PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers' 2021 regular season schedule is here, and it came with some concern.
Not only do the Steelers have the toughest strength of schedule in the NFL, but they face three MVP quarterbacks, a Rookie of the Year quarterback, and some up-and-comers every NFL team should take seriously.
But it's not all negative. The Steelers have a real opportunity to win the AFC North once again and earn their way into the playoffs following a very difficult season.
You know what they say, practice makes perfect. The Steelers have 17 games to prepare for the best competition in the league by playing the best competition in the league, in what might be the most interesting schedule of the year.
Steelers Season Comes Down to Final 6 Games
The Steelers start their season pretty well, but the last month and a half of their schedule can be gut-wrenching if everything goes poorly.
If Pittsburgh can pull off a win in Green Bay or Buffalo, there's an actual chance they start the season 8-2 (betting if they lose to the Browns, it will be in Cleveland). From there, it wouldn't surprise anyone if they finished the year 12-5.
In the final month of the regular season, the Steelers' opponents combine for a 47-17 record in 2020. Some might say the Steelers start slow, and it's better to play better teams late in the season. Others would say Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and Derrick Henry aren't guys you want to meet after they've already got a rhythm going.
"It's a tough closing stretch, no question about it," Steelers President Art Rooney II told the team's website, "so we have to be ready to get on a roll at the end of the season. That's one the challenges you just have to be ready to deal with."
Quarterbacks, Quarterbacks, Quarterbacks
What's worse than opening the season against Josh Allen and Aaron Rodgers, you ask? How about closing it with Patrick Mahomes, Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson.
From start to finish, the Steelers' 2021 regular season is filled with top-tier quarterbacks. Rodgers, Mahomes, Allen, Mayfield, Jackson and Russell Wilson all highlight the list, while Ryan Tannehill, Justin Herbert, Joe Burrow, and possibly Justin Fields all present tough roads ahead for Pittsburgh's defense.
It's certainly not the best year for the Steelers to lose Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton during the offseason. The added weight on Cam Sutton's shoulders now grows larger, and having to face stretches of good quarterbacks will only add to that pressure.
It's harder to say whether Allen, Burrow, Rodgers, Wilson and Mayfield within a seven-game stretch is more or less difficult than Hebert, Burrow, Jackson (twice), Tannehill, Mahomes and Mayfield within an eight-game stretch. Either way, on paper, it doesn't look like a lot of fun for the Steelers.
- Bengals, Raiders, Broncos, Lions, Chargers
The Steelers NEED to win all five of their "automatic" games this season. When you're presented with the toughest strength of schedule and have the factors included in it that we've already gone over, losing to teams like the Lions will kill your season.
Pittsburgh should bank on winning at least half of their difficult matchups, but none of it matters if they lose half of their games against under .500 opponents.
It's not the year for the Steelers to play down to anyone's level. A difficult task in past years, I know, but a rule they must abide by if they're aiming to make this "last ride" a long one.
Primetime Could Be 4 Wins
The Steelers have a real shot at winning all four of their primetime games. They host the Seahawks on Sunday night, the Bears on Monday night, and travel to the Vikings on a Thursday and the Chargers for Sunday Night Football.
Really, the most difficult of those four is Seattle, and at Heinz Field, the advantage has to be in the Steelers' favor.
"Well, certainly if you have to have them, you'd rather have them at home," Rooney said on the Steelers' primetime matchups. "I think one good thing is they're kind of spread out, so that helps. It's kind of a mixed bag ... We'll take as many primetime games as we can get, all things considered."
The Steelers finished 1-3 in primetime slots last season, with their only win coming Week 1 against the New York Giants. If they want to take advantage of a rowdy Heinz Field, and some much-needed wins, they can't finish under .500 at night.
Fans Are Coming Back
Rooney believes the Steelers will have fans back at Heinz Field this season and at full capacity. From someone who watched quiet stadiums from the press box last season, it's not the same - not even close.
"We're still in a situation where we have to be prepared to adjust, and certainly we will be, but where things stand today and the way things are trending we feel good about being about as close to normal by August as possible," Rooney said. "We're looking forward to being pretty close to back to normal by then."
You want to witness a real "Last Ride?" One where Roethlisberger lives and breathes off the energy of the fans? Where guys like JuJu Smith-Schuster and Chase Claypool can celebrate and have Steelers Nation join them? And imagine those in-person T.J. Watt leg kicks.
Having fans is a game-changer. Welcome back to Heinz Field.