The Steelers faded at the end of the season, losing four of their last five including being knocked out of the playoffs on their home field. Now they face arguably the league's toughest schedule and an improving division opponent in Cleveland.
The combined winning percentage of the Steelers' opponents this year is .598, which is the toughest in the league. Considering that they only beat out the Browns for the AFC North title on a tiebreaker after both finished 10-6, that doesn't bode well. What does, however, is an offense that finished 10th in the league in scoring and a defense that was statistically the best in the NFL, allowing only 266 yards per game.
That is not to say no problems exist. The offensive line is being retooled after the departure of All-Pro Alan Faneca at left guard. Center Sean Mahan shifts to that slot as a backup to Chris Kemoeatu after the arrival of free agent Justin Hartwig. So at least 40 percent of the line will be new or in new positions on a unit that relies on continuity. The team is also trying to move away from its power running game to more of a quick passing, spread offense. That's a lot of changes.
Defensively, there is a big problem at nose tackle. Casey Hampton came to camp grossly out of shape, his weight having ballooned so much he could not finish the fitness run. He's fighting his way back into shape, but he is a key to their run defense and the overall effectiveness of their 3-4 scheme. If Hampton isn't playing at his normal high level, Chris Hoke will have to step in and be ready to do battle. The good news there is the Steelers are 12-0 when he's started at nose tackle for Hampton.
On the hot seat
Chris Kemoeutu is being asked to replace perennial Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca, who may still be the best offensive lineman in football. All eyes will be on Kemoeutu because no one ever had to notice Faneca.
Hard road to hoe
The Steelers lost three of their last four regular-season games and then were bounced out of the playoffs at home by Jacksonville. A fast start would be good to re-establish themselves. To do it, they have to be ready because between Sept. 14 and Oct. 5 they travel to Cleveland and Philadelphia, host the Ravens and then go back on the road for a trip to Jacksonville.
Steelers will be better than you think if ...
Rookie running back Rashard Mendenhall shows he can handle the load in the red zone. Willie Parker rushed for 1,316 yards on 321 carries last year but he scored only two touchdowns. He eventually was taken out when the Steelers were in the red zone because the coaches felt he wouldn't get the tough short yards. That's why they drafted the bruising Mendenhall No. 1.