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Analysis: Steelers hope last 12 games are no joke

| Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013, 11:06 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on the sideline against the Bengals Monday, Sept. 16, 2013, at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers tight end David Paulson fumbles during the first quarter against the Bengals on Monday, Sept. 16, 2013, at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.

Knock knock. Who's there? Owen. Owen who? 0-4.

The Steelers have become the punch line to a growing list of sophomoric jokes, and it's taken only a quarter of the season to get there.

Jokes that normally would be reserved for the NFL's also-rans are being directed toward one of the most successful organizations in the Super Bowl era. The Steelers deserve every one of them.

They can't run the ball. They can't stop the run. They are the only team that hasn't forced a turnover. Their franchise quarterback has forgotten how to do what he does best at the end of games: win them.

That's just on the field. Consider what's happening off it.

The offensive coordinator is a regular on Deadspin. Defensive captain Ryan Clark is criticizing the franchise quarterback on national television. A veterans-only meeting of players on the last Super Bowl-winning team resulted in younger players not being permitted to play pingpong in the locker room. Then coach Mike Tomlin banned all locker room games.

If ever a bye week were needed...

“Yeah, it was nice to kind of get away and forget about football a little bit,” Ben Roethlisberger said.

We probably should have seen this coming when David DeCastro exploded Maurkice Pouncey's knee with an ill-timed cut block eight plays into the season. Or maybe we should have known when nearly a dozen players were jettisoned from last season's team.

But there was hope heading into the season. That hope is gone. The Steelers are off to their worst start in 45 years as they join Jacksonville, Tampa Bay and the New York Giants as the only remaining winless teams.

“We are not going to make any excuses,” Tomlin said. “Going to chew everything we've got coming.”

Tomlin has had a mouthful to digest over the first quarter of the season.

Although the team is prepared to look forward, Clark said it still is worth reflecting on this start.

“You have to know the reasons why you are losing games in order to solve those problems,” he said. “It doesn't matter what the scores of those games were, but it does matter why those numbers are on the scoreboard.”

While the narrative has switched from whether the Steelers can win another Super Bowl to whether they can win another game, the reality is they aren't far from being competitive.

They aren't Jacksonville bad, and they aren't Tampa Bay bad.

“But we are here,” cornerback Ike Taylor said.

But how? How did a team that's just three years removed from the Super Bowl get so bad so quickly?

“We just haven't been playing consistent ball is how,” Taylor said. “It is just as simple as that. Just overall and in general, we have been inconsistent. And inconsistency in the NFL will get you at 0-4.”

So will turnovers.

While the Steelers refuse to blame turnovers solely for their start, there is undeniable merit to it. In each of their losses, a turnover can be identified as the turning point:

• Tennessee: Isaac Redman's first-quarter fumble at the goal line prevented the Steelers from going up 9-0. The Steelers lost 16-9.

• Cincinnati: David Paulson fumbles inside the 20 early in the game on a drive that could have put the Steelers up 10-0. The Steelers lost 20-10.

• Chicago: Roethlisberger's first-quarter fumble led to a 10-0 Bears lead. Roethlisberger also had a fumble and an interception returned for touchdowns in a 40-23 loss.

• Minnesota: Roethlisberger fumbled on the final play of the game with the Steelers inside the 5. The Steelers lost 34-27.

“Whether you're 0-4 or 12-4, usually those losses come down to a certain number of plays. And the reality is you don't know when those plays are going to occur,” Tomlin said. “And so you have to be good fundamentally and be sound top to bottom and minimize the potential for explosion plays. And doing things in great detail, fundamentals, lessen that.”

Poor fundamentals have been the biggest issue.

They are to blame for former second-round pick Mike Adams losing his starting left tackle job, to an inordinate amount of missed tackles that have resulted in game-altering plays, to critical turnovers.

“You are not giving yourself an opportunity to win the game when you turn the ball over,” receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. “But I don't think it is necessarily just turnovers.

“A lot of things played into it — just the self-inflicted-wounds category. Mental mistakes and drops and stuff like that hurts you, especially when you need to flip the field position. Yes, turnovers have played a role in it, but I don't think it necessarily is just that.”

The season still can be salvaged.

The San Diego Chargers overcame an 0-4 start in 1992, becoming the only team to fall into such a hole and recover to make the playoffs — they even won a wild-card game — so there is precedent, but ...

“It has to be ASAP,” Taylor said. “Time is about to not be on our side anymore.”

Mark Kaboly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at mkaboly@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MarkKaboly_Trib

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