By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers had the NFL’s toughest schedule in 2008, and that didn’t temper their drive to the Super Bowl XLIII title.
The club announced its 2010 schedule Tuesday night, and with five prime-time games against playoff teams — including one with the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints — this slate could be just as difficult.
“I think it is a challenging schedule and we look forward to a lot of exciting games at Heinz Field this season,” Steelers President Art Rooney II said. “We are also pleased that our many fans across the country will have a number of opportunities to watch us play during prime time throughout the fall.”
The Steelers early schedule should be a bit more difficult considering that starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is expected to be suspended by the NFL for at least two games and possibly as many as four. His fate reportedly should be known sometime Wednesday.
In an effort to shore up their quarterback situation, the Steelers traded one of their 2010 seventh-round NFL Draft picks the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to re-acquire veteran Byron Leftwich. The 30-year-old Leftwich played with the Steelers in 2008 when he completed 21 of 36 passes for 303 yards, two touchdowns and a 104.3 passer rating.
After joining the Steelers in training camp, Leftwich had his best game Nov. 3, 2008 when he completed seven of 10 passes for 129 yards, one touchdown and a 145.8 passer rating in one half of play at Washington in relief of an injured Ben Roethlisberger. Leftwich was originally drafted seventh overall in the 2003 NFL Draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars. He spent his first four seasons in Jacksonville (2003-06) and one season in Atlanta (2007) before signing with the Steelers in 2008 and hooking up with the Bucs last season.
Leftwich now is an option, as are veteran Charlie Batch and third-year pro Dennis Dixon, who played solidly in a win at Baltimore last season when Batch and Roethlisberger were both out. Dixon finished the season as the No. 2 quarterback and could maintain that role and play when the Steelers play host to the Atlanta Falcons Sept. 12 at 1 p.m. at Heinz Field to open the season.
Due to Sunday home games by the Pirates Major League Baseball team, the Steelers must travel the next two weeks and are at Tennessee (Sept. 19) and Tampa Bay (Sept. 26) at 1 p.m. each. The Steelers are at home with Baltimore Oct. 3 at 1 p.m. in what could be Roethlisberger’s final missed game.
“I’m learning as much as I can from our coaches and the veteran quarterbacks that we have on this team,” Dixon said. “I’m not really looking at Ben’s suspension or how many games I’ll play or whatever. There are no guarantees, and we won’t know who’s going to play until the season begins.
“So, I’m just worried about getting better and working as hard as I can to improve on how I played last season. When I do get the chance, I think you’ll see a much more confident player out there. I had a little bit of success, even though I didn’t have to do a lot, and that will help me for this season.”
The AFC North’s bye week is in Week 5, Oct. 10, and the Steelers hit the ground running when they return to the field. They play division rival Cleveland Oct. 17 at 1 p.m. at Heinz Field and then have two road games at Miami Oct. 17 at 1 p.m. and at New Orleans Oct. 31 at 8:20 p.m.
The Steelers visit Cincinnati for a Monday Night matchup Nov. 8 at 8:30 and then return home to face the New England Patriots Nov. 14 at 8:20 p.m. The remaining games begin the flex portion of the schedule and all could be changed to prime time. The Steelers need to start strong, even without Roethlisberger, because all the games afterward should be tough matchups.
“If he gets suspended for two or four games, then somebody else is going to have to step up and play,” wideout Antwaan Randle El said. “That’s the way it is, whether it’s 2-4 or 6-8 games. One person doesn’t stop the show. You need to move forward and do it in the most productive way that you can.”
The Steelers play host to Oakland, which seriously dampened their playoff hopes with a comeback win last season at Heinz Field. This year’s game is Nov. 21 at 1 p.m. The Steelers then play at Buffalo Nov. 28 at 1 p.m. and visit Baltimore Dec. 5 at 8:20 p.m.
The Steelers have three straight home games before the regular-season finale — against Cincinnati Dec. 12 at 1 p.m., the New York Jets Dec. 19 at 4:15 p.m. and Carolina for a Thursday Night special Dec. 23 at 8:20. The final game is Jan. 2, 2011 at Cleveland at 1 p.m. The Steelers had to finish on the road because The NHL’s Winter Classic between the Penguins and Washington Capitals is expected to be played at Heinz Field Jan. 1, 2011.
Here is the Steelers 2010 schedule:
Saturday, Aug. 14 — DETROIT — 7:30 p.m. (KDKA)
Saturday, Aug. 21 — at New York Giants — 7 p.m. (KDKA)
Sunday, Aug. 29 — at Denver — 8 p.m. (FOX/WPGH-TV)
Thursday, Sept. 2 – CAROLINA — 7:30 P.m. (KDKA)
Sunday, Sept. 12 – ATLANTA — 1 p.m. (FOX)
Sunday, Sept. 19 — at Tennessee — 1 p.m. (CBS)
Sunday, Sept. 26 — at Tampa Bay — 1 p.m. (CBS)
Sunday, Oct. 3 — BALTIMORE –1 p.m. (CBS)
Sunday, Oct. 10 — Bye
Sunday, Oct. 17 — CLEVELAND — 1 p.m. (CBS)
Sunday, Oct. 24 — at Miami — 1 p.m. (CBS)
Sunday, Oct. 31 — at New Orleans — 8:20 p.m. (NBC)
Monday, Nov. 8 — at Cincinnati — 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Sunday, Nov. 14 — NEW ENGLAND — 8:20 p.m. (NBC)
Sunday, Nov. 21* — OAKLAND — 1 p.m. (CBS)
Sunday, Nov. 28* — at Buffalo — 1 p.m. (CBS)
Sunday, Dec. 5* — at Baltimore — 8:20 p.m. (NBC)
Sunday, Dec. 12* — CINCINNATI — 1 p.m. (CBS)
Sunday, Dec. 19* — NEW YORK JETS — 4:15 p.m. (CBS)
Thursday, Dec. 23* — CAROLINA — 8:20 p.m. (NFL NETWORK)
Sunday, Jan. 2* — at Cleveland — 1 p.m. (CBS)
* Times and TV network may change due to flexible scheduling
** All times are Eastern