The Pittsburgh Steelers posted a 10-6 record in 2015 despite playing one of the league's most difficult schedules. Pittsburgh's 2016 schedule appears to be far more forgiving, but there are plenty of individual players who will rightfully keep many of the Steelers' coaches and players awake at night. Let's take a look at the 10 toughest assignments Pittsburgh will face this season (I'll leave you guys to rank them down in the comments):
Cincinnati Bengals WR A.J. Green, Weeks 2 and 15
Green, somehow, is among the most underrated receivers in the NFL, and he was an unstoppable offensive force in three games against the Steelers in 2015, catching 22 passes for 321 yards and three touchdowns. Don't look for things to get any better this season, especially since Green's usage in Cincinnati's offense will only increase now that Marvin Jones and Mohammad Sanu departed in the offseason.
Dallas Cowboys WR Dez Bryant, Week 10
A broken foot cost Bryant almost his entire 2015 season, so the two-time Pro Bowler will be a prime Comeback Player of the Year candidate in 2016. In 2014, Bryant led the league in touchdowns (14) and was a first-team All-Pro selection. Pittsburgh's secondary is comprised almost entirely of sub-6-foot players, so the physically imposing Bryant will certainly be a challenging matchup.
Cincinnati Bengals LB Vontaze Burfict, Week 15
Had Burfict not delivered a concussion-inducing knockout blow to Antonio Brown on the final drive of the Bengals-Steelers contest in the 2015 Wildcard Playoffs, Cincinnati would have claimed it's first playoff win since the drafting of the Magna Carta. Instead, Burfict made that tackle, instantly became the NFL's biggest villain/punchline and helped reinforce the tried and true "same old Bengals" rhetoric. It's easy to forget that Burfict collected a crucial sack and what should have been the game-ending interception in that contest. Love him or hate him (probably the latter), Burfict is without question one of the NFL's most dynamic defensive talents. A three-game suspension will require Burfict to miss the Week 2 matchup, so you can guarantee he has the Week 15 game circled on his calendar.
New York Giants WR Odell Beckham Jr., Week 13
Beckham followed up the second-best rookie receiving season in NFL history with an equally prolific 2015 campaign. Since Beckham missed the first four games of his rookie season, it has taken him fewer than 30 professional games to establish himself as one of the five best receivers in the NFL. He's going to be a problem.
New England Patriots QB Tom Brady, Week 7
Nobody beats the Steelers like Tom Brady does; he does it often (eight wins in 10 tries) and he does it convincingly (four passing touchdowns last season, the infamous 55-31 game, etc.) Pittsburgh actually took care of business the last time the Patriots visited Heinz Field (a 25-17 win in 2011), but even then Brady gave his team a chance to win with two touchdown passes and an uber-efficient 101.7 quarterback rating. He's still scheduled to miss the first four games of the season after being suspended for his "role" in the tired "Deflategate" (it annoys me just to say it) fiasco, so it's probably safe to assume that Tom Terrific will be playing angry all season, just like he did last year.
New England Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski, Week 7
Gronkowski had eight catches, 94 yards and three back-breaking touchdown catches in New England's Week 1 victory over Pittsburgh last season. Rob Gronkowski can do whatever he wants on a football field, and just like raising a child, it will take a village to stop him.
Philadelphia Eagles DL Fletcher Cox, Week 3
Cox has quietly emerged as one of the league's eminent 3-4 defensive ends, and his 9.5 sacks in 2015 ranked in the top 20 in the league. He's one of the league's best run defenders, as well, as evidenced by the 71 tackles he posted last season, and he created a number of turnovers by forcing fumbles and batting down passes. Pittsburgh's offensive line is usually pretty airtight, but as we saw last season, it only takes one hit to a defenseless Ben Roethlisberger to potentially derail the entire season.
Indianapolis Colts QB Andrew Luck, Week 12
Despite Luck's struggles early last season, he is still one of the league's best quarterbacks. He's almost impossible to stop when he's in rhythm, and he has already orchestrated a number of miraculous comebacks thus far in his career.
Kansas City Chiefs S Eric Berry, Week 4
The Chiefs appear to be the lone top-tier secondary that Pittsburgh will face in 2016. The unquestioned leader of the unit is Berry, who beat cancer and returned to All-Pro form last season. Berry is a marvelous run defender, and he has the ability to drop into coverage and put half of the field on lockdown. Brown could very well have a long afternoon if the Chiefs decide to double team him with Berry and talented sophomore Marcus Peters.
The Baltimore Ravens, Week 9 and 16
The Steelers have not beaten the Ravens since 2014. Last year, the Ravens started Matt Schaub at quarterback and beat the Steelers convincingly in a game that meant absolutely nothing to them. Until the Steelers get back on track, you should worry about the Ravens.