Starkey: Are the Steelers really this hideous?

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.
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.
Photo by Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Joe Starkey
| Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Mike Tomlin surprised me at his weekly news conference Tuesday. I don't ever remember him putting a qualifier on a performance as weak as the one his team turned in against Tennessee.

Amid reiterating how “it was not good enough,” Tomlin pulled out his silver linings playbook. He made sure to include in his opening remarks that the performance was “not all bad.”


That game was hideous. It was so bad that it should lead any sane person to wonder if the Steelers will stay within two touchdowns Monday night at Cincinnati. It should have all of us wondering if this team will win as many as seven games.

Those were the Titans, remember. I had the Steelers at 10-6 before the debacle. Now I'm leaning toward 6-10. That's how bad it was.

No, it was worse than that.

It was so bad that Darius Reynaud was the Steelers' best offensive player. It was maybe the worst home game of the Tomlin era, certainly the worst offensive display. Tomlin expressed sufficient indignation afterward but apparently, inexplicably, softened upon watching the tape.

This offense stinks. Ben Roethlisberger has never been surrounded by such meager talent, at least at the moment. There is no game-changer. No beast receiver. No legit No. 1 back. He has one tight end who can't catch and another who can't block.

Then you see Peyton Manning throwing to 17 different weapons and the 49ers running a glorified track meet, and you wonder if the Steelers are playing the same sport.

Maybe it's time to burst the bubble of denial that has enveloped so many of us. As successful as the Steelers have been for much of the past decade, they are in serious trouble right now. The trip to Cincinnati seems bigger than any second game I can remember.

A confluence of bad luck and questionable personnel decisions has this team in a state of abject desperation.

No season is finished after a game, obviously, but if you're not highly concerned then you're just not paying attention (kind of like Felix Jones on the sidelines).

Because these are the facts, all of which speak to desperation:

• The offense in Week 1 featured a 5-foot-7 scatback unwanted by the Arizona Cardinals.

• The offense in Week 2 might feature a running back nobody wanted after the Steelers cut him 11 days ago.

• The best lineman on a line that can't open holes is gone for the season.

• The hoped-for offensive saviors are a tight end 10 months removed from a knee destruction and a second-round rookie running back with a foot issue.

• The defense, while still quite functional, has lost its aura. It doesn't scare anyone anymore. Not even Jackie Battle.

• The new starting inside linebacker did not play in the NFL last season and has been cut multiple times by multiple teams.

• Even the kicker is hurt.

So, Ike Taylor, could you blame anyone if they're thinking this is going to be a long year?

“No, you can't blame them,” Taylor said after the game Sunday. “You definitely can't blame 'em. But in this locker room, we have to stick together.”

I was tempted, in this space, to offer a simple solution on offense: Put the ball in Roethlisberger's hands and make a short passing game your de facto run game, the way Todd Haley did in Arizona in 2008.

That is their best option, by the way, but it's fraught with peril.

Three problems:

1. Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin don't live here.

2. I'm not sure the blockers (including backs) can keep Ben upright long enough to run any form of a pass-happy offense.

3. Tomlin apparently would have no interest in implementing such a plan even if his team were to continue averaging 2.1 yards a carry.

Asked about the importance of a running game, Tomlin said, “I think having a consistent running game is really, really important” and alluded to the balance it provides.

In a perfect world, sure. The Steelers would run the ball to set up Roethlisberger's lethal play-action game. But is an effective rushing attack really a prerequisite to NFL success? The Broncos and 49ers seemed to fare pretty well without one last weekend. The Giants won a Super Bowl with the NFL's last-ranked rushing attack. The Steelers most recently won it all in a year they finished 23rd in rushing.

No, winning in the NFL is about maximizing your talent by any means necessary. Some teams just don't have enough talent.

Unless the opener was a mirage, the Steelers are one of them.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at

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