As the Steelers enter the second half of the 2018 season, they are, at least according to my flawless prognostications, cruising along rather swimmingly. I have them sitting pretty with a 5-0 divisional record and a gawdy 8-0 overall record. While it’s certainly possible that the Steelers might drop a game in the first half of the season (possibly to Atlanta) it’s just as likely they make it through the first 8 games unscathed and enter the much tougher second half with some room for error.
The rest of the AFC North won’t be fairing as well. I have the Bengals sitting at 3-5 (splitting the second quarter with wins against the Dolphins and Buccaneers while losing to the Chiefs and Steelers), the Browns surprising some people and sitting at 3-5 also (wins over the Ravens and Buccaneers, losses to the Chargers and Steelers) and the Ravens sitting in the divisional basement at 2-6 having suffered a winless second quarter (losses to the Browns, Titans, Saints, and Panthers).
Third Quarter – Panthers, @Jaguars, @Broncos, Chargers
The Steelers open what is the toughest stretch of their schedule with a Thursday night game at Heinz Field against the Panthers, then two road games, and finally hosting a very good Chargers team to close out the third quarter. There are no gimme’s in this group, and being forced to start on a short week makes it just a little bit tougher.
Week 10 – Carolina
The Panthers are a team that may be on the downside. With young players like Christian McCaffrey and newly drafted WR D.J. Moore, you might wonder why I say that? The defense, while possessing an enviable front seven, is aging. Luke Kuechly is maybe the best middle linebacker in the NFL right now, but he tends to be concussed. The secondary is, at best, suspect.
The Panthers offensive line is perhaps the team’s weakest link, and that should allow the Steelers pass rushers to harass Cam Newton. C.J. Anderson and McCaffrey will get the bulk of the running back snaps, but will that line be able to provide any running lanes for them?
While the Panthers remain a good team, the Steelers might benefit from having some familiarity with them (they’ve played each other in every preseason for what seems like forever) and despite a short week keep their record perfect through 9 games.
Steelers 35 – Panthers 21
Week 11 – Jacksonville
You know the Steelers have this game circled on the schedule. You know this is a game they badly want, and they will be pumped for it.
I’m not at all sure that will be a good thing. The best thing about this game is that they will have a few extra days to prepare. Based on history, they’ll need it. The Jaguars have always been a tough matchup for the Steelers. Especially in Jacksonville. Since 2000, the Steelers are 2-5 in Jacksonville. With a sweep of the Steelers last year, the Jaguars actually lead the all-time series 14-11.
There are a couple of things working in the Steelers favor here though. The Jags have a new receiving group (Donte Moncrief and second-round draft pick D.J. Chark are the top 2). Mercedes Lewis is gone, replaced by Austin Seferian-Jenkins.
Then, of course, there is Blake Bortles.
The Jaguars defense may even be better than it was last year, and they were really good in 2017. Still, this is the defense that the Steelers put up 42 points on in the playoffs, so it’s not unbeatable. If the Steelers can avoid giving up easy scores and turnovers, they can win this game.
History leads me to think otherwise though. As badly as I want to pick the Steelers here, I just can’t. I don’t expect another shootout, and I want to stress that this is a game the Steelers can win, I still have to look at this as the first stumble of the season.
Jaguars 28 – Steelers 17
Week 12 – Denver
This Bronco’s team is a far cry from the team that won a Super Bowl not that long ago. They still have the makings of a good defense, but the offensive side of the ball remains questionable, despite the addition of free agent darling Case Keenum. Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas are both still legitimate receiving threats, but I’m not sold on Devontae Booker handling the bulk of the running back duties.
Despite all that, history doesn’t favor the Steelers in this matchup. According to Pro Football Reference, the Broncos lead the overall series with the Steelers 19-11-1, and the Steelers are only 3-9 over their last 12 games in Denver. I don’t know if they don’t like the Rocky Mountain air, or if the elevation is really that difficult to manage, but whatever the reason, the Steelers have not fared well in the “mile high” state.
However, I think the Steelers buck the trend this time around and manage to rebound after the loss in Jacksonville to get back on the winning side of things.
Steelers 28 – Broncos 13
Week 13 – Los Angeles
Not everyone will agree with me here, but I think this may be the toughest game the Steelers will have in the third quarter of the season. The Chargers, on paper anyway, look to be a tough team. Defensively the duo of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram pose a serious challenge to the Steelers offensive line. I expect rookie Derwin James to have played himself into a starting role (if he isn’t starting immediately) at this point in the season, and while the rest of the defense isn’t stocked with all-pro talent, it’s good enough that this could be a top 10 unit.
The offensive side of the ball is going to be as good as Phillip Rivers can make them. Melvin Gordon at running back can be a home run threat, and behind a revamped offensive line with Mike Pouncey anchoring at center, the Chargers could open up some holes for Gordon. Antonio Gates is gone, replaced with Virgil Green and a slew of other even lesser known players. Tyrell Williams, Travis Benjamin, Mike Williams and Keenan Allen make up a solid, above the line group of receivers that Rivers can utilize. This could be the best supporting cast Rivers has had in his career, and I am almost certain it’s going to be the best offensive line he’s had in front of him.
The best thing about this game is that it’s at home and, at least for the moment, is a 1:00 game. I think December weather in Pittsburgh could be just what the doctor ordered to let the Steelers pull out a tight game here.
Steelers 21 – Chargers 17
I’ll admit, the Denver game makes me nervous and so does the Los Angeles Chargers game. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Steelers go 1-3 in this quarter. I don’t expect it (barring unforeseen injuries or issues) but it’s possible. Still, as it stands, I have them sitting pretty at 11-1 after the first twelve games with four more to go.
Next: The fourth quarter.