Injuries, ineptitude ruin Steelers' opener

September, 8, 2013
9/08/13
9:08
PM ET
videoPITTSBURGH -- The black-and-gold faithful cheered and twirled Terrible Towels as the Pittsburgh Steelers ran onto the sun-splashed field that they usually own in September.

Some of the die-hards who stayed until the bitter end of a teeth-gnashing and soul-searching loss booed those same players as they walked dejectedly off the turf at Heinz Field.

The Steelers gave fans every reason to turn on them in a span of about three hours.

The list of what went wrong in a 16-9 loss to the Tennessee Titans turned out to be longer than Brett Keisel's beard.

The Steelers couldn't run the ball, and starting running back Isaac Redman couldn't even hang onto it.

The offensive line couldn't protect quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and the wide receivers couldn't make a play when the Steelers needed it most.

The defense played well enough for the Steelers to win, had the offense been merely average. But, as was too often the case last season, the defense also didn't make enough plays.

The Steelers sacked Titans quarterback Jake Locker just one time and didn't force any turnovers.

In other words, the defense couldn't win the game even after it became obvious that the Steelers wouldn't be able to scrape enough offense together to beat the Titans.

"We need to stop giving the ball up and start getting the ball," Keisel said.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarBen Roethlisberger was sacked five times as the Steelers' offensive line struggled.
It sounds simple enough, but if Sunday is an indication, nothing will come easily for the Steelers this season -- particularly on offense.

The Steelers averaged 3.7 yards per play, and even the one time they punched the ball into the end zone they made it look more difficult than calculus.

It took four plays after the Steelers reached the Titans' 4-yard line for the offense to score the first touchdown of the season.

It came with less than two minutes left in the game and much too late to prevent the Steelers from losing at home in September for the first time under coach Mike Tomlin.

The offense set the tone for a drab game on the Steelers' first possession.

Emmanuel Sanders couldn't haul in a long Roethlisberger pass on the first play after Titans kickoff returner Darius Reynaud gave the Steelers a gift safety. The drive ended with Redman losing a fumble in the end zone after the Steelers had the wrong personnel grouping in the game.

In between those plays, the Steelers lost Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey to a likely season-ending knee injury, a devastating blow that also served as a mitigating factor to the offense's general ineptitude against a defense that isn't exactly loaded with Pro Bowlers.

Larry Foote will also need surgery on a ruptured biceps.

"Not an excuse," Tomlin said of the injuries that piled up at an alarming rate Sunday. "We didn't play well enough. We didn't coach well enough. I won't accept it. This team better not accept it. We've obviously got some work to do."

One of Tomlin's favorite sayings -- "The standard is the standard" -- greets the players as they walk into the home locker room at Heinz Field. The standards are always incredibly high for the Steelers, and rightfully so for an organization that showcases six Lombardi Trophies at its practice facility.

[+] EnlargeMike Tomlin
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsMike Tomlin said injuries will not be accepted as an excuse for performances like the one Sunday.
Tomlin reminded his players of that standard in a somber postgame locker room, and Keisel intends to make sure his voice is heard, too, at some point this week.

"I think I need to calm down first before I do," Keisel said when asked if he plans to say something as one of the team's four captains. "But I definitely think there needs to be more of a sense of urgency. Hopefully, we can prove we are a tough team."

Toughness isn't an issue with this team. It could be about talent. And whether the clunker the Steelers crafted on Sunday is an aberration or harbinger could be answered shortly.

The Steelers' next three games are against teams that made the playoffs last season, starting next Monday night in Cincinnati. Two of those games are on the road, with one of them in London.

The three-week stretch could further expose an offense that is shaky up front and lacking in difference-makers, at least until rookie running back Le'Veon Bell and tight end Heath Miller are ready to return from their injuries.

The defense could help the offense by providing some short fields, but it has to force turnovers and do a better job of getting after the quarterback. In other words, it can't have many more games like Sunday, especially when the schedule has served up a relatively inexperienced quarterback.

Tomlin showed plenty of resolve when talking about the team that slipped to 8-8 in 2012, went winless in the preseason and played one of the most unsightly home openers in franchise history.

And the seventh-year coach at least seems realistic about the many challenges facing him and the Steelers.

"Nobody cares about our problems," Tomlin said. "They're glad we have them. We need to stick together."

Scott Brown

ESPN Pittsburgh Steelers reporter

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