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Titans toy with Steelers' offensive line

| Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013, 10:25 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger adjusts his helmet after being sacked by the Titans' Zach Brown during the first quarter Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013, at Heinz Field.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is sacked by the Titans' Zach Brown during the first quarter Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013, at Heinz Field.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is sacked by the Titans defense during the third quarter Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013, at Heinz Field.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is sacked by the Titans' Jurrell Casey on third down during the first quarter Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013, at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Titans' Zach Brown sacks Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the first quarter Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013, at Heinz Field.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger grimaced as he knelt beside his ailing center, Maurkice Pouncey, just 3 minutes, 58 seconds into the season opener Sunday against the Titans at Heinz Field.

Roethlisberger knew before the team's medical staff phoned for the cart that Pouncey had seriously injured his right knee. It was sobering, in part, because an oft-maligned offensive line had lost its anchor, if not its pulse.

Pouncey's injury was one in a series of blows for an embattled offense that couldn't find a rhythm or identity in the Steelers' 16-9 loss before a crowd of 61,585.

Coach Mike Tomlin said Pouncey injured his MCL and ACL. The Pro Bowler will need surgery and be sidelined indefinitely.

Pouncey's absence was significant, mostly because the offensive line couldn't generate a big enough push to create even the narrowest of seams for running backs to exploit. The ground game squeezed out only 32 yards, including 8 yards on 10 carries in the first half.

“It's going to be tough,” said running back Isaac Redman, who averaged 1.1 yards on eight carries. “Pouncey is the heart of our offensive line.”

The offensive front looked more like a house of cards against the Titans' defense.

“We just weren't executing,” tackle Mike Adams said. “They didn't do anything. It was all us.”

While the run game faltered, Roethlisberger — except for a meaningless fourth-quarter scoring drive — spent much of the afternoon under duress. He was sacked five times and hit on six other occasions by the Titans, who largely pressured Roethlisberger without blitzing.

The Steelers arrived at training camp bubbling with enthusiasm about their new zone-blocking schemes. The Titans made a mockery of it by pinning down the edges and overwhelming the offensive front in the trenches.

“They forced us away from what we wanted to do, and we weren't good enough, period,” guard Ramon Foster said. “We can't make any excuses because it all starts up front.

“We have to be way better. We all know we're capable of being better. We will be better.”

But things went from bad to worse for the offensive line after second-year guard David DeCastro got tangled up with Pouncey. DeCastro shouldered the blame for Pouncey's injury, but insisted the offensive line has to smooth out the rough edges before traveling to Cincinnati next Monday.

“We've got to get on the same page,” DeCastro said. “(Pouncey) is our leader, but the next guy has to step up.”

The next man up is Kelvin Beachum, who played every position on the offensive line during the preseason and started the game at tight end, mostly because fullback Will Johnson was sidelined with a hamstring injury. Now he's likely to be the starting center unless the Steelers explore an alternate route to fix a broken offensive line.

Tomlin appears comfortable with Beachum stepping into the lineup.

“He did an admirable job under the circumstances,” Tomlin said.

Simply speaking, the offensive line didn't hold up. The numbers are revealing, but so was the atmosphere in the locker room where the befuddled linemen tried to explain what went wrong.

“We didn't play well, and they did — that's a bad combination,” DeCastro said. “They (coaches) tell us what plays to run, and we run them. I don't care what the calls are, we have to execute.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rpaulk@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.

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