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5 for Friday: The schedule's tough, but Steelers will compete

Was somebody in the league office angry with the Steelers?

That's all that can be guessed after the team's 2024 schedule was released Wednesday night.

We knew the schedule was going to be difficult just based on the opponents the Steelers were slated to play. Per last season's records, the Steelers face the third-most difficult schedule in the league.

But the way this schedule was set up? It could make things even more difficult.

For the second year in a row, the Steelers are one of a handful of teams that have a four-day turnaround. The first comes after they play the Ravens Nov. 17. Four days later, they travel to Cleveland for a Thursday night game on Nov. 21.

The second comes, once again, after a meeting with the Ravens on Dec. 21. Dec. 25, the Steelers will then host the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs.

You'll also notice that the Steelers are playing three AFC North teams in that mix. That's because all six of their AFC North games will come in the final eight weeks of the season. It marks the first time since the league realigned in 2002 that a team doesn't play a division opponent until Week 11 or after.

And, the other two teams the Steelers face in that stretch are the Chiefs and Eagles. Kansas City has won the past two Super Bowls, including defeating the Eagles in the championship game two seasons ago.

The Steelers also don't have their home opener until Sept. 22, as they begin the season with back-to-back road games, first at Atlanta and then at Denver. That marks the first time since the 1999 season that the Steelers have been scheduled to open the season with back-to-back road games.

"It's probably not exactly how I would have drawn it up, but we've got to do the best we can," said team president Art Rooney II. "On the positive side, we've got some high-profile, marquee games with the Cowboys and the Chiefs on Christmas Day, a couple of other prime time games. We'll be playing in front of a big audience most of the time, which is a good thing. A lot of the division games are at the end of the schedule, so it will be an interesting stretch there toward the end."

The eyeballs are always on the Steelers. And Rooney is correct that the finishing stretch will be "interesting."

The Steelers went 5-1 in AFC North games in 2023. Over the past eight seasons, the Steelers' winning percentage within the division is nearly 72 percent. They're 12-4 against the Bengals, 11-4-1 against the Browns and 11-5 against the Ravens in that span.

So, they do have a handle on how to play against their AFC North opponents. And that's a credit to head coach Mike Tomlin.

The Steelers improved their roster this offseason. They've got the players to compete.

And it's Tomlin that gives them a chance to maneuver their way through the pitfalls that the 2024 schedule presents.

To describe it in his own words, he's a "been-there, done-that" guy when it comes to getting his teams prepared to play on short weeks or other challenges.

"Yeah, I think so," Rooney said. "Mike does a good job of getting guys ready. There are no excuses in terms of what day of the week you're playing. He doesn't allow for that, or the time of the day. You just have to be ready to go when the time comes."

That doesn't make it any easier.

Over their final eight games, the Steelers play six against teams that were playoff teams a year ago. And the team that doesn't fall into that category, the Bengals, is one of the favorites to win the AFC this season with quarterback Joe Burrow back healthy.

The Steelers knew they would have to play those teams at some point. They just probably didn't think they would have to face them all in a gauntlet to finish the season.

• While the first two games of the season are on the road, which isn't ideal, they might be a good time to play both the Falcons and Broncos.

Atlanta has a new head coach in Raheem Morris. Morris has been a head coach before, but hasn't done so on a full-time basis since being fired by Tampa Bay in 2011.

The Falcons also will be breaking in a new quarterback in Kirk Cousins, who is coming off a torn Achilles' tendon that ended his 2023 season.

It will be interesting to see if the Falcons slow-play Cousins' return from injury and hold him out of preseason games. He'll turn 36 in August, and Atlanta could want to give him as much healing time as possible.

Denver, meanwhile, likely will go with rookie quarterback Bo Nix after selecting him in the first round of this year's draft.

The Steelers can throw a lot of things at a rookie quarterback defensively that could make it tough for Nix that early in his career.

• It's doubtful that all the Steelers wanted for Christmas was the Kansas City Chiefs, but that might not be the worst time to play Kansas City, too.

The Chiefs will be coming off a game Dec. 21 against the Houston Texans, a team some feel can be a big challenger for Kansas City this season.

And this is the second season in a row Kansas City will be playing on Christmas Day. In 2023, they hosted the Raiders on Christmas and lost, 20-14.

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

• According to ESPN's Jeremy Fowler, Steelers defensive lineman Cam Heyward will not be participating in the team's OTA sessions as he and the team work on a contract extension.

Thing is, Heyward had multiple surgeries in the past year to resolve the groin injury he suffered in Week 1 of last season that cost him six games. He was never healthy during the season and posted photos of himself soon after the season ended having another surgery.

So, he wasn't going to do much, if anything, in OTAs, anyway.

It's a similar situation to the Steelers declining to pick up the fifth-year option on running back Najee Harris' contract.

The Steelers would like to have both players around not just this season, but beyond this season.

Don't think so?

Trust the words of GM Omar Khan.

"I can tell you we think the world of Cam, think the world of Najee," Khan said Wednesday night while also talking about the schedule release on the Steelers Radio Network. "We're excited about having them as part of the team not only this year but in the future. We really have a lot of respect for both of those guys."

• How good is the AFC North? Analytics Expert Cynthia Freelund ran the 2024 schedule through her computer models 150,000 times since its release and came up with the average win totals for all of the AFC teams.

Cincinnati came in at 10.5 wins, second in the AFC behind Kansas City at 10.9. Baltimore tied with Miami for fourth at 10.2 wins. The Steelers (8.7 wins) and Browns (8.6) were eighth and ninth in the conference.

As Freelund notes about the Steelers' schedule, "After their Week 9 bye, the Steelers' final nine games are, in aggregate, more than twice as hard as their first eight (I measured the win probabilities and added them)."

Every game in an NFL schedule is important. But in the AFC North this season, that's going to be even more the case. There's not a lot separating the four teams.