Mentioned just about every year among the preseason favorites for the Super Bowl, the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers found themselves in an unfamiliar place: at home during January and February.
Losing five of their last seven games, the Steelers went from midseason playoff lock to one of the year's biggest busts. Pittsburgh finished the season with the most listless record possible in football (8-8), marking the first time a Mike Tomlin-led Steelers team finished with fewer than nine wins.
As for positive takeaways, there weren't many on either side of the ball.
New offensive coordinator Todd Haley's offense was criticized by many, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who had a nice season but threw for the second-fewest yards per attempt of his career. That trend could continue in 2013, as the Steelers lost their best deep threat, Mike Wallace, to the Miami Dolphins in free agency. Also departed is former first-round pick Rashard Mendenhall, who joined former Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians in Arizona.
Nevertheless, the Steelers' problems could be more disconcerting on the defensive side. Dick LeBeau's vaunted defense struggled to create pressure in 2012, and the team's release of James Harrison won't make things any easier.
Change has never been new for the Steelers. They are one of the most forward-thinking franchises in football, always choosing to cut bait a season too soon rather than too late.
However, the Steelers' offseason may have been more notable for the moves they didn't make than the players who left.
Without much cap room to make notable splashes, Pittsburgh's salary situation forced the team into radio silence this spring. They brought in Bruce Gradkowski to back up Ben Roethlisberger—perhaps to create the longest last-name duo in NFL history—and brought cornerback William Gay back from Arizona.
With the talent cupboard barer than any time in recent memory, the Steelers' return to the playoff picture is up in the air.
That picture became clearer as the NFL released the full schedules for every team on Thursday. Here is a complete breakdown of Pittsburgh's 16-game slate, along with a look at a few of the toughest matchups.
|2013 Pittsburgh Steelers Schedule|
|1||Sept. 8 ||vs. Tennessee Titans||1 p.m.||CBS|
|2||Sept. 16 ||@ Cincinnati Bengals||8:40 p.m.||ESPN|
|3||Sept. 22 ||vs. Chicago Bears||8:30 p.m.||NBC|
|4||Sept. 29||@ Minnesota Vikings||1 p.m.||CBS|
|5||Oct. 6||BYE WEEK||N/A||N/A|
|6||Oct. 13||@ New York Jets||1 p.m.||CBS|
|7||Oct. 20||vs. Baltimore Ravens||4:25 p.m.||CBS|
|8||Oct. 27||@ Oakland Raiders||4:05 p.m.||CBS|
|9||Nov. 3||@ New England Patriots||4:25 p.m.||CBS|
|10||Nov. 10||vs. Buffalo Bills||1 p.m.||CBS|
|11||Nov. 17||vs. Detroit Lions||1 p.m.||FOX|
|12||Nov. 24||@ Cleveland Browns||1 p.m.||CBS|
|13||Nov. 28||@ Baltimore Ravens||8:30 p.m.||NBC|
|14||Dec. 8||vs. Miami Dolphins||1 p.m.||CBS|
|15||Dec. 15||vs. Cincinnati Bengals||8:30 p.m.||NBC|
|16||Dec. 22 ||@ Green Bay Packers||4:25 p.m.||CBS|
|17||Dec. 29 ||vs. Cleveland Browns||1 p.m.||CBS|
The Steelers have long held their ground among the most glorified teams stateside, and now they will finally get their crack at making a lasting impression overseas. Pittsburgh will travel to play the Minnesota Vikings at Wembley Stadium this season.
The black and gold have always been internationally friendly—especially with Dan Rooney having spent time as an ambassador to Ireland—and now the team will look to make its own mark. Adrian Peterson and the Vikings present a threat, though, and could foil those plans with a victory over Pittsburgh.
Minnesota represents one of four matchups that the Steelers (along with the rest of the AFC North) have against their NFC counterparts. Pittsburgh will also travel to Lambeau Field this offseason, giving the team two road tilts against the division's playoff representatives in 2012. The Lions and Bears will travel to Heinz Field to complete the quartet of games.
Over on the interconference side, things don't get much easier for the Steelers. They travel to New England to take on Tom Brady and Co.—meaning more than half of their road games will be against 2012 playoff teams. The other road tilt against the New York Jets is less of a challenge on paper, but these two squads have become familiar foes over the past few years and know each other on a near-divisional level.
With the AFC North looking as reloaded and tough as ever, the Steelers again will have one of the NFL's toughest schedules.
Most Pivotal Matchup
By law, I think all football fans are supposed to fawn over every Steelers vs. Ravens matchup. They are games even the most crotchety old-school fan can get behind.
Every Baltimore vs. Pittsburgh game carries extra importance due to the divisional implications. Only twice in the AFC North's 11-year history have neither the Ravens nor the Steelers taken home the divisional crown, with the Bengals winning in 2005 and 2009.
So in the midst of the hoopla about a knockdown, drag-out slugfest, the Steelers' two clashes with the Ravens matter for one reason: divisional supremacy. The names and faces—most notably Ray Lewis and Ed Reed—have changed quite drastically, but the stakes remain high.
What's more, anytime an AFC playoff hopeful takes on the Patriots, the game takes on an increased significance. New England has been the one bastion of consistent greatness in the AFC over the past decade-plus, and every team can view its matchup against the Patriots as a litmus test for Super Bowl worthiness.
The same could be said for the Steelers' trip to Green Bay, with the Packers looking to atone for their divisional round exit last season.
In short, Pittsburgh's schedule is full of pivotal matchups. There will be nearly no breaks other than a bye, leaving Roethlisberger and Co. to navigate an increasingly difficult field in 2013. Though it's possible for the Steelers to return to the playoffs this upcoming season, their journey will be marked with continuous tests.