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Steelers are remaining optimistic despite 2-3 start to NFL season

| Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012, 11:02 p.m.
Christopher Horner
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completes a pass to Antonio Brown during the first quarter against the Titans Thursday October 11, 2012 at LP Field in Nashville, Tenn. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Christopher Horner
Steelers center Maurkice Puncey looks up a linemates Ramon Foster and Marcus Gilbert after being injured during the first half against the Titans Thursday October 11, 2012 at LP Field in Nashville, Tenn. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review

Maybe the Steelers will look back on this stretch in December, as Larry Foote suggests, and say it prevented them only from having a great season.

Or maybe they will remember this as the time their season got away.

The Steelers (2-3) already have reached a crisis level. Keep this up, and they might be doomed to the worst Steelers season since the 2003 team went 6-10. Even if they get it fixed, there is plenty of catching up to do.

There were two can't-lose games in the front half of their schedule: against the statistically terrible Titans and the bad-all-around Raiders. The Steelers gave up late leads and lost on final-play field goals, including their 26-23 loss Thursday at Tennessee.

“We've dug deeper since I've been here,” left tackle Max Starks said. “I'm not worried. I'm not discouraged. If this is the worst that can happen, we'll be all right.”

Still, this team is one loss away from matching the regular-season total of each of their past two teams, which went 12-4.

What must be most troubling is there isn't an easy fix, not with major issues on both sides of the ball.

Offensively, they can't run — a running back has yet to gain 70 yards in a game — or put away games in the fourth quarter, during which they've been outscored, 47-29. Their 3-yards-per-carry average is the NFL's second lowest.

And whether their games involve regular officials or replacements, it doesn't matter; flags are flying with such regularity that the Steelers are the NFL's most-penalized team (79.5 yards per game). A season ago, they were 14th in penalties.

Defensively, they can't get off the field, as opponents are converting on nearly half of all third downs (29 of 59); only the Raiders are worse. They're also near the bottom with only two interceptions.

“We've got to be more efficient in different areas,” left guard Willie Colon said. “The main thing is we've got to stay together as a team. We can't point fingers. We can't get into who's at fault. We've got to flat-out do better. Somehow, somewhere, we've got to pick it up.”

The supposed easy stretch of the schedule is over. The Steelers travel to Cincinnati on Sunday night, then play the Redskins at home and the Super Bowl champion Giants on the road. Their four games after that include two against the AFC North-leading Ravens (5-1).

Then there's this: The Steelers since 1970 have reached the playoffs only three times after having a losing record at this stage of the season (2002, 1989 and 1976).

“One of the biggest things is that time is still on our side,” Starks said. “But we've got to be vigilant. We can't be careless with that time.”

Foote has been through numerous crisis levels during his 10 seasons in Pittsburgh.

“I've seen this pop up before late in the season, but this is uncharted waters at the start of a season,” Foote said. “I've never been here before. That's why this game is so great, so emotional, why we respect it so much, because it is a challenge.

“Now we've got to take it head on. We got to own it, and we have to take responsibility. And the next game we've got to go win.”

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at arobinson@tribweb.com.

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