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Steelers know fast start could be key to upcoming season

| Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

The Steelers return to practice Monday — Labor Day isn't celebrated at 3400 S. Water St. — as the calendar clicks to a new month and the NFL officially shifts into a new regular season.

This time, the Steelers want this to be a September to remember, not one to regret.

A year ago, they carried a winless preseason all the way through a winless first month of the season, and they never caught up. An 0-4 start has a way of ruining a season.

“We had a whole offseason to think about that,” defensive end Cam Heyward said.

With the Steelers' opener against the Browns on Sunday at Heinz Field now less than a week away and another AFC North game against Baltimore to follow four days after that, Heyward said a slow start isn't an option.

“We have to understand that Cleveland wants to come in here and beat us,” defensive end Cam Heyward said, referring to the necessity of shifting from preseason to regular-season mode in a hurry. “We've got to understand that we've got to win these games now because you can fall behind really quick.”

Consider this: By Sept. 11, the Steelers will have played one-third of their division schedule.

“If you can get these two wins — when we get those two wins — it's something we can build on,” left guard Ramon Foster said.

Last year, they didn't get their second win until Oct. 20.

Blame injuries (Maurkice Pouncey, Le'Veon Bell, Larry Foote), blame the carryover of a lethargic preseason, blame the disappearance of the running game and big-play defense. Whatever it was, it led to the Steelers' worst start in 45 years.

“We don't know what happened, we don't know what the biggest factor was ... but we have to understand these games are vital,” Heyward said. “That's the big lesson we learned last year: It's not like we can turn it on (when we want) and be right in the playoff race.”

Last year, they didn't get going until a running game that averaged only 58 yards per game in September got going after Bell's three-game absence with a Lisfranc injury.

They believe they've upgraded that run game by adding LeGarrette Blount to back up a healthy Bell and drafting Dri Archer, who can make plays as a runner or receiver.

“We think we've got some dynamic backs, and the guys up front (the offensive linemen) have been around each other for three years now,” Foster said, “so it's time for us to make something happen in that area.”

But they were ineffective running the ball during the second half of the preseason, after Bell and Blount were charged with marijuana possession Aug. 20. Between them, they received only 21 carries against the Philadelphia Eagles and Carolina Panthers.

“But I thought we ran the ball well any time we wanted to run the ball and had an opportunity to,” Foster said. “I'm excited about it.”

The September schedule includes two home games against four-win teams (Cleveland, Tampa Bay) but more difficult road games at Baltimore (8-8 last season) and Carolina (12-4, the NFC South champion).

“We think we're a young team on the rise. We've got a lot of young guys who are hungry,” cornerback Ike Taylor said. “I see the talent, but we've got to exercise that on the field. We can't keep talking about how much talent we've got, we've got to go out there and show it.”

Foster knows what that requires.

“A fast start is definitely what we need,” he said. “And a fast, hard finish.”

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

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