Injuries, nonexistent running game spoil Steelers' season opener
The Steelers lost to the Titans — them again — 16-9 on Sunday in their most miserably played opener at Heinz Field.
But that wasn't nearly all the bad news on a day they searched for ways to describe an inexplicable defeat that raised questions about whether they are close to being playoff-quality.
Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, the man who holds together the Steelers' youngest offensive line in a half-century, tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee. He is all but done for the season.
Larry Foote, the stabilizing inside linebacker who calls plays for what was the NFL's top defense in 2012, ruptured a biceps. He is all but done for the season.
Are the Steelers done?
They laughed off their winless 0-4 preseason as a meaningless anomaly. There wasn't any joking following a how-bad-can-it-get performance in which they lacked intensity, a running game or much hope they can get all this fixed in the near term.
“We can't win games in the NFL the way we played,” safety Ryan Clark said.
Their running back-by-committee system managed 32 yards rushing, their third-fewest in an opener since World War II. Their special teams contributed two penalties. They went 4 of 13 on third down. Ben Roethlisberger converted a few plays here and there while surpassing the 30,000-yard career mark, but mostly he spent the afternoon running for cover while being sacked five times.
This was a team the Steelers were supposed to beat. The Titans have won seven times since last September, but they've beaten the Steelers twice.
“Enough misery to go around in all phases,” coach Mike Tomlin said after the Steelers fell flat while ending their NFL-best 10-game home opener winning streak. “Unacceptable performance. I won't accept it. The team better not accept it.”
The Steelers accepted the gift of gifts on the opening kickoff, a safety they did nothing to cause when confused Titans return man Darius Reynaud stuck a foot across the goal line while fielding the kick, then retreated back into the end zone to down the ball.
The Steelers then took over on their own 41 following the free kick and owned an opportunity to take a two-score lead before the Titans touched the ball.
But Pouncey went down eight plays into the drive when right guard David DeCastro, pulling from his left to deliver a cut block, drove into the back of the center's legs rather than those of nose tackle Sammie Hill.
“It's terrible,” DeCastro said. “You're trying to cut the nose down, run outside, chop him down.”
He got the wrong man, and, on the sidelines, defensive end and co-captain Brett Keisel was furious. He is one of NFL's main lobbyists against the cut block, and he's even more opposed now that Pouncey's season is over because of what Keisel termed friendly fire.
“When you have a play like that and the backside guard is cutting, it's ridiculous,” Keisel said. “Guys are big enough and strong enough to block. ... I know it's legal, technically, but it's been proven that guys are getting their knees blown out. The league has got to do something.”
The promising drive ended when starting running back Isaac Redman fumbled a handoff into the end zone on third-and-1 from the 5. Redman managed 9 yards on eight carries and fumbled twice.
“Sometimes that's all it takes in this game, a play or two,” said Roethlisberger, who took the blame for the poor exchange. “Turnovers kill you.”
So can injuries if there are enough of them, and with tight end Heath Miller (knee) and running back Le'Veon Bell (foot) still hurting, the Steelers have plenty of them.
“It hurts,” Clark said of seeing Pouncey and Foote go down. “We're not supposed to cry, but you feel like it.”
The Steelers never scored again until Roethlisberger found Jerricho Cotchery on a 4-yard pass with 1:23 remaining and the Titans up 16-2.
Roethlisberger was 22 of 31 for 191 yards and an interception that led to the Titans' only touchdown. He became the 35th quarterback to throw for at least 30,000 yards — he has 30,035 — but he said, “It doesn't do anything for me.”
The interception by Alterraun Verner came midway through the second quarter and launched the Titans on a 12-play, 11-run drive from their own 49 that ended with Jackie Battle powering in from the 3 just before halftime.
Battle also kept the drive going, using second effort to pick up the yard needed on a fourth-on-1 from the 26 in which the Steelers — including Foote — twice missed chances to haul him down.
After that, Rob Bironas added field goals of 26, 44 and 27 yards to complete conservatively executed drives as the Titans outgained the Steelers, 229-195.
“They just run the ball, run the ball, get three, four yards each play and get into manageable third downs,” Clark said. “If not, they punted and played field position, and they won that game all day. We didn't do anything all day defensively to turn them back or get them out of that strategy.”
After losing a September home game for the first time under Tomlin — they had been 8-0 — the Steelers must win next Monday in Cincinnati to avoid their first 0-2 start since 2002.
The last time they looked so dreadful during a season opener at home — a 16-0 loss to the Ravens in 2000 at Three Rivers Stadium in which they ran for only 30 yards — they started 0-3.
“We can't fall too far behind the 8-ball,” Clark said. “That 0-4 in preseason only matters if you lose the first because then it becomes a habit. We've got to get out of this habit.”
Losers of six of eight dating to last season, the Steelers are finding it a hard habit to break.