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The Steelers begin their 2021 journey with a difficult test against the defending AFC East Champion Bills on Sunday at Highmark Stadium. It will be one of many challenges for the Steelers this year, as their schedule is loaded with top-tier opponents.
The Steelers have the toughest schedule in the league in 2021 based on their opponents' combined record of 155-115-2 (.574) in 2020. It includes 10 games against 2020 playoff teams, counting the Browns and Ravens twice. And they'll for sure be tested in December and January.
The forbidding stretch of games begins on Dec 5. against the Ravens, and after that, there's a meeting with the Vikings in Minnesota on a short week on Thursday Night Football. Then the final four games of the season are against teams who all made the playoffs in 2020 -- Titans, at Chiefs, Browns on Monday Night Football, and at Baltimore to finish the regular season against the Ravens.
In addition, the Steelers are on the road in five of their last eight games. The Steelers lost five of their last six games last year, including the embarrassing wild-card playoff game loss to the Browns at Heinz Field. In 2019, the Steelers lost their last three games and missed the playoffs at 8-8. And then, in 2018, the Steelers lost four of their last six games and missed the playoffs at 9-6-1. So, they have a history of collapsing down the stretch recently.
That's my biggest concern in 2021. How will the Steelers finish the season with five of their last eight games on the road and playing four playoff teams from last year to finish off the season? And how will the 39-year-old Ben Roethlisberger perform down the stretch?
Roethlisberger admitted during OTAs that he felt "worn down" at the end of last season. However, he said that his arm feels better this year with it being his second year of recovery from his major elbow surgery in September of 2019. So, we'll have to wait and see how the future Hall of Famer looks this winter.
Will Roethlisberger even end up playing all 17 games this year, though? Behind the new-look offensive line that only returns one starter from last year and features two rookies, I'm pretty concerned, to be honest. I mean, fourth-round pick Dan Moore Jr. will be protecting Roethlisberger's blind side on Sunday in Buffalo. Moore looked impressive in training camp and the preseason, but man, that's a daunting task. I'm also not too sure about Kendrick Green as the starting center, especially when it comes to pass blocking. And Chuks Okorafor didn't look all that promising in the preseason after a disappointing 2020 season.
Defensively, I think they'll be OK. They'll continue to get pressure on the quarterback and produce sacks. I don't know if they'll be as good of a defense as in 2019, however, when they almost carried the Steelers to the postseason. There's also some concerns at the slot cornerback position when they go to their sub-packages. The losses of Mike Hilton and Steven Nelson this offseason could be bigger than expected. I think they'll be fine in replacing Bud Dupree's production with Alex Highsmith and Melvin Ingram.
So in conclusion, with the major question marks on the offensive line and the unsettling schedule, I have the Steelers finishing the season 8-9 and missing the playoffs. It would be the Steelers' first losing season since 2003 and the first during Mike Tomlin's tenure as head coach. I hope I'm wrong, but I'm just really wary about this offensive line. They're the key to everything on offense. Can they create holes for rookie running back Najee Harris and keep Roethlisberger upright? I have my doubts.