corner?

–  New Raiders head coach Dennis Allen becomes the next in a long line of Raiders coaches to inherit a bad situation in Oakland.  Although the roster has talent, the team has not won more than eight games in a season since 2002.  In that time span, the Raiders have had six different head coaches (Bill Callahan, Norv Turner, Art Shell, Lane Kiffin, Tom Cable, and Hue Jackson).  Can Dennis Allen buck the trend and become the next great coach in Oakland?  Can he last more than a season, now that long-time owner Al Davis is out of the picture?

–  The last time that the Steelers played in Oakland, QB Ben Roethlisberger had one of the worst games of his career.  On October 29, 2006, the heavily-favored Steelers came into the Black Hole and lost 20-13 to a Raiders team that would finish 2-14 on the season.  Roethlisberger threw four interceptions in the game, and was sacked five times.  Alot has happened since that game, but I’m sure that Big Ben still remembers that game and the effect that loss had on a lost season for the Steelers in 2006.

This is your week to treat your significant other to a special Sunday before things start to get real. Make sure she enjoys this Sunday dinner, and explain that you will see her again sometime in mid-February.

Week 4 – BYE WEEK

The Steelers draw an early bye week this season, which may be a bad thing.  With their entire division schedule yet to be played, the bye week may haunt the team.  The silver lining?  Perhaps the extra week will allow injured RB Rashard Mendenhall to come back earlier than expected.  Regardless, Steelers fans will find themselves treating their wives and girlfriends to a mall trip, dinner, and a movie earlier than normal this season.

 

RB LeSean McCoy makes his first return to the city where he excelled at RB for Pitt in Week 5, when the Philadelphia Eagles take the cross-state flight to visit Pittsburgh.

Week 5 – October 7, 2012    Philadelphia Eagles @ STEELERS,   Heinz Field     1:00 pm

With the 2011 “Dream Team” fiasco behind them, the Philadelphia Eagles look to make amends to their fans for the 8-8 season a year ago.  QB Michael Vick brings his Eagles into Pittsburgh for perhaps the final visit under head coach Andy Reid.  Pro Bowl RB LeSean McCoy makes his first trip back to Pittsburgh since his days at the University of Pittsburgh, and makes his first appearance against the Steelers overall.  The Eagles are a dangerous team, and now that they have been humbled by last seasons failures, 2012 could be the year to watch out for the “Birds”.

Stories to watch for:

–  The Eagles have many Pittsburgh connections, and they make their first trip into Heinz Field since 2004.  On November 7, 2004, the undefeated 7-0 Eagles visited Heinz Field and were vanquished by the Steelers and their rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger.  The Eagles would still go on to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, losing to the New England Patriots in Andy Reid’s only Super Bowl appearance.  The loss to the Steelers ended the Eagles chances at an undefeated regular season.  The Steelers defeated the undefeated Patriots and Eagles in back-to-back weeks that season, the beginning of the legacy of Ben Roethlisberger being born out of those two games.

–  QB Michael Vick is still one of the most hated professional athletes in the world after spending time in prison for animal abuse.  Vick has played at Heinz Field twice in his career, both times as a member of the Atlanta Falcons.  The last time he played in Pittsburgh was on October 22, 2006 – a 41-38 victory for the Falcons over the Steelers.  Vick was also the quarterback for the Falcons when the two teams played to the last tie in Steelers history, 34-34 on November 10, 2002.

–  The Eagles not only have RB LeSean McCoy on their roster, they also have RB Dion Lewis.  Lewis followed McCoy at Pitt and was considered just as good as McCoy, if not better in some aspects.  Both players were very popular in Pittsburgh and performed to the highest level while playing on some solid Pitt teams.  Both will play a regular season game at Heinz Field, where they played their college games, for the first time in Week 5.

–  Vick creates many different looks for defenses, and this will be the first true test for the Steelers younger front seven.  With ILB James Farrior, DE Aaron Smith, and DT Chris Hoke all retired, it will be up to DE Ziggy Hood, DE Cam Heyward, and a group of young back-up linebackers to keep the rangy QB in check.

–  This game is the first 1:00pm home game of the season for the Steelers, who after “flex scheduling” takes it toll on the schedule, could end up with only three 1:00 starts at Heinz Field this season.

The Steelers play their mandatory Thursday Night Football game in Week 6 at Tennessee. The Titans and Steelers have a fun history between them, including several Titans players putting a curse on their franchise by stomping on a Terrible Towel in 2008.

Week 6 – October 11, 2012   STEELERS @ Tennessee Titans, L.P. Field     8:20 pm (Thursday Night Football)

Former AFC Central rivals meet up in the Week 6 match-up with Tennessee.  The Titans are coming off of a 9-7 season in which they missed the playoffs for the third straight season.  The team is in transition, beginning the move from veteran QB Matt Hasselbeck to young QB Jake Locker.  While Hasselbeck will start the season as the starter, Locker is waiting in the wings for his shot at taking the reigns.  RB Chris Johnson, coming off of a disappointing season after a holdout, will look to reinvigorate his career in 2012.  A solid draft class will fill holes in the roster, and second-year head coach Mike Munchak will try to fit these pieces together and compete in a wide-open AFC South.  The Steelers will be coming off of a brutal game just four days earlier against Philadelphia, so injuries could factor into this game against the Titans.

Stories to watch for:

–  Will Jake Locker be the QB of the Titans by Week 6?  He is the future of the Tennessee franchise, and the quicker he takes over, the faster this team moves towards its long term goal.

–  Will the bad blood between these two franchises rear its head in this game?  We are a few years removed from the rivalry that almost resulted in a Pittsburgh-Tennessee AFC Title Game, and the Titans are not the team they were back then, but the long-standing feud between these teams should create a tension-filled, hard-hitting game.

–  Will the short week affect the Steelers and Titans?  Both teams will be coming off tough Sunday games just four days earlier, with the Steelers facing the Eagles and the Titans traveling to Minnesota to play the Vikings.  Could this be the game that Todd Haley officially releases new toy RB Chris Rainey?  The Titans defense has shown vulnerability to screen passes and end-arounds in 2011, and if that pattern continues this season, the Steelers could use their new speedster to confuse the Titans defense.

–  The Steelers secondary will be tested against the Tennessee WR tandem of Kenny Britt and rookie WR Kendell Wright.  Will Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen, and Curtis Brown be ready to handle the big WR core of Tennessee?

WR A.J. Green is the new focal point for a Bengals offense that played the Steelers tough in 2011. In his second year, will Green become the next great Bengals WR?

Week 7 – October 21, 2012  STEELERS @ Cincinnati Bengals    Paul Brown Stadium, 8:20 pm (Sunday Night Football)

The Steelers will play their third prime time game of the season in Week 7 when they visit Paul Brown Stadium to battle AFC North Division rival Cincinnati.  These two teams simply do not like each other, and besides the Steelers-Ravens rivalry, this is the Steelers most hated foe.  The Bengals surprised the world last season by going 9-7 behind rookie QB Andy Dalton and making the AFC Playoffs.  Now the Bengals are thinking it is their time to move into the upper two of the AFC North, taking a spot that usually belongs to the Steelers or the Ravens.

Paul Brown Stadium will be rocking as the Bengals make an unusually early appearance on Sunday Night Football.  The Steelers will be walking into a situation where they will have to be on their toes and avoid mistakes.

Stories to watch for:

–  The QB/WR tandem of Andy Dalton and AJ Green burned the Steelers a few times last season, and they seem to be only getting better in year two.  The Steelers secondary will be a work in progress all season and it would be vintage Marvin Lewis to try and exploit that fact.  The Bengals running game will be different, with the loss of RB Cedric Benson and the addition of RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis.  “The Law Firm” becomes the go-to man for the Bengals in 2012,

–  The Steelers still owned the Bengals in 2011, despite better play from Cincinnati.  In order for the Bengals to make a push in the AFC Central, they will need to win games against the Steelers and Ravens.  This game, at home, in prime time, is the perfect time for the Bengals to show that they are for real in the division.

–  QB Ben Roethlisberger has simply owned the Bengals in his career, with a 12-4 record in the regular season and of course, a playoff victory in 2005.  Ben will look to continue his dominance over the Bengals this season.

Rookie sensation QB Robert Griffin III will make his Pittsburgh debut in Week 8 when he brings the Redskins into Heinz Field.

Week 8 – October 28, 2012  Washington Redskins @ STEELERS    Heinz Field,  1:00 pm

The Redskins enter a new era in 2012, with rookie QB Robert Griffin III behind center.  This will be the first time Steelers fans have a chance to see Griffin III in action, and he will be treated to playing against the top defense in football in one of the toughest venues in football.  The Redskins are relying completely on Griffin to lead a roster that is devoid of major talent on the offensive side of the ball.

Stories to watch for:

– The last time the Redskins visited Heinz Field for a regular season game was November 24, 2004.  The Steelers won that game 16-7.  The Steelers traveled to Washington for a prime time game in November 2008 that was an embarrassment to the Redskins.  Steelers fans bought up over half the tickets for the game and filled huge FedEx Field with black and gold, as back-up QB Byron Leftwich took apart the Redskins to the tune of 23-6.

–  The Redskins once again spent some money in free agency, bringing in WR Pierre Garcon, K Reil Rackers, LB Jonathan Goff, and WR Josh Morgan to attempt to build a team around Griffin.  This strategy has blown up on the Redskins in the past, but with a roster that includes a solid defense and a hot young rookie QB, could Washington be on their way?

– The Steelers and Redskins have only played three head to head games against each other since 2000, all three Steelers victories.

 

That takes care of the first half of the Steelers 2012 schedule, tomorrow we will take a look at Weeks 9-17 and the very heavy division-opponent laden schedule the team will face during the second half of the season.

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