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Steelers' slow start reminiscent of 1989 for former player

| Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, 11:03 p.m.

Merril Hoge remembers when Pittsburgh gave up on the Steelers after only one game.

In 1989, the Steelers were coming off a 5-11 record that led team president Dan Rooney to order changes in Chuck Noll's coaching staff. They promptly lost their opener at home to Cleveland, 51-0, in arguably the worst-played game in their 81-season history.

Hoge believes the current-day Steelers (0-1), who face a pivotal AFC North game Monday night in Cincinnati (0-1), should follow the'89 team's blueprint for a turnaround.

The Steelers' 16-9 loss to Tennessee a week ago doesn't rank alongside that overwhelmingly one-sided Browns game in either the margin of deficit or the magnitude of defeat, but it appeared to display significant flaws in multiple areas.

That '89 Steelers looked to be badly deficient, too, especially after they lost at Cincinnati, 41-10, in Week 2. But they recovered to go 9-7, upset Houston in the playoffs and narrowly missed reaching the AFC title game.

“It's very similar (to today),” said Hoge, an ESPN analyst and an '89 running back. “We were young, we were deficient in some areas and did a lot of dumb things. It was really Chuck Noll's guidance and belief in us that pulled us together. Once we started to believe in ourselves, then we started to go. That's what's got to happen this year.”

Not much happened for the Steelers offensively against the Titans — only 195 yards and a late, meaningless touchdown — and that must change against the Bengals, who are coming off a 24-21 loss to the Bears.

As a result, Felix Jones might get some carries early to see if he can pick up a running game that was held to 32 yards. The newly signed Fernando Velasco will start at center, enabling Kelvin Beachum to return to being a blocking tight end.

But what most needs to change, according to Hoge, is what goes on inside the players' heads.

“You've got, I'm sure, some players that have some doubt, and you can only get that (belief) instilled by winning and having some success,” Hoge said. “But it's not going to get any easier. The Titans are going to be one of the worst offenses they face all year.”

Troy Polamalu has been part of bad opening-game defeats before, such as the 35-7 loss at Baltimore three years ago. He isn't worried that this team includes 10 rookies or first-year players who might not realize how accustomed the Steelers are to quickly moving past such games.

“You can point at something to make an excuse,” Polamalu said. “But the character of this organization and the legacy of the captains and the players, like James Farrior and all the way back to Joe Greene, that legacy is still within each and every one of us that dons this uniform.”

Still, Hoge wonders if those wearing this uniform can match up to the teams of recent Steelers vintage.

Hoge points to the offensive line that struggled to open holes and protect Ben Roethlisberger against Tennessee and will be without Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey for the rest of the season.

“Yeah, they're in trouble. They've got some glaring deficiencies, and as soon as the league sees that, they're going to attack them,” Hoge said. “The offensive line and all the problems they had? (The Bengals) are going to line up in gaps all day, and they're going to make these guys play. They're going to put so much pressure on that offensive line.”

There will be even more pressure on the Steelers if they lose in the one road venue, Paul Brown Stadium, where they almost never lose — they've won 11 of 12 there. From 1990-2012, only 11.5 percent of the 190 NFL teams that started 0-2 made the playoffs.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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