As excited as we all are about the return of football, the painful reality is we're still more than a month away from the start of the season. That gives us plenty of time to look at some of our 2008 opponents, month by month. The forthcoming 'previews' are not overly statistical based. Rather, they are largely my preliminary interpretations of the predominant story lines that might surround each contest. Let's start with the month of Setember, when the weather typically breaks, the pace around the office picks back up, and most importantly, when football commences in earnest at the collegiate and professional level.
Week 1, September 7th, vs. Houston Texans
The Steelers' 2008 schedule kicks off with a home tilt against a Texans team that everybody thinks is ready to break through this year. Is it just me, or have we been hearing this same prognosis for Houston for several years now? I might actually be more inclined to buy the hype this year if the AFC South wasn't such a gauntelet. But it is, with literally zero gimme divisional games, even at home. So, while I don't think the playoffs are in the cards this year, they should be a consistently tough foe. Read: I don't see many, if any, embarassing performances from Houston like we saw in the David Carr years. Whether or not they win the close games all NFL teams encounter each year, will determine their fate as either a 6 or 7 win team, or a playoff contender with 9 or 10 Ws.
For all the ridicule that is directed to the Texans organization, the front office has actually done a really nice job in recent years. We all know about Mario Williams, and how the decision to draft him at #1 is looking more and more like a sound idea. But, GM Rick Smith has pulled off some other noteworthy moves and personnel decisions as well. The acquisition of veteran WR Andre Davis has been huge, and he's drafted well in recent years as well. I question their selection of Duane Brown, OT from Virginia Tech in the first round this past April, but I like the later round selections, particularly Frank Okam, DT Texas, in the 5th Round.
To the game. If the Steelers secondary comes to play, and if we can get some pressure on QB Matt Schaub with the fresh legs of our young LBs, then I really like our chances to win this one big. If Schaub has time to pass though, they could make enough big plays to keep this one close into the fourth quarter.
What I'm really curious about though, is seeing how our offensive line looks. I've read one 'expert' predict that Williams will have 20 sacks this year. While that might not be likely, he'll be fresh and eager to get off to a fast start against our offensive line. It should be a nice measuring stick for how our line might look against some young, dynamic pass-rushers for the remainder of the year. I'm also curious to see how Willie Parker has recovered from the broken leg that ended his season in Week 15 last year. His health will go a long way towards determining how many carries Rashard Mendenhall gets early in the season. And finally, I'm excited to see Big Ben take to the field again in the wake of his incredible 2007 campaign, not to mention his contract extension.
I think all of us will feel like young children on Christmas Eve the night before the Steelers return to action again on Sunday September 7th.
Week 2, September 14th, @ Cleveland Browns
Use the search function here on BehindtheSteelCurtain and type in Browns, and you'll see just how much time we've spent covering our one-time perennial adversaries from Lake Erie. Now, don't get me wrong. The Browns are still are rivals in the strictest of definitions, but said rivalry has been so one-sided for the past decade or so. I personally feel that all the extra attention the Browns have garnered from Steelers fans is a product of the excitement and anxious anticipation we feel that they appear to be set to challenge the Steelers' hegemony over the AFC North for the forseeable future.
When you consider the fact that Cleveland is facing a tough Dallas team in Week 1, they likely will be facing Pittsburgh in Week 2 desperately trying to avoid an 0-2 start. If that does in fact happen, the questions and innuendos will begin to fly about what's going wrong with the team that all the national pundits had predicted to win the AFC North and contend for a Super Bowl appearance in the rugged AFC. None of this might not matter, but for a coach that has yet to make the playoffs, and with a back-up QB making millions on the bench awaiting his chance, there's just plenty of juicy sub-plots that could materialize early on in Cleveland's schedule.
That said, the Browns should be dangerous, particularly on offense. The offensive line is better than it has been since the 1980s. The special teams are a threat to strike, thanks to Joshua Cribbs and his electric skills as a return-man. And Derek Anderson has ample weapons at his disposal.
If the Derek Anderson-Brady Quinn story does not take center stage, the attention will then shift to the Browns defense. Defensive tackles Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams were brought in to tighten up a run defense that ranked 27th in the league, at 129.5 yards per game.
Get a load of this though. The Browns defense gave up only 8 rushing TDs last year, the 6th best mark in the NFL, despite giving up 37 total TDs. The pass defense yielded 29 TDs in 2007. Only Cincinnati, New Orleans and Detroit gave up as many, or more, TDs through the air than Cleveland. For all the commendable things Phil Savage has done with this Browns roster in recent years, he hasn't been able to truly address one of the team's most glaring needs: pass defense.
Man, I hope Big Ben goes off in this game.
Week 3, September 21st, @ Philadelphia
Ah yes, our first reminder of why many consider the Steelers' 2008 schedule one of the tougher ones in recent history, if not ever. Is Philadelphia an unbeatable, awe-inspiring opponent? Not really. But this one's at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, where the Eagles have been tough this decade. Granted, they did post a sub-par 3-5 home record last year, and they were 3-5 as well in 2005, so they're not untouchable at home. But if this one were at Heinz, I'd most certainly feel different about our chances, mainly because I think the offensive line might encounter it's first major hiccup in this game.
The Eagles, if nothing else, will truly test our offensive line. Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson is famous for his blitzing style, and if there was anybody I'd want coordinating our defense other than Dick LeBeau, Johnson would be on the short list. His teams play hard for him, hit ferociously, and get after the quarterback. Last year, the Eagles recorded 37 sacks, tied for 9th most in the league. The year before, they were 9th as well, with 40 sacks.
Finally, we should get a good idea just how far along guys like LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons are when we watch them try to chase down the ever-elusive Bryant Westbrook. That guy can play, and you can count on him making life difficult for our linebackers.
I think this game will give us a good idea of how tough we are physically and mentally. It should be a dog fight, and it's doubtful that the Eagles aren't going to be fired up and coming out swinging when we head east across the state in the third week of September.
Week 4, September 29th, vs. Baltimore Ravens
Pittsburgh's first appearance on Monday Night Football comes in Week 4, against the most hated of foes, the Baltimore Ravens. Earlier this offseason, I made a list of my favorite sports memories. Included on the list was last year's waxing of Baltimore, also on Monday Night Football. There will be no 75th Anniversary Celebration this year, but the team will don the same throwback unis that we wore last year in the rain when Big Ben pitched a perfect game, and the defense annihilated the impotent Ravens' offense for most all of the contest.
Conventional wisdom suggests that Baltimore should have a down year. RB Willis McGahee is dealing with knee issues, there are injury concerns at both tackle positions, and of couse, the team will be breaking in a new head coach. That's all before mentioning the QB problems they have. Joe Flacco likely won't be asked to take the field in September, so Kyle Boller or Troy Smith will likely be at the controls. That should make the Steelers defenders salivate in anticipatory delight.
All that said, the Ravens have had the Steelers number in recent years, aside from that one game last year. In the season finale, the Ravens thumped the Steelers, albeit a Steelers team that was resting many of their key players, including Ben Roethlisberger for the entire contest. Still, Ray Lewis & Co. find a way to usually get up for us, and I wouldn't be surprised if we had some issues running the football. Perhaps Mendenahll will provide us with a different type of runner to attack their defense, beacuse God knows that we haven't had much success behind FWP in year's past.
We'll see, but so long as we don't turn the ball over more than once or twice, and convert some necessary third downs near the middle of the field and in Ravens' territory, we should be able to put up the 17-24 points necessary to hold off Baltimore.
This is going to be a tough first month of football. Houston and Baltimore should both be Ws, due to talent disparities and home-field advantage. But neither team is a cupcake, particularly Houston. As for our road games? They're challenging, and in the case of the Cleveland game, potentially very critical. If Cleveland plays up to expctations this year, this division race could come down to the wire. Head-to-head match-ups could determine who's moving on, and who's done for the year come January.
The good news is that we are capable of starting 4-0, and certainly capable of winning three of four. If we were to win the Cleveland game, a 2-2 record would not be the end of the world by any means.
The bad news is that things get a lot tougher in October and November. After the MNF contest against Baltimore, we have a short week to prepare for and travel to Jacksonville. Ugh.
If noting else, September should be an entertaining month of football for us fans. There's the rivalry games against Cleveland and Baltimore, against two very different opponents. And there's our first foray into the choppy waters of the NFC East when we travel to Philly.
We're getting close, friends. Get pumped. And if you're still looking for Steelers tickets, click through and find a pair to a game that suits your fancy and travel needs. Year two of the Tomlin era should be an exciting one. I can't wait.