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Pittsburgh Steelers face challenges to repeat as AFC North champs

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The Pittsburgh Steelers have had a rough start to their offseason - first, they look set to lose running back Le'Veon Bell through the first two games of next season and now they've been given the league's toughest schedule in 2015.

The NFL's strength of schedule rankings put the Steelers at the top, as their list of opponents for 2015 includes 11 games against teams that had winning records last season. For a talented team that had clear weaknesses, that could be the difference between January football and an early offseason.

Their strength of schedule, at 0.579, features nine games against playoffs teams. So Mike Tomlin and his crew have their work cut out to repeat as champs.

But how much influence does strength of schedule have on a team's record that year?

Well, according to CBS Sports, quite a lot. The Raiders and Jets had two of the toughest schedules in 2014, and look how their seasons turned out.

At the other end of the scale, three of the four teams with the 'easiest' schedules last year made the playoffs - the Dallas Cowboys, Detroit Lions and the Steelers. The Texans had a winning record but quarterback trouble cost them a playoff berth.

Steel City goes from one of the tamest to one of the toughest.

The schedule

Outside of their AFC North opponents, the Steelers face trips to San Diego, St Louis, and to both of the Super Bowl finalists, Seattle and New England. Ouch.

To Heinz Field they welcome the 49ers, the Cardinals, the Colts and the Denver Broncos. In fact, on paper they have just one 'easy' non-divisional opponent, the Oakland Raiders.

Although the dates of each match-up have not been announced yet, Steeler Nation has every reason to approach the 2015 season with trepidation.

A successful 2014 was partly built upon the Steelers beating up on a woeful non-divisional schedule - they beat the Jags, Titans, Texans and Falcons. And while you can only beat what's in front of you, it certainly helps when it's Blake Bortles and Zach Mettenberger and not Manning or Luck.

All of which means the Steelers will need 22-year-old star back Le'Veon Bell all the more next season.

Offense vs defense

With Bell on the field, the team's offense should at least as good, if not better, next season. In Bell, Antonio Brown, breakout star Martavis Bryant and the offensive line, Tomlin has one of the best young units in the NFL.

They'll need them to be red hot in 2015 with trips to Century Link Field and the Edward Jones Dome.

Because it's on defense where they may struggle to contain Andrew Luck, Manning (if he returns) and others who match-up against Pittsburgh next season.

Long-time DC Dick LeBeau is out and new defensive coordinator Keith Butler has his hands full.

How bad?

Per Football Outsiders, the Steelers had the 30th worst defensive DVOA last season at 13.1 per cent. It was their pass defense (ranked 30th out of 32 teams) that was the real problem as their rush defense was just about league average.

Their secondary got burned an insane amount, with perhaps only the San Diego Chargers and the Jacksonville Jaguars beat deep more consistently for more yards.

Across the deep left of the field their DVOA was 55 per cent, deep across the middle was 50.2 per cent, and deep right was 90.6 per cent (the higher the percentage, the worse the defense). Those are ugly numbers.

For comparison, league average was 4 per cent, 28.6 per cent and 26.4 per cent respectively.


Re-signing linebacker Jason Worilds must be a priority for ex-linebacker coach Butler, the gifted pass rusher is crucial to their hopes next season. James Harrison may be convinced to return for another season, but other veterans like Troy Polamalu and Brett Keisel should be allowed to leave.

Polamalu is a legend, but the Steelers need to take the Bill Belichick approach. The safety is no longer a contributor, his impact may actually be a net negative when you figure his play may be worse than his potential replacement.

Secondary help will be a big focus for Butler, who will no doubt lobby for additional bodies through the draft and free agency.

All four draft experts on have the Steelers going for a defensive player in the first round of the draft, with Kevin Johnson of Wake Forest and Gerod Holliman from Louisville the defensive backs tipped to play for the Terrible Towel next season.

Kevin Johnson

Gerod Holliman

Hopes for 2015

There's every reason to believe the Steelers can repeat as AFC North divisional champions, after all, they won in 2014 despite their defense.

But if they harbour grander ambitions, they will almost certainly live and die by whether DC Butler can coax improved play from his unit come playoff time.

It's always difficult to get a win in the NFL, but their strength of schedule has made it just that little bit harder.

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