Broncos expose injury-riddled Steelers

| Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

The Steelers' problems during their second successive season-opening loss weren't caused by replacement officials. They had much more to do with their own replacements.

They didn't have James Harrison, and it hurt their pass rush. In less than a quarter, they were down two more starting linemen as Marcus Gilbert and Ramon Foster went out, and it hurt their offensive efficiency. They didn't have Ryan Clark or David DeCastro or Rashard Mendenhall, and that hurt, too.

They lacked a reliable pass rush, a sustainable running game, an ability to gain consistent yards on first down or a way to throttle the very-much-in-control Peyton Manning during the second half. All that added up to a whole lot of hurt for a team already dealing with numerous injuries.

“We've got some things to work on,“ defensive captain Brett Keisel said. “We'll go back, check it out and hopefully rectify it. We feel like we're better than that.”

The Steelers (0-1) have less than a week to get right all that went wrong during their 31-19 loss in Denver on Sunday night, and to get well. The traveling circus that is the New York Jets (1-0) is coming to town Sunday, with Tim Tebow on board — a guy who has proven he can cause pain to Pittsburgh.

Suddenly, the challenge becomes making sure that 0-1 record doesn't quickly become their first 0-2 record since 2002.

“This week is very important. Every week is very important,” running back Jonathan Dwyer said Monday. “Unfortunately, the first week didn't go the way we wanted. We are going to make sure this week we will put ourselves in better situations.”

As the Jets showed during their 48-28 rout of the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, they can get rolling in a hurry when they detect a weakness or mount any momentum. The Tebow wildcat offense produced almost nothing — 19 yards on nine snaps — but the Mark Sanchez base offense found the end zone four times as the Jets opened a 41-7 lead.

Along the way, they played with a visible looseness and confidence. The Steelers never displayed that in Denver, even when they had the ball for all but a half-minute of the third quarter. Their running game was unproductive — starter Isaac Redman managed 20 yards on 11 carries — and Ben Roethlisberger had to rely on every trick he possessed to keep the offense up and running as long as it did.

“I thought we could have done a lot better,” said wide receiver Mike Wallace, who caught a touchdown pass in his first game since ending a contract holdout. “But it was only the first game. We have 15 more games to go. I think we've got some pretty good players on this team. We'll be fine.”

Even with all the rest the Steelers' defensive starters got, they looked tired as Manning led Denver to a touchdown, another touchdown and a field goal during a pivotal three-possession stretch in the second half.

So what do the Steelers need to work on when they start back up again Wednesday?

• Finding something, anything, that works on first down. They never gained as many as five yards until their 14th first down.

• Then, they can turn to second down, where they were 0 for 5 within distances of 1 to 4 yards; the Broncos were 5 for 5. The Steelers were great on third down (11 of 19), but their first- and second-down failures doomed drive after drive. So did Roethlisberger's one big mistake, an interception return for a touchdown by Tracy Porter with 1:58 remaining.

• They must find a way to create some pressure, even if Harrison (left knee) remains out. Of the 28 times Manning dropped back, he was touched only three times, including a pair of early sacks. Sanchez isn't nearly as effective when operating under stress, and the Steelers must cause him some.

• They still need to keep Roethlisberger upright. He was sacked five more times, three late in the game. Now that he's finally healthy, the Steelers need to keep him that way.

On Sunday, Roethlisberger arguably was their one irreplaceable player.

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