The Pittsburgh Steelers were not a playoff team in 2018, and during this offseason they have lost two All-Pro players from their high-powered offense. A number of prognosticators already have decided they're going to end up being an afterthought in the AFC North Division in 2019, with an increasingly popular opinion being that both Cleveland and Baltimore have overtaken them.
The NFL released its 2019 regular season schedule today, and based on what the league and its television partners announced at 8 p.m., those two entities still see the Steelers as one of the marquee teams in professional football.
As has become typical for them, the Steelers have been scheduled for the full complement of five primetime games, with one of those being the showcase of Opening Weekend, that being a matchup against the defending champion New England Patriots.
"We had some hints that this could happen, so it wasn't a surprise. We've been there before, we've done this before," said Rooney about opening in Gillette Stadium, which the Steelers also did in 2015. "It's always a challenge, but we certainly know the scene up there. We've played in New England, we've played the Patriots a lot over the last few years, and so it's almost as though they're becoming a division opponent. It's familiar territory for us, and we've got to be ready to go in primetime against the champs on opening weekend. What better way to test where you are?"
In the past that game against the reigning defending champions was played on the Thursday night leading into Opening Weekend, but as part of its 100th season, the NFL instead decided on Green Bay at Chicago for Thursday, Sept. 5, with Steelers at Patriots being the primetime game on Sunday, Sept. 8.
"It is exciting that we're going to be celebrating the 100th season of the NFL this year, and there are some changes to the schedule related to that," said Steelers President Art Rooney II. "One of those changes is the opening game of the season on that first Thursday night is a Bears-Packers matchup, and those are two of the oldest franchises in the league. I think that's a nice way to open the 100th season. For us, we are affected by that in the sense that the traditional game hosted by the defending champs will be on Sunday night, and so we will be playing at New England for our opener on the first Sunday night of the season. It'll be a big game, and of course it's always a challenge to go and open against the defending champions."
In addition to that primetime game on NBC, the Steelers also are scheduled for two Monday night games at Heinz Field – on Sept. 30 against Cincinnati and on Oct. 28 against Miami – with the other primetime games coming on Sunday, Oct. 13 in Los Angeles against the Chargers and on Thursday, Nov. 14 in Cleveland.
"We have the normal number of primetime games, and the one good thing I'll say about that is we don't have back-to-back night games at home, which we had a couple of years ago and we like to try to avoid that," said Rooney. "I think it's a good schedule, particularly in that the night games at home are spread out. One interesting thing is that for the first time in a long time that I can remember is we'll be playing the Cleveland Browns in a primetime game. It's kind of different to see that on the schedule."
Actually, the Steelers' having two Monday night games at home in the same season is more rare than a primetime game against the Browns, because on Dec. 10, 2009 the Steelers visited Cleveland on a Thursday night and lost, 13-6, in a game marked more by the bitter cold created by winds blowing off Lake Erie than by anything that happened on the field that night. The last time the Steelers had two Monday night games at Heinz Field in the same season came in 2007, when they defeated the Ravens, 38-7, on Nov. 5, and then the Miami Dolphins, 3-0, on Nov. 26.
"It's the first time we've had two Monday night home games in a while, and as long as they tend to be earlier in the season, and these do fall earlier in the season, that's OK with us," said Rooney. "You don't want to have too many Monday night games, but because they're earlier in the season, that should help."
Rooney long has been opposed to having a bunch of night games at Heinz Field late in the season, and his preference has more to do with fans' comfort than anything that's football-related. Nights in November and December can be harsh late in any year, and the combination of sitting outside on a winter night and having to get up for work the next day often entice ticketholders to stay home.
But with this schedule, while the Steelers end with five of their final seven games on the road, they have no night games scheduled for Heinz Field after Halloween.
What they do have this season are three games on the West Coast, and Rooney considers it lucky that those are spread out over the course of the 17-week regular season.
On Sept. 22, the Steelers visit San Francisco for a 4:25 p.m. kickoff against the 49ers, and that trip is followed by a home game on the following Monday night, which will give the team an extra day to recuperate from the long flight home. On Oct. 13, the game in Los Angeles against the Chargers is a scheduled 8:20 p.m. kickoff, but the following week the Steelers are on their bye. Their third West Coast trip is scheduled for Dec. 8 with a 4:25 p.m. kickoff against Arizona, and that game is to be followed by a 1 p.m. game at home against Buffalo.
Sometimes a team looking at multiple trips across country will ask the NFL to schedule two of those games back-to-back so that it could get away with one fewer cross-country trip, but Rooney said the Steelers didn't make such a request.
"We've talked about it internally before, but the truth of the matter is that the odds of the league doing that for you are pretty slim," said Rooney. "It's just so hard to make these schedules up, and so we didn't even bother to try to get that done. We just felt like it was something that didn't have much of a chance of happening. If you can't do the back-to-back thing, then I think you're better off to have them spread out. Our night game against the Chargers in Los Angeles is followed by a bye week, and we appreciate that. It sets up pretty well."
And from a fan-friendly perspective, so does a stretch in late-October-to-mid-November that contains three straight home games, which means six of the Steelers' home games will be played before Nov. 11. And two of those games will offer teams that visit Pittsburgh infrequently.
"We have the NFC Champions, the Los Angeles Rams, coming to Pittsburgh in the middle of the season (Nov. 10)," said Rooney. "Seattle is here for our home opening weekend of the season (Sept. 15), and so some of the high-profile teams from the NFC will be in town and those should be exciting days at Heinz Field.
"That's one of the good things about the way the NFL does the schedule. Players like Russell Wilson eventually get to Pittsburgh, and this year we also will have Rams quarterback Jared Goff coming here, so some of the high-profile young quarterbacks in the league will be making the rounds through Pittsburgh this year. It's always exciting to see those high-profile players come to town."
And when it comes to a Steelers' schedule, nothing is as consistently high-profile as the annual home-and-home bar brawl with the Baltimore Ravens. In 2019, those teams are to square off in the regular season finale in M&T Bank Stadium.
"The Baltimore game is always a battle, and no matter where it falls on the schedule it's always a significant game for us," said Rooney. "These days the schedule makers have division games on the last week of everybody's schedule, and so everybody has to deal with that. Hopefully, we'll have clinched by then, but more than likely it'll be a meaningful game, and it's always a battle down in Baltimore."