PITTSBURGH — If it’s been said once, it’s been said a thousand times: The names and faces might change in the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room, but the same high expectations remain for the proud organization.
That’s understandable and expected for a franchise that has been among the league’s most successful for decades and the only one with six Super Bowl trophies.
“The standard is the standard,” is the exact motto Steelers coach Mike Tomlin lives by, and there is even a newly added sign (in the famous Steelers font, what else?) affixed to the wall at the entrance to the locker room that says just that.
But after the showing the Steelers put forth in Sunday’s season-opening 16-9 loss to the Tennessee Titans, even the players might find it hard to believe the high standard is reachable this season.
No matter how embarrassing or lopsided a defeat might be, there are usually some positives to take away from it. Something, in some phase of the game. Something to hang your hat on. Something to feel good about moving forward.
The Steelers had a hard time finding any of those things in Sunday’s loss.
“Enough misery to go around in all three phases,” coach Mike Tomlin said.
Offensive lineman David DeCastro was more blunt.
“There was no positives,” he said as he shook his head.
In large part, DeCastro is right.
Let’s start with the obvious: The Steelers did not establish the running game.
They gained a paltry 32 yards on 15 carries, and their longest run was for 8 yards. Nothing quite paints the picture of the Steelers’ struggles better than this statistic: Pittsburgh had no rushing first downs. None.
The offense that Ben Roethlisberger said in the preseason would be just fine mustered 195 total yards, and 75 of that total came on the largely meaningless last possession after the game had been all but decided.
The Steelers were 4 of 13 on third downs. They allowed five sacks. And they turned the ball over twice, including once in the red zone, an area in which they need considerable improvement. They struggled in red-zone efficiency last season and this preseason, and they haven’t shown anything that would make anyone believe that’s going to change.
But statistics tell only half the story because the Steelers struggled in getting the basics right Sunday.
On Pittsburgh’s promising first drive of the game — you know, the one that ended inside the Tennessee 5-yard line with Isaac Redman’s first fumble — not only were the Steelers lined up incorrectly on the costly play, but they couldn’t even get one of the basic tenets of football right: the handoff.
“It’s a quick-hitting play and we messed up the quarterback-running back exchange,” Redman said.
There’s also the fact that Felix Jones didn’t receive a single carry. He played special teams but was kept out of the offensive sets because “he’s been here for a short period of time,” Tomlin said. “That maybe had an effect on our utilization of him.”
Yeah, that’s the same running back who was so impressive to the Steelers’ front office during the preseason, but now he can’t remember the playbook.
With Le’Veon Bell and LaRod Stephens-Howling shelved with injuries, that leaves Pittsburgh with two healthy running backs, one who fumbled twice in the first half Sunday and another who doesn’t know the playbook well enough. That’s not promising.
If you had to find a positive, it was the Steelers’ defense, which allowed 229 total yards and limited the Titans to a 1-for-4 conversion rate in the red zone and 16 points.
But even those respectable numbers are deceiving.
For starters, Pittsburgh’s defense didn’t force any turnovers, which has been a problem for the past two seasons.
The Titans ran for 112 yards and averaged just 2.7 yards per carry, hardly eye-popping numbers. But they were efficient and productive when they needed to be.
Take, for example, one of the Titans’ possessions in the fourth quarter. Tennessee received the ball on its own 12-yard line with 12:20 to play and a 10-2 lead in hand. Sure, the Steelers prevented the Titans from reaching the end zone and held them to a field goal, but not before Tennessee ran off an 11-play, 62-yard drive that took more than six minutes off the clock at a critical juncture of the game.
Need another example? How about Tennessee’s drive before halftime?
The Titans ran the ball 11 times on a 12-play drive and ate another seven minutes off the clock while covering 49 yards. That it took 12 plays to cover 49 yards speaks for the Titans’ running attack. It wasn’t pretty or exciting. Their longest run on the drive was a 6-yarder.
As football coaches often say, it’s important to “blow the opponent off the ball,” and that’s what the Titans did with great success.
They didn’t make many highlight-reel plays, but they controlled the line, kept their quarterback upright, and it was enough to win.
Even when the Steelers rushed five defenders, they struggled to generate pressure on Jake Locker, and that’s another lingering problem from last year that doesn’t seem to have improved significantly.
Yes, the Steelers lost center Maurkice Pouncey to an injury on their first possession. Surely, that had an affect on the running game and the lack of protection for Roethlisberger even though Kelvin Beachum filled in admirably for Pouncey.
But the Steelers’ problems along the line are much deeper than Pouncey’s injury. Most notable is the shaky play of both tackles, especially Mike Adams at left tackle. Adams might be a big man, but he’s not developed enough to protect Roethlisberger’s blind side. He was tossed around like a ragdoll throughout Sunday’s game, and his biggest problem appears to be leg strength.
It all added up to a sub-standard performance by your beloved Steelers, and there’s every reason to believe it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
Not that you should have had high expectations to begin with, but if you did, lower your standards for the 2013 Steelers.