As running back Le’Veon Bell awaits decision on his appeal regarding the three-game suspension, the NFL schedule was released Tuesday and it certainly didn’t do the Pittsburgh Steelers any favors. Now we all know team’s records last year don’t mean much, as every year there’s a few teams who seem to rise from the abyss to contend for division titles, but the opponents on Pittsburgh’s 2015 slate own a .579 win percentage based on the 2014 season.
Bell has nobody to blame but himself for his troubles, as the old saying goes “if you hang out with dogs, you’re gonna get fleas” applies here in regards to his relationship with LeGarrette Blount. The fact remains, owning the league’s most difficult schedule was nothing short of a twist of the knife that was already firmly in the team’s back in the form of Bell’s punishment.
For the appetizer, Pittsburgh gets to travel to Foxborough on September 10 for the NFL opener against the defending champion New England Patriots.
“To be featured in some of those kickoff-the-season-type games, I’m not going to complain about that,” Rooney said to Labriola.
Even though the Patriots are currently 6-point favorites, and the Steelers will be without their stud runner, the team should have more than enough offensive firepower to crash New England’s Super Bowl ring festivities.
Backup running back DeAngelo Williams, who will turn 32 in a few days, is a solid option to relieve Bell, and despite his age, he was in a timeshare during his career in Carolina so he still has fairly moderate mileage on him. Couple this with the fact that Ben Roethlisberger has arguably the best receiving unit he’s ever had to throw to, and the losses of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in the Pats’ secondary, and it’s clear he could be the focal point of a potential Steelers’ win. This game has shootout written all over it.
The next two games, at home versus San Francisco and at St. Louis, should be winnable, but the key words in that sentence are “should be”, simply because there were plenty of those types in the 2014 season, that if won, could’ve possibly landed the team the #1 or 2 seed and a first-round playoff bye. The team will need to contain elusive quarterback Colin Kaepernick and not allow him to go wild, ala Terrelle Pryor on his 93-yard touchdown romp in the 2013 season. With a questionable throwing mechanics to utilize newly-signed deep threat, Torrey Smith, and minus running back Frank Gore, this is a very winnable game.
In St. Louis, that offense shouldn’t scare anybody but the offensive line for Pittsburgh had better be ready for hell on wheels, with the Rams’ front four featuring five first-rounders, including recent free-agent signee Nick Fairley at defensive tackle. This is arguably the best defensive line in football, outside of maybe Buffalo, so Big Ben had better get rid of the ball mighty quickly. Still, a very winnable game.
The team is treated to four straight home games in November, followed by a timely bye week before making the venture to Seattle. Down the stretch is a murderers’ row lineup though, with five consecutive games versus 2014 playoff teams, with road games to aforementioned Seattle, Cincinnati and Baltimore, while hosting the new-look Colts’ offense, followed by Peyton Manning and the high-powered Broncos’ offense right before Christmas.
“We have a tough stretch there at the end,” Rooney told Labriola. “It’s going to be necessary for us to be playing our best, and hopefully that will be something where we’re in a stretch-run drive as we were last season that will prepare us well going into the playoffs.”
In order to survive the tough sledding their December schedule has in-store, the team will need to finish strong, something it’s done well in 2013 and 2014, finishing 4-2 and 5-1, respectively. Bell will need to hope, for his sake, that his off-field doings won’t be the reason the team potentially will look back on his suspension and wonder “what if?” if they’re on the outside looking in come playoffs.
“For the most part, I think it’s a good schedule, a lot of interesting matchups,” Rooney told Labriola. “The networks understand that when we’re on prime-time television we get good ratings, and that’s because our fans around the country and around the world like to tune in and see us play. Like Coach Mike Tomlin says, we wouldn’t want to have it any other way.”