There's no easing into the NFL's toughest schedule. The Steelers, who will face the NFL's toughest competition in 2021 as far as last year's records are concerned, will kick off the inaugural 17-game season with a trip to Buffalo to take on a Bills team that finished one game shy of the Super Bowl in 2020.
This is the seventh season in a row where the Steelers will start on the road. They're 3-2-1 in their last six season openers, with the only two losses coming at the hands of the Patriots. Their last season home opener was in 2014, when Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown keyed a 30-27 win over the Browns.
"It would be nice to open at home once in a while," Steelers president Art Rooney II told Steelers.com's Bob Labriola. "It's not the biggest deal in the world. We open on the road and then we come back with two home games, so it's fine. It's not that big a deal, but I would say we're due for a home opener, that's for sure."
After Buffalo, the Steelers will face four more teams that won their respective division in 2020. They will also face eight teams -- including division foes Baltimore and Cleveland -- that made the playoffs last season. Pittsburgh's opponents' collective .574 winning percentage in 2020 is the highest mark in the NFL, following by Baltimore (.563), Chicago (.550), Green Bay (.542), and Minnesota (.531).
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The Steelers' final six games are especially daunting: home vs. Baltimore, at Minnesota on "Thursday Night Football," home vs. Tennessee, at Kansas City (the day after Christmas), home vs. Cleveland and at Baltimore for the regular-season finale. The Vikings, the only team in that group with a losing record in 2020, boast some of the NFL's best offensive playmakers in Dalvin Cook and receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen.
"It's a challenging schedule. We know that, and you just have to deal with it," Rooney said. "Every year there are teams that wind up being stronger than you expect, and sometimes teams wind up being weaker than you expect, so that's why you can't worry about it too much. You have to play the schedule they give you, you have to take it one week at a time, and every team every week is in a little different situation depending on injuries and their own schedule. There really are too many factors that go into it to worry about it too much."
How are Rooney's players reacting to their schedule? Two veteran members of Rooney's defense -- Joe Haden and Cameron Heyward -- quickly set a tone that the schedule won't be used as an excuse whenever the Steelers are faced with tumultuous moments in 2021.
If u scared say you scared!!! I don’t give a damn who we play!!! Line it up— Joe Haden (@joehaden23) May 13, 2021
Let’s quit whining about a damn schedule and get the hell to work— Cam Heyward (@CamHeyward) May 13, 2021
Mike Tomlin, who is entering his 15th season as Pittsburgh's head coach, has been in this situation before. In fact, his 2008 championship team also boasted the league's toughest schedule. Given his team's current schedule, Tomlin may decide to bring out an old quote he used to galvanize his group.
"We had a saying, 'It's a five-star matchup, because we're in it,'" Tomlin recalled in a 2009 interview. "We used that saying quite a bit over the second half of . I think somewhere along the line, we all believed it."
When the Steelers are at home in 2021, Rooney is planning to have a full crowd at Heinz Field for the first time in nearly two years. He is also hoping to bring training camp back to Saint Vincent College, as long as fans are permitted to attend practice.
"If we can't have fans, I'm not sure we would go to training camp up there," Rooney said. "That's certainly a big part of it – to be there with our fans. Our fans love being up there. There are great facilities up there, and it's a great place for training camp for the players from a football perspective. But without the fans I'm not sure what we would do. We'll be looking at whether there are more restrictions on fans' ability to gather at that point.
"Right now, things are trending in the right direction and so we're planning to be there and we're planning to have fans there. Whether everything (regarding training camp at Saint Vincent) is exactly the same as it was two years ago, you've got to look at whether changes need to be made under the circumstances. And we'll be looking at all of that."