Steel Curtain Network: A Pittsburgh Steelers podcast

Do the Steelers typically have a more difficult schedule than most NFL teams?

On the most recent episode of the Steelers Stat Geek podcast, I was asked to tackle the question of if the Steelers typically have a more difficult schedule than the average NFL team. Diving into the data, I did what often happens as the numbers lead me to other interesting things along the way when it comes to the Steelers strength of schedule (SOS) in recent years. I was able to look at data for the Steelers SOS going into the year each of the last 10 seasons, in addition to 2024, and also how the strength of schedule ultimately played out at the end of the year based on the actual records of their opponents.

Since there is so much data, rather than ramble on about various things I’ll try to present it in specific categories in order to be the most concise. These numbers do not look at raw wind percentage scores, but merely how a team is ranked in SOS against other NFL teams each year.

SOS Going into the season

When looking at the teams SOS as they head into the next season, the standard protocol is to look at each of their opponent’s record the previous year. More recently, predictive win totals has been used as another standard of measuring SOS and will be analyzed in the later section. But going back 11 seasons, since we have the data for 2024 as well, the Steelers have entered the season ranked in the top half of having the most difficult schedule six times, with five coming in the top eight and three times being in the top four. Averaging their ranks over these 11 seasons going back to 2014, the Steelers have an average ranking of 13.0 which is the fifth highest ranking of all NFL teams. Teams who have had the highest ranks going into the previous season are the Kansas City Chiefs, Las Vegas Raiders, Denver Broncos, and Los Angeles Rams.

Over the last 11 seasons, the only year the Steelers started the year with their strength of schedule being in the bottom of the league, meaning they had one of the five easiest schedules, was 2014 when they were ranked 28.

SOS to end the season

The more important metric is the actual strength of schedule for a team during the season, which can only be done after the fact based on the record of their opponents. This is the number that is used in tiebreakers for determining playoff positions and draft order. So how much does the strength of schedule before a season correlate to after the season?

For the Steelers, over the last 10 years they had the top half of SOS six of the 10 seasons with five being ranked in the top six or higher. On the flipside, the Steelers have landed in the bottom five twice as they ranked 29th in 2020 and 31st and 2014. Averaging their positions over the 10 years, the Steelers have an average rank of 13.5 which ranks ninth in the NFL. So the Steelers strength of schedule has actually been ranked lower then what it was believed to be over the last 10 years.

Differences in starting SOS versus ending SOS

When looking at the Steelers strength of schedule over the last 10 years and comparing it to how it actually ended up to where it was believed to be at the beginning of the season, there are some years where they ended up in close proximity. The closest was in 2021 when the Steelers went into the season with the second highest ranked SOS and finished with the third most difficult schedule. Another year which was close was in 2018 when the Steelers started with the eighth most difficult schedule and finished with the sixth most difficult schedule. The Steelers didn’t have a large difference in their rankings from 2014 to 2016 as they were off either three or four positions from the original season. But there were plenty of seasons where the Steelers did not finish anywhere close to where they started. In 2023, the Steelers came into the season with the 20th most difficult SOS but ended having the fourth most difficult schedule. On the other end of the spectrum, the Steelers went into the 2017 season with the seventh highest SOS, but finished 24th.

Having a large discrepancy between the starting and ending SOS is common in the NFL. Over the last 10 years, the New York Jets finished with a much more difficult schedule than what they were believed to have with five seasons of their final ranking being at least 13 spots higher than their SOS going into the year. On the other hand, the Kansas City Chiefs, a team who is often towards the top of having the most difficult schedule before the season begins, have seen their schedule much less difficult with their overall ranking falling at least 15 spots in four of the last 10 years.

Looking just at the Steelers

There is an interesting trend when it comes to the Steelers strength of the schedule going into the season. When the Steelers finish in the top spot of the AFC North over the last 10 years, their schedule the following year is no worse than the eighth most difficult schedule. When the Steelers finish second or third in the AFC North, excluding looking at the 2024 season at this time, they typically have a schedule ranked in the 20s with only two exceptions of where they were ranked 19th in 2020 and 11th and 2022. The 2024 season seems to be an anomaly where the Steelers start the year with the fourth most difficult schedule after finishing in third place the previous year.

When looking at the Steelers most successful regular seasons over the last 10 years, they reached 12 or more victories in the two years where their strength of schedule had a change in rank of at least 10 spots where it became less difficult from what was projected. In 2020 the Steelers finished 12–4 where they started the season, ranked 19th in SOS but finished 29th. In 2017 when the Steelers went 13-3, they were expected to have the seventh most difficult schedule but finished 24th.

It should also be noted that when the Steelers finished in the top six in SOS at the end of the year, they did not achieve more than 10 wins in any of those seasons since 2014. But exactly how difficult the Steelers schedule will be at the end of 2024, which goes into the season ranked fourth, remains to be seen.

Projected win totals to determine SOS

Since recording my podcast last week, I was given data from Jeremy Betz going back four seasons using projected win totals rather than the previous year’s record to determine strength of schedule to start the season. These numbers specifically came from Mike Clay. But when looking at them over those four years and using the same four seasons using wins the season before, there was discrepancies when looking at each team but not a huge difference when looking league-wide.

Over four seasons, teams had an average difference in ranking, whether higher or lower, of 7.67 based on projected win totals. For those four seasons, using the previous years record, the difference was 7.38. So while using projected win totals was more accurate, the difference was negligible based on how much they both missed the mark of how things ultimately finished. Over those four seasons, there were two years where the projected totals were more accurate and two were the previous year’s record were more accurate. The only significant difference is the years where projected totals were not as accurate, in 2022 and 2020, they were much further away.

To hear the complete breakdown, check out the most recent episode of the Steelers Stat Geek podcast below:

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