Again without a running game, Steelers fall to 0-2
CINCINNATI — Lost: Running game. Last seen in Latrobe in mid-August, wearing black and gold. If found contact Todd Haley, c/o Steelers Offices, South Side. Reward.
The Steelers have outrushed every other NFL team by at least three miles since the 1970 merger but in this grip-it-and-zip-it era in which the pass is everything, the running game they still lean on is doing nothing.
Three miles? They tried three different running backs at various points of their 20-10 loss to the Bengals on Monday night, but much of the time it looked like they couldn't gain three inches if they tried.
“We need to figure it out, and we need to figure it out fast,” said Isaac Redman, the starter who has rushed for only 13 yards in two games. “We're not going to win football games if we continue to run the football like that. It's unacceptable.”
Now, despite a commendable Live at the Improv effort by Ben Roethlisberger, who often appeared to be making it up the offense as he went along, the Steelers must try to dig out of an 0-2 hole for the first time since 2002.
They've never had to do it with Roethlisberger at quarterback.
Do they have the team to do it?
“Time will tell,” safety Troy Polamalu said.
Is he optimistic the Steelers can pull it off?
“Of course I believe in this team, the guys that wear this uniform,” Polamalu said. “But believing it and going out and doing it may be two different things.”
And that might be as telling a comment is as possible about the state of these Steelers after two games.
At least there's this: Three of the last four times the Steelers started 0-2, they recovered to play into the postseason.
But each of those times they owned at least the semblance of a running game. Right now they don't. Their 76 yards rushing are the fewest they've had through their first two games in their history; previously, 88 yards in 1950 were the fewest.
Consider this: Adrian Peterson gained more yards (78) the first time he touched the ball this season than the Steelers have managed in two games. Felix Jones was about all they had Monday, gaining 37 yards on his first 10 Steelers carries.
The Bengals' own website even got into the act, posting a derisive message before halftime that it was obvious the Steelers couldn't run the ball.
“It don't look like Steelers football out there,” Redman said.
The Bengals outgained the Steelers, 407-278, but they couldn't sustain multiple drives as Andy Dalton (25 of 45, 280 yards, 0 interceptions) repeatedly underthrew, overthrew or simply couldn't find his receivers.
The big-play specialist turned out to be Giovani Bernard, the first running back chosen in the April draft. He scored twice to delight an orange-towel waving crowd that witnessed a rare win by the home team against the Steelers.
Bernard ran up the middle on a 7-yard touchdown run set up by fellow rookie Tyler Eifert's 61-yard reception in the first quarter, then broke a 10-all tie with 27-yard catch out of the backfield midway through the third.
Bernard's first touchdown was created when Steelers tight end David Paulson fumbled while going down on what would have been a 34-yard completion to the 16, with the Steelers owning a chance to go up 10-0.
It was similar to Redman's fumble at the 5 the week before with the Steelers in position to take an early 9-0 lead against Tennessee. They wound up losing 16-9.
When Bernard wasn't making big plays, BenJarvus Green-Ellis carried 22 times for 75 yards.
The Steelers almost never lose in Paul Brown Stadium, where they had won 11 of 12 counting a 2005 season playoff win, but they finally found a way on a night Dalton's inaccuracy gave them plenty of chances.
Only one of which they converted.
After a long string of failed Steelers possessions, Roethlisberger went 5-for-5 during a 65-yard drive late the first half ended by his 1-yard throw to Derek Moye, the former Rochester High and Penn State receiver who took advantage of a mismatch with the smallish Leon Hall.
Moye acknowledged he was surprised to be targeted but said, “I was prepared for it, so it worked out.”
Roethlisberger ended 20 of 37 for 251 yards and an interception in an offense that was only 3 of 12 on third down.
“We got into a two-minute mode, just trying to hit passes and hit them quick,” Roethlisberger said of the lone TD drive. “We didn't have much of a run game going for whatever reason, and we need to be balanced.”
The Steelers looked to be rolling again early in the third quarter as Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown for 33 yards, but a phantom tripping penalty on right tackle Marcus Gilbert negated the play.
“It was a terrible call,” Gilbert said. “The league office has to review that. It's crazy. Ben had just made a huge play, and we were going to keep going up tempo on them because they were tired. That kind of set us back.”
Other than Shaun Suisham's 44-yard field goal early on that was set up by Brown's 40-yard punt return, that was about it for the Steelers offense in a performance much like that of Week 1.
“It's 0-2, and we just need to bounce back,” Redman said. “We need to get that first win, get back on the same page, just get rolling as a team.”
Safety Ryan Clark said the defense must stop allowing teams to run for 4 and 5 yards on first and second down so it can effectively use Dick LeBeau's blitzes and put the pressure on the offense, rather than the other way around.
For the second successive game, the Steelers defense did not have a sack or force a turnover.
“They're getting ahead of the sticks and converting third downs,” Clark said. “We're not winning (getting ahead in) any games, we're not making any plays to get in front of people to make them have to do those things. And until we do that, we won't win a football game. “
The Steelers, losers of seven of nine since late last season, had one last chance to get back into it. They drove from their 18 to the Bengals' 27 with about five minutes remaining, but Roethlisberger's short pass over the middle intended for Jerricho Cotchery was intercepted by safety Reggie Nelson.
“The quarterback has got to play better,” Roethlisberger said. “And he will.”
And that's how a team gets to 0-2.
“If we don't shore some things up, if we don't play better than we played tonight, we won't win a game,” Clark said.
With the running game grinding up a lot of plays but very little yardage, nearly all of the burden for the offense is falling upon Roethlisberger and his receivers, and they're operating short-handed without injured tight end Heath Miller.
Miller is practicing again, but his return remains uncertain, and each game magnifies how badly he is missed not just in the passing game – he caught 71 passes last season – but also as run blocker.
The Steelers haven't started 0-3 since 2000, but they must beat the Bears at Heinz Field on Sunday night to avoid that.
If the Bengals gained any emotional lift from the defection of longtime Steelers star linebacker James Harrison, it didn't show.
Harrison grew teary-eyed while discussing Dick LeBeau during a pregame interview with ESPN, but he was mostly invisible as he plays out of character in Cincinnati's 4-3 defense, which limits his pass rushing opportunities.
Harrison did exchange a hug and a handshake with Roethlisberger after the game.
Didn't this game mean more to Harrison than the normal game, given his 10 years in Pittsburgh.
“No, it's no more of a game than any other game — except it was a divisional game,” Harrison said.
And that's what the Steelers have become only two games into the season: Just another team.