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Rooney: We're planning on full capacity

Based on the procedure the NFL uses to calculate such things, which is adding the previous season's records of all upcoming opponents and calculating an overall winning percentage from that, the Steelers have the league's toughest regular season schedule in 2021. Steelers President Art Rooney II recognizes that, but he also understands such a conclusion doesn't mean a whole lot when it's reached four months before any of the games start to be played.

"It's a challenging schedule. We know that, and you just have to deal with it," said Rooney. "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."

What interests Rooney more at this point is for Steelers fans to have the opportunity to watch the team prepare to play that schedule and chronicle the progress daily and in person at Saint Vincent College, and then once the 53-man roster is determined for them to be able to go to Heinz Field en masse and enjoy the competition that figures to come from battling the NFL's toughest schedule.

"I wish I could say it's a done deal," said Rooney about the Steelers having their training camp at Saint Vincent College after a one-year hiatus caused by COVID-19. "(Having training camp at Saint Vincent) is certainly Plan A for us. That's what we're planning for, but unfortunately there still are some issues we've got to iron out, and some of them have to do with the Players Association and discussions about training camp and Covid protocols and all of that.

"But really the big thing is we hope people continue to get vaccinated, because that's going to be our best route to getting back to normal, both for training camp and during the regular season, and so we're optimistic. Things are trending in the right direction, that's for sure, and our plan at this point is to have training camp at Saint Vincent."

Training camp at Saint Vincent College is quite an experience for Steelers fans, and generations of them have scheduled summer vacations around those dates to be able to enjoy what for many has become an annual tradition. The NFL recently sent a memo to teams notifying them that they will be allowed to have training camps off site after prohibiting that in 2020, but for Rooney it's all about the fans.

"If we can't have fans, I'm not sure we would go to training camp up there," said Rooney. "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 (about 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."

Maybe more important than fans at training camp is having fans at Heinz Field, with the first opportunity for that to happen being Saturday, Aug. 21 for a preseason game vs. Detroit, and Rooney is optimistic things will have returned to normal by then.

"We're planning on having full capacity. The trends are all headed in the right direction, and we're excited about getting our fans back in the stadium," said Rooney. "Again, I just encourage anyone who hasn't been vaccinated to go out and get vaccinated. That's the best way for everything to get back to normal.

"We're still in a situation where we have to be prepared to adjust, and certainly we will be, but where things stand today and the way things are trending we feel good about being about as close to normal by August as possible. We're looking forward to being pretty close to back to normal by then."

On the subject of normal, the Steelers will open their 2021 regular season on Sunday, Sept. 12 in Buffalo, which will mark the seventh straight year the team has opened on the road.

"It would be nice to open at home once in a while," said Rooney. "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."

What will be different about this opener on the road is that the Steelers will have a couple of weeks off between their preseason finale – Friday, Aug. 27 in Carolina – before facing the Bills in Buffalo.

As Rooney mentioned, the Steelers follow their opener on the road with back-to-back home games – vs. Las Vegas and Cincinnati – before a game in Green Bay on Oct. 3 that's then followed by back-to-back home games again – vs. Denver and Seattle – before their bye on Oct. 24. That will give the Steelers four home games in the season's first six weeks, but then that will end up balanced by five road games over the final eight weeks.

"I guess in a perfect world, you'd like to have a little bit of a balance and spread things somewhat evenly throughout the schedule, so there are different ways to look at it," said Rooney. "Our fans do appreciate the warmer weather games, and so from a fan's standpoint I'm sure they appreciate having a little bit of an imbalance toward the early part of the schedule for our home games. But that does present a challenge, because we have a tough stretch at the end starting with that Thursday night game in Minnesota. It's a stretch of some tough road games to end the season."

Actually, the tough stretch begins one week earlier than that Thursday, Dec. 9 game against the Vikings in Minnesota.

Starting with a Dec. 5 brawl vs. the Ravens, the Steelers close their regular season with six games: two are in primetime – a Thursday night in Minnesota and a Monday night game vs. Cleveland at Heinz Field – with the possibility of the Jan. 9 regular season finale in Baltimore being flexed to primetime; five of the final six games are against 2020 playoff teams: Baltimore twice, Tennessee, Kansas City, and Cleveland; and three of the final six are on the road: in Minnesota, in Kansas City, and in Baltimore.

"It's a tough closing stretch, no question about it," said Rooney, "so we have to be ready to get on a roll at the end of the season. That's one the challenges you just have to be ready to deal with."