That the Steelers nearly made the playoffs last year was a minor miracle considering they lost their first four games, including two at Heinz Field, where they used to never lose. It was the team's worst start since 1968. Pittsburgh looked recharged coming out of a Week 5 bye with wins at the Jets and against Baltimore, but then losses in Oakland, and an embarrassing 55-31 defeat in New England presumably slammed the door on the postseason with the Steelers at 2-6. Those 55 points were the most ever scored against the Steelers.
To its credit, however, Pittsburgh didn't fold. It won five of its next seven games and thanks to some help from other teams still had a chance for playoff football entering Week 17. The Steelers beat Cleveland 20-7 in that game, but had to have San Diego lose to a Kansas City team that had nothing to play for. It almost happened, but Chiefs kicker Ryan Succop missed a game-winning 41-yard kick at the end of regulation and the Chargers won in overtime to clinch the AFC's final wild-card spot. As small consolation, Pittsburgh avoided the franchise's first losing season since 2003.
Ben Roethlisberger had one of his better seasons despite key injuries on the offensive line, playing all 16 games for the first time since 2008 and throwing for 4,261 yards (second-most in team history behind his mark of 4,328 in 2009) and 28 touchdowns. The Steelers also appear to have found their back of the future as Le'Veon Bell rushed for 860 yards in 13 games as a rookie. The defense wasn't up to past standards, ranking 14th in points at 23.1 per game.
Key Offseason Moves
For the second straight year, the Steelers lost one of their best receivers to free agency as Emmanuel Sanders (67 catches, 740 yards, six touchdowns) signed with Denver; Mike Wallace left for Miami the previous year. Also moving on were receiver Jerricho Cotchery (46 catches, 602 yards, team-leading 10 TDs), defensive ends Ziggy Hood (three sacks) and Brett Keisel (four sacks), linebacker LaMarr Woodley (five sacks) and safeties Ryan Clark (104 tackles) and Will Allen.
Pittsburgh did re-sign rising linebacker Jason Worilds, added potential competition/backup for Bell in former Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount, and signed free-agent receivers Darrius Heyward-Bey and Lance Moore as well as safety Mike Mitchell, who had 66 tackles, 3.5 sacks and four interceptions with the Panthers last year. He teams with Troy Polamalu (when healthy) to form a very good safety duo.
2014 Schedule (all
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 7, Cleveland, 1 p.m.
Week 2: Thursday, Sept. 11, at Baltimore, 8:25 p.m.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 21, at Carolina, 8:30 p.m.
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 28, Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 5, at Jacksonville, 1 p.m.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 12, at Cleveland, 1 p.m.
Week 7: Monday, Oct. 20, Houston, 8:30 p.m.
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 26, Indianapolis, 4:25 p.m.
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 2, Baltimore, 8:30 p.m.
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 9, at NY Jets, 1 p.m.
Week 11: Monday, Nov. 17, at Tennessee, 8:30 p.m.
Week 12: BYE
Week 13: Sunday, Nov. 30, New Orleans, 1 p.m.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 7, at Cincinnati, 1 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 14, at Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 21, Kansas City, 1 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 28, Cincinnati, 1 p.m.
Pittsburgh has the eighth easiest schedule this coming season with an opponents' 2013 winning percentage of .469. It has six games against teams that made the playoffs.
The Steelers are 5.5-point favorites on NFL odds for their opener against Cleveland. It's not really accurate to call that a rivalry these days considering Pittsburgh swept the Browns yet again last season -- by a combined score of 47-18 -- and has won 26 of 31 meetings since Cleveland returned to the NFL in 1999. Having a short week right off the bat, and facing the arch-rival Ravens on the road will be a major challenge -- that's the first-ever CBS Thursday night game. Ten of the past 12 Ravens-Steelers games, including five in a row, have been decided by three points or fewer.
Carolina is the only playoff team the Steelers play in their first eight games, so a good start is a possibility if not a necessity. Following that, the Bucs, Jaguars, Browns and Texans were all lousy in 2013. The Colts matchup is the first regular-season meeting between Andrew Luck and Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh won 19-6 at the Jets in Week 6 last year, the fewest points allowed by the Steelers.
The Week 12 bye is the latest of any team except for Carolina (which shares it). Then comes the most challenging part of the schedule. The Saints were an 11-win team in 2013, while the Bengals are the reigning AFC North champions, and likely favorites to repeat. Pittsburgh and Cincinnati split last season, each winning by 10 at home. Overall, Pittsburgh plays just one game out of the Eastern time zone all season (Tennessee), which is a great thing because the Steelers are 2-7 since 2007 when playing outside the Eastern or Central time zones. It's important to look at all the details before making your NFL pick.
NFL Free Picks: 'Under' 8.5 wins. It's unlikely that Big Ben or Polamalu can play all 16 games. Roethlisberger's backup is either Bruce Gradkowski or Landry Jones, and that's not a thrilling prospect. Polamalu remains the heart and soul of the defense but is on the downside of his excellent career at age 33.