On paper, the Steelers are as talented, deep and experienced as any team in the NFL. They have Pro Bowlers on offense and defense and nearly all their starters are back and healthy from their Super Bowl run two years ago.
But there's one huge concern: Roethlisberger will miss up to six games this season for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy. The punishment can be reduced to four games if the embattled quarterback stays out of trouble. But that may be enough to dash Pittsburgh's hopes of getting back to the postseason after missing the playoffs in 2009.
Backup quarterback Byron Leftwich or Dennis Dixon will run the Steelers' offense during Roethlisberger's suspension. Pittsburgh is guaranteed to play without Roethlisberger against the Atlanta Falcons, Tennessee Titans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Baltimore Ravens in the first four games. If the suspension is six games, Roethlisberger also will miss games against the Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins.
The Steelers must play at least .500 football during Roethlisberger's suspension to have a good chance at the postseason. But if the Steelers fall below that, they will have to play nearly perfectly the rest of the way to earn a playoff spot, and that will put a lot of pressure on "Big Ben" when he returns.
Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Tennessee were all non-playoff teams a year ago. The Baltimore game will be the toughest, but the Steelers-Ravens rivalry is always close, no matter the records. Last year, with Roethlisberger sidelined by a concussion, the Ravens needed overtime at home to edge the Dixon-led Steelers, 20-17.
Playing in the AFC North won't be easy this year. Baltimore and the reigning division champion Cincinnati Bengals are playoff contenders, and the Browns are also expected to improve. But Pittsburgh must win without its most important player for the first month so the suspension won't ruin the entire season.