Steelers 2011 NFL Schedule Analysis

In case you missed the news, the NFL released the 2011 schedule earlier on Tuesday evening. John Stephen, the trusty helping hand that he is, provided some of his initial commentary about the Pittsburgh Steelers regular season schedule. As did many of you in the comment section. I'd like to share my initial reactions to the 16-game (hopefully) gauntlet that the six-time Super Bowl champs will negotiate next fall and winter, including my response to some of you all's thoughts. First though, here's the schedule again to reference easily and for those of you who may be seeing it for the first time.

Pittsburgh Steelers 2011 NFL Schedule

Week 1
Sunday, Sept.11th @ Baltimore Ravens
1 pm
Week 2 Sunday, Sept.18th Seattle Seahawks
1 pm
Week 3
Sunday, Sept. 25th @ Indianapolis Colts
8:20pm
Week 4
Sunday, Oct.2nd @ Houston Texans 1 pm
Week 5 Sunday Oct.9th Tennessee Titans
1 pm
Week 6
Sunday Oct.16th Jacksonville Jaguars 1 pm
Week 7
Sunday Oct. 23rd @ Arizona Cardinals
4:05pm
Week 8 Sunday, Oct. 30th New England Patriots
4:15 pm
Week 9 Sunday, Nov. 6tth Baltimore Ravens
8:20 pm
Week 10 Sunday Nov. 13th @ Cincinnati Bengals
1 pm
Week  11 ----- Bye Week
-----
Week 12 Sunday, Nov. 27th @ Kansas City Chiefs 8:20 pm
Week 13 Sunday, Dec. 4th Cincinnati Bengals
1 pm
Week 14 Thursday, Dec. 8th Cleveland Browns 8:20 pm
Week 15 Monday, Dec. 19th @ San Francisco 49ers 8:30 pm
Week 16 Saturday, Dec. 24th St. Louis Rams
1 pm
Week 17 Sunday Jan.1st @ Cleveland Browns 1 pm

Now, to some of you all's comments and my reactions to them.

Let's begin with Mr. Stephens' remark from his post:

Starting against the Ravens is probably the dumbest thing the NFL can do, considering how highly rated those games are.

Johnny, I love you my man and BTSC wouldn't be where it is today without you. Also, if the roles were reversed and I had been the one to throw something up quickly, I imagine you could have easily dissected my initial thoughts with your ninja statistical prowess. But I can't say I follow your line of reasoning here. We the fans are currently dealing with this ongoing mess called a lockout, and though enthusiasm doesn't seem to be all that tempered by the ongoing labor impasse, I think it's fair to say that the NFL is making a concerted effort to keep interest and discussion at a high level while the two sides slug it out in court and/or the negotiating table.

I think the decision to pit these great rivals against each other reflects that strategic decision to manufacture hype and interest early on. The assumption has to be that we'll all forgive and forget once the winter months arrive and the lockout is long since been in the rear view mirror.

So to me, the NFL made a brilliant decision to schedule the Steelers and Ravens in Week 1. Even if this lockout drags into August, and fans start to consequently become increasingly restless and disillusioned with the grandeur of the game, all that disgruntled disappointment and animosity goes right out the window when we see the NFL's best modern rivalry renewed to begin the new season.

One more from Stephens before heading to the comments section:

That is a brutal start to the season with 3 games on the road and 3 playoff teams in the first 4 games.

Not sure I'd qualify this as a 'brutal' start. It's a challenging start, but not one I'd categorize as brutal. First of all, just because Seattle made the playoffs doesn't mean they are a playoff caliber team. The Steelers will destroy Seattle in their Week 2 matchup. Period. As for Week 1, well, we play the Ravens twice per year every season, so it doesn't much matter when we play them. And the fact of the matter is we've fared quite well against them since Ben Roethisberger joined the Steelers in 2004. Furthermore, the Steelers are outstanding in their season openers under Mike Tomlin -- 4-0 to be precise. Stephens is correct in mentioning that the Texans and Colts present a formidable test to our secondary. But I'm just not nearly as scared of the Colts as I was even just a few years ago. And the Texans? Well they're the Texans. Won't be easy, but the word 'brutal' never belongs in the same sentence as the Houston Texans.

All that said, Stephens is not crazy to think that a 1-3 start is a possibility. Hell, the Steelers had an 0-5 stretch against the Bengals, Chiefs, Ravens, Raiders and Browns in '09, so anything and everything is possible. I'd say a more realistically conservative estimate would be a 2-2 through the first quarter of the season.

Just to make sure Stephens doesn't think I'm picking on him, let me say I agree with this sentiment:

Moreover, I cannot wait for that Seahawks game.  I have been yearning for another game against them since all that whining from XL.

As was pointed out by you all, we have had a rematch with Seattle since SB XL, but the point still stands -- I too have been eagerly awaiting any and all matchups with the Seachickens. Currently living in Seattle, I can confirm with 100 percent certainty that the ridiculous insecurity is still alive and well here in the Emerald City. Quick story: I was giving a talk to a high school journalism class about interviewing a week or so ago. I had previously mentioned that I just write about the NFL, not the Steelers in particular (which is true in a sense, as I do a fair amount of writing for SB Nation outside of my work here at BTSC). But when the word 'Steelers' came up, this group of 20 high schoolers all booed passionately. It was all in good fun, but let me make it clear that this town ain't rabid for NFL football like Pittsburgh is. High school kids like Kobe Bryant and lame-o MLS soccer, not the NFL. So I got a kick out of them all immediately reacting to any mention of the Steelers. The hatred is that ubiquitous here in Seattle, so color me extremely excited for the 35-3 route that's in store for Week 2.

Moving on to you all's comments...

From Hands of Sweed:

Look at the last 6 games or so. Niiiiiiice.

Truth. @ CIN, BYE, @ KC, CIN, CLE, @ SF, STL, @ CLE

Say it with me -- 7-0 and a full steam of momentum heading into the playoffs. Now, I'm not foolish enough to really think that a 7-0 run to conclude the season is a given. There's a gazillion factors in play long before we even get to that point of the season. And in the NFL, no win is a gimme. But still, you want to be playing your best football of the year heading into the playoffs, and the Steelers schedule certainly seems to lend itself to a positive finish to the year.

 

From shines, a Ravens fan who blessed us with his presence after the release of the schedule:

Does it bother any of you that you get one MNF this season against an overpaid-(probably over hyped) coach who hasn't even held a practice yet?

He's referring to the Steelers' lone MNF game in Week 15 against the San Francisco 49ers. As I mentioned in response, Monday Night Football just isn't quite the same showcase event that it was before the advent of Sunday Night Football on NBC. That's not to say there aren't some great matchups slated for MNF in '11, but it just isn't as prestigious as it once was. Take a look for yourself.

Week 1: Patriots vs. Dolphins, Raiders vs. Broncos

Week 2: Rams vs. Giants

Week 3: Redskins vs. Cowboys

Week 4: Colts vs. Buccaneers

Week 5: Bears vs. Lions

Week 6: Dolphins vs. Jets

Week 7: Ravens vs. Jaguars

Week 8: Chargers vs. Chiefs

Week 9: Bears vs. Eagles

Week 10: Vikings vs. Packers

Week 11: Chiefs vs. Patriots

Week 12: Giants vs. Saints

Week 13: Chargers vs. Jaguars

Week 14: Rams vs. Seahawks

Week 15: Steelers vs. 49ers

Week 16: Falcons vs. Saints

***********

Contrast that now to the slate of Sunday Night Football games and you'll see what I'm getting at:

 

Week 1: Cowboys vs. Jets

Week 2: Eagles vs. Falcons

Week 3: Steelers vs. Colts

Week 4: Jets vs. Ravens

Week 5: Packers vs. Falcons

Week 6: Vikings vs. Bears

Week 7: Colts vs. Saints

Week 8: Cowboys vs. Eagles

Week 9: Ravens vs. Steelers

Week 10: Patriots vs. Jets

Week 11: Eagles vs. Giants

Week 12: Steelers vs. Chiefs

Week 13: Colts vs. Patriots

Week 14: Giants vs. Cowboys

Week 15: Ravens vs. Chargers

Week 16: Bears vs. Packers

***********

I see teams like the Lions, Jaguars, Raiders, Broncos, Redskins, Rams and Seahawks on the MNF schedule. On SNF, I see no mediocre teams really. (Except, of course, for Dallas, but we understand why they get the spotlight early on in the season before being 'flexed' out of primetime later in the year). Anyway, not much more to say on that front. MNF is fun, but it's not reserved for the league's best teams or the week's best matchups anymore. Sorry, just isn't.

Staying on that topic of MNF, nycsteeler had this to say:

What bothers me about the MNF game is that it’s on the west coast and immediately followed by a Saturday home game. Why would a team traveling cross country be given a short week right afterward?

Fair question. But take note of the fact that 28 of the league's 32 teams play on that Saturday, the 24th of December, in Week 16. Why? I'm guessing the league is just trying to ensure that the entire league isn't playing on Christmas Day. Makes plenty of sense really, even though I wouldn't have at all minded watching a full slate of games on Christmas when there's not all that much to do other than sit around the house. Still, no conspiracy theory here. Some team had to play on MNF the week before this unique scheduling quirk. San Francisco, the Steelers opponent on MNF, also will have to prepare for a Week 16 tilt on a abnormally abbreviated week.

Moving on to longtime reader Romain El 82:

My gripe besides being ridiculously tough to start is the serious amount of road night games. Somehow that doesn’t seem right.

Hmm. We play five night games. Three are on the road, two are at Heinz Field. Not sure that qualifies as a 'serious' amount.

From Steeler_

Both Baltimore games before the Bye??? (Not to mention week 10)

Theres a 90% chance that the division will go down to the wire again, but there is no "playoff atmosphere" type game late in the season. Instead we get the Browns twice in the last four weeks?

Really don't know why Steelers fans are complaining about this. Is it a bad thing to not have the season potentially come down to late-season games against the rival Ravens? Not to me, but hey, to each his/her own.

More importantly to me though -- and I don't blame him or other who harbor thoughts similar to Steeler_  -- don't discount Cleveland as dogmeat this year. They were quite close to being a .500 team last year, and there's every reason to think they'll be better in '11. Finally, us younger fans may have lost sight of this very plain and irrefutable truth, but the Steelers-Browns rivalry was once what the Steelers-Ravens rivalry is today. It's one of the very best, if not the best, historic rivalries. So don't sneeze at two meetings in the last month of the season just because the Brownies have crapped the bed seemingly every night since we were born. There's a reason maryrose has written here on more than one occasion that beating the Browns twice is at the very top of his 'wish list' for the team at the outset of every season -- right up there with winning the division, making the playoffs, and hosting a postseason game in the Burgh. This rivalry matters. Period. Even when it's not beaming nearly as bright as it once did.

One more from nycsteeler:

Here’s a strange quirk—both games against Baltimore occur before both games against Cincy which occur before both games against Cleveland. I feel like normally the divisional games are more interspersed.

A strange quirk -- good way to describe it. Not evidence of us being screwed or set up; just odd. I'd be curious to know when the last time this might have occurred. Interesting observation though from nycsteeler.

Back to Stephens, this time in the comments section:

Looking around the league, we got pretty screwed with the scheduling. That first half of the season is just brutal. We get 2 of the 3 AFC division leaders away. . 3 out of 4 games in the start away. A Monday to Saturday week (has that ever happened before?).

Firstly, I'm not sure who the second AFC division leader is. It can't be Baltimore. They finished behind us in the AFC North last year I recall. Indy did with the AFC South. We do play New England, but it's at Heinz, not on the road. Anyway, I don't disagree that Pittsburgh faces a tough test to begin the year, even if I previously mentioned why I don't think it's quite as brutal as it may initially appear on paper.

I do though take issue with some of the other statements.

(1) We start with a really physical game -- So what? These dudes will be fresh as a daisy and yearning to bang heads and bodies after a long ass locked out offseason. What matters is the Steelers don't have a physical game before or after that likely bloodbath in Week 1 against the Ravens. Obviously there's no game prior to Week 1. And look again at who's on deck after Baltimore -- Seattle, Indy, and Houston. Not exactly intimidating from a physicality standpoint. An argument can easily be made that those three teams are in the bottom 25 percent of the league when it comes to physical play.Playing physical teams in this league is only daunting when you have to do it multiple weeks in a row. Squaring off against nasty, physical teams is unavoidable. You just have to hope to not face a string of hard-hitting, tough-minded teams in a row. Not only do we avoid that situation after our first meeting with Baltimore in Week 1, we do again after our second meeting in Week 9 -- a road game against the Bengals follows, and then the coveted Bye Week finally arrives in Week 10. Seems pretty favorable from where I'm sitting.

(2) We start with a really physical game AND we play them twice before the other two teams come up once -- Again, not sure why this is a bad thing or a sign of us getting screwed. It might turn out that way, but logic really says that this is ideal. Here's why: would you rather square off against the Ravens late in the year when there's no time to really recover from significant injuries? Or would you rather play less competition where there's not for real like bounties out on people's heads like there is when the Steelers and Ravens play? No need to answer.

Let's just assume the Steelers suffer some injuries and get off to a 1-3 start. That's not the end of the world. They would still have seven of their final 12 games at Heinz Field where they've been 19-5 since Mike Tomlin took over as head coach.

(3) A Monday to Saturday week (has that ever happened before?) -- actually one doesn't need to look very far for examples of having to deal with shorter weeks. Like, say, the week before when the Steelers have to turn around from playing on a Sunday to prepare for a Thursday night game. That's four days of separation between games, which is unquestionably fewer than the five days between the Steelers' Week 15 and Week 16 games in December of '11. This is nothing new either. Teams every year have to play on a Sunday and then play again on Thursday night. In fact, the Steelers did just that last season. In fact, '11 is more favorable and accommodating than '10 in terms of this set of circumstances. In '11, the Steelers have 11 days between their Week 13 and Week 14 game. So really, having to turn around and play five games later -- at home against the Rams no less -- shouldn't be all that scary for Mike Tomlin and his men.

From PittRiverMan:

The ENTIRE AFC south 4 weeks in a row? Who put this train accident together?

Again, let me reiterate that I don't necessarily think I'm more 'right' in my assumptions than anyone else -- and let's be clear that all of this is pure speculation considering how much can change between now and the fall. But I just don't see how the idiosyncrasy of the '11 schedule screams of an injustice to the Steelers or a bad scenario for the black and gold.

To me, all this says is: 'an aging, unphysical team lacking the perimeter weapons to expose our admittedly unsteady secondary (Colts), followed by two 6-10 teams at Heinz (Tennesse, Houston), concluding with an 8-8 team with a dumpy passing game on the road where just about every game is blacked out due to crappy attendance (Jacksonville).

Not exactly horrifying.

I will admit though that I don't disagree that it's a bit odd to lump all for of those AFC South games together consecutively. But whatever, whether it's entirely random or a calculated decision by the league, it still doesn't make me cringe or raise my hands in disbelief of the daunting unfairness of it all -- not in this instance at least.

And finally, let's turn to one of many comments about the Steelers' matchup with the Patriots. This from showtime:

Pats after their bye week totally blows. Give Brady two weeks to prepare for us?

I don't disagree that it's not fun to think about Brady and Belichik having two weeks to prepare for us. We saw what happened last year under similar circumstances. But hold up a sec -- the circumstances weren't that similar. Last year, the Steelers faced the Pats at Heinz after negotiating a tough three-game stretch on the road -- @ Miami, @ New Orleans, and @ Cincinnati. The Steelers were fortunate to beat Miami thanks to a questionable fourth quarter call; Pittsburgh dealt with an emotionally draining game against the Saints at a raucous Super Dome in New Orleans on Halloween Night; and then they had to stave off a furious comeback attempt by the Bengals the following Monday night -- a Bengals team that was desperately trying to get their season on track with a win against the hated Steelers.

Now that's a tough stretch of games.

And then the Steelers had a short week following MNF against the Bengals to get ready for the Patriots, who as was mentioned by many of you, were coming off their Bye Week.

Contrast that to this year where the Steelers play two of three at home before facing New England -- all against teams with unintimidating signal caller under center that finished with mediocre at best records last season.

In my humble opinion at least, Brady and the Pats smoked the Steelers in '10 not because they were better prepared or the better team, but simply because the Steelers were a bit drained physically, phsycologically and emotionally after three straight tough road tests. No doubt, there will be a new set of trying circumstances for the team to navigate at around that part of the '11 season, but I just feel adamantly that they'll be a lot fresher this year because of who they play prior to New England. And yes, I'm accounting for the fact that last year they had their Bye in Week 5 whereas they'll be playing New England in Week 9 without having had an off week through the first two-plus months of the '11 season.

As for what proceeds that New England game, well that's a different story. The Ravens at home followed by a road game against what I expect will be a competitive Cincinnati team? That's a tough three game stretch in my estimation. If there's any three game stretch of the schedule where I could personally see the Steelers go 0-3 conceivably, it's there; not against the AFC South teams, and not at the start of the season; and I think we're all in agreement that on paper, the home stretch of the season poses no serious threat for catastrophic prolonged losing streaks.

Hey to conclude, please don't consider this post as combative to your reactions. I just thought I'd use some of your thoughts to frame my own reflections on the schedule. I, of course, devoted multiple hours to writing this, whereas you all rightfully just fired off your immediate reactions minutes after the schedule was released. Those extra 100-plus minutes allowed me to check a few historical trends, look at prior year scenarios, etc.

But all that said, just because I spent hours spelling out my speculation, that certainly doesn't mean I'm better at picking lottery numbers than you are. At the end of the day, it's all just speculation. None of us know what's in store for the upcoming 2011 NFL season. That's part of what makes it so much fun to be a fan of the game, even when we're having our patience tested by the stalemate over reaching a new collective bargaining agreement.

That's a long way of saying that don't be offended if I broke down your reaction in a seemingly brash manner.  Like I said, I opted to take this route to (1) keep the conversation lively and (2) to help frame my rambling thoughts in a more compartmentalized fashion.

And even though I might have sounded like I was preaching gospel while deconstructing a certain thought, if you've read my stuff for awhile, you know I ain't a black-and-white kind of guy. Nuance is king in my book. So is randomness and unpredictable variability. Nuance is what makes speculating fun, but the inherent randomness of the NFL makes it impossible to forecast. Those who try to do so with any real authority just come across as fools try to sell snake oil. So don't think I really think my speculation is more valid than yours. And realize I wouldn't spell out these arguments over dinner or beers like I have here. I'd be a lot less brazen, let's just say.

But hey, I don't really need to apologize do I? it's fun as hell for all of us to partake in while we patiently wait for the real deal to unfold.

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