Once upon a time, the Steelers actually started well and used that as a springboard to championships. They opened 5-1 in 2010 and reached their most recent Super Bowl. They started 5-1 in 2008 to begin their march to claim their sixth Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Similar starts have not happened lately, and neither have they found success. They lost their past three openers by a combined score of 92-35, finished 8-8 in the past two seasons and have not won a playoff game since the 2010 AFC championship that launched them into the Super Bowl against Green Bay.
Before the past three, they had won eight consecutive openers. They have not lost four openers in a row in franchise history.
Last season, they lost their first four games for the first time since 1968, went 2-6 and then finished with a 6-2 rush. It left them out of the playoffs at 8-8 because of a missed short field goal by Kansas City in San Diego in the final weekend of the season.
As the Steelers prepare to open their 82nd season Sunday against the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field, is there a lesson to be learned about the importance of starting better in this one?
“I hope not,” Mike Tomlin answered.
“I hope that that point already hit home. I don’t like to be reactionary in my thinking. I don’t need an 0-4 start to let me know how significant good starts are. They are significant, so I’ll perceive the same mentality that I’ve had through the course of my career, not only here but prior to being here.”
The NFL has gifted the Steelers with a golden opportunity to get off to a fast start this season. They open with the Cleveland Browns, who were 4-12 last season. In their first seven games, they play one team with a winning record in 2013, the Carolina Panthers. Their roughest spot will be their two games after they play Cleveland — at Baltimore and at Carolina. After that, they play Tampa Bay (4-12), Jacksonville (4-12), Cleveland again and Houston (2-14).
That is a schedule made for a 6-1 start or at the very least 5-2. It gets more difficult after that, but starting fast over the first half of the season is not only imperative to the Steelers’ chances of reaching the playoffs for the first time in three years, it should be expected.
Preparing for 2 QBs
Like some of his players said Monday, Tomlin expects the Browns to use rookie Johnny Manziel at quarterback, even though Brian Hoyer will start.
“They didn’t draft him in the first round to watch,” Tomlin said. “We understand that. So, we are going through the process of preparing ourselves, really, for both guys.”
Tomlin said something surprising — he does not expect the Browns “are going to be drastically different with either guy,” even though the two quarterbacks have entirely different styles and skills.
“Manziel has some unique run skills and capabilities. I think they are capable of highlighting that within the framework of their offense. But it’s not like Hoyer is immobile. We are proceeding to prepare and play against both of those guys. We have a pretty decent understanding of who and what those guys are. Again, we are anticipating them utilizing both in some capacity. I think that’s the appropriate approach for us to take.”
Antonio Brown made his first Pro Bowl as a punt returner, but now that he is established as the team’s top receiver — his 1,499 yards set a team record last season — it might be expected his duties returning punts would be reduced.
Not so fast, Tomlin said.
“I don’t live in my fears. He’s a Pro Bowl-caliber return man, so that’s what you do with those guys, you play them.”
Brown was the Steelers’ only punt returner last season, returning all 32 for a 12.8-yard average and one touchdown. Rookies Dri Archer and Martavis Bryant split the seven punt returns in the preseason for a puny 2.9 average.
Tomlin listed Archer with Brown as his possible punt returner.
It’s possible he would use Archer when he expected to field the punt above the 25 and Brown when it was closer to their goal line. That is how he broke in Brown as a rookie in 2010, with veteran Antwaan Randle-El back for the deeper punts.
Depth chart update
Tomlin’s new depth chart issued Monday lists Cameron Heyward as the starting left defensive end and Cam Thomas as the starter on the right side. That is opposite where they lined up all summer, although sometimes Tomlin’s depth charts stray from reality.
It lists rookie Stephon Tuitt as the backup at left end and Brett Keisel as the backup at right end, where he started the past nine seasons. Tomlin said the coaches still are trying to determine how much Keisel, who turns 36 in 16 days, can play.
“That will have a lot to do with his utilization in the game along with the performance of others … He’s going to be an asset to us, and I just look forward to continuing to watch him round himself into form.”
Tomlin mentioned only rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant as unable to practice Monday. Bryant left the Thursday night preseason game early with a right shoulder sprain.
Ed Bouchette: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @EdBouchette.